Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
Introduction Class Sex Violence Work The Family
Politics and Society Fools and Losers Madness & Surrealism Race    

What makes Britain laugh?

It's not an easy question to answer, but a hundred years and more of film and television do at least offer us a few clues. Of course, the British have changed a great deal in that time. We've been through two world wars, seen our cities fill with cars, welcomed the arrival of universal suffrage and the welfare state and watched Britain evolve into a multicultural society.

The deep social, political and technological changes of the past century or so have transformed Britain and changed its people, leaving their mark on our sense of humour. But many of the things which amused our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents can still make us smile, chuckle, titter, chortle, splutter or guffaw today, and we're as keen on a good laugh as we ever were.

From stand-up to sketches, sitcom to satire (what is it about that letter 's'?), the forms of comedy we know today in film and television have been around for decades, sometimes centuries. Some of the subjects may have changed - comedians in the 1890s didn't tell too many jokes about Posh and Becks or the Internet - but others are much the same: we're still fascinated and infuriated by our weather, our mysterious class system, our politicians, our celebrities. Perhaps most of all, we're endlessly amused by ourselves and our bizarre habits.

Next Page >
Still from Our New Errand Boy (1905)