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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
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The Family
Still from The Royle Family

The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2000)

Despite the strong ties that bind us, families can be a pain. Perhaps because of this, we're fascinated by how other families work. We long to know what goes on in our friends and neighbours' houses, if only to see if our own experience is 'normal'. The ups and downs of one family - the royals - are a national obsession.

Family conflicts are the source of much drama in film and television, but just as often they can be a source of humour. The British sitcom, in particular, has long chosen the family - especially the (very) dysfunctional family - as a favourite theme. Two of the biggest hits of the 1960s centred on family strife. Just as Harold in Steptoe and Son was continually embarrassed and undermined by his manipulative father, so the children of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part had to contend with their ignorant parent's outrageously bigoted views. Audiences were delighted, perhaps relieved that their own families at least weren't as awful as these.

Like the Garnetts, The Royle Family seem to do little but sit in front of the telly. But however much they bicker, they do at least seem fond of each other. Similarly, brothers Del-Boy and Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses are typical sibling rivals - bullying and competitive but, when it comes to it, fiercely loyal to one another and to their elderly granddad.

In Absolutely Fabulous, mother and daughter have swapped roles. Teenager Saffi is sensible and dependable, and despairs at her irresponsible, self-obsessed fashion editor mother, Edina, and her drunken friend Patsy. Sanjay, star of chat show-cum-sitcom The Kumars at No. 49, is repeatedly humiliated in front of his celebrity guests - and his studio audience - by his family, who refuse to let him hold the spotlight.

The home life of Rab C. Nesbitt and his drunken, slobbish family makes the Royles look like real royalty. But if you want truly dysfunctional, try the other end of the social scale. The lottery millionaires of At Home With the Braithwaites are so riven with hatred and jealousy that violence and even threats of murder are a matter of routine. Maybe the Steptoes and the Garnetts weren't such a bad model after all.

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