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The Sitcom Family
 

Half a century of social change played for laughs

Main image of The Sitcom Family

The 'sit' in 'sitcom' stands for 'situation', but you could be forgiven for thinking it stands for 'sitting room', since the situation in so many TV sitcoms has been a family home. Like radio before it, television brought entertainment into the domestic space. And while one task the new medium set itself was bringing the outside world into our homes, its position in the corner of our living rooms meant it was perfectly placed to act as a mirror to our domestic lives.

The early television schedules responded to this challenge awkwardly, although the mode of address, in line with radio's, was from the start carefully pitched to a domestic audience (slightly, but not excessively, informal). But as TV began to enter more homes following the 1952 Coronation, so the programming grew to reflect more closely the domestic space, not least in comedy.

It is to radio, too, that we can trace the ancestry of the British TV sitcom. Hancock's Half-Hour (BBC, 1956-) - the escapades of a frustrated, single man - is often cited as the first such programme to cross the divide from radio to television. But in fact, it was beaten to the screen by more than a year by a family sitcom, Life With the Lyons (BBC, 1955-56; ITV 1957-60), which had been entertaining radio audiences since 1950 and already spawned two feature films. Unusually, the Lyons were a real-life family - Americans Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels had settled in London during the war and appeared together in popular radio show Hi Gang!. On radio and screen alike, the Lyons (completed by children Barbara and Richard) acted out a succession of humorous events largely exaggerated from their own experiences, but they were never less than a warm and loving family, as, generally, were their working-class equivalents, the more boisterous The Larkins (ITV, 1958-64).

But the functional, happy and loving family was more the exception than the rule in subsequent TV sitcoms. The template for the warring sitcom family was established as early as 1962 with the birth of Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74), which showcased the perpetual conflict of father-and-son 'rag and bone men' Albert (Wilfrid Brambell) and Harold Steptoe (Harry H. Corbett). The ambitious dreamer Harold's ceaseless - and ceaselessly thwarted - attempts to escape his shifty, manipulative father's clutches and make his way in the world made for hilarious and poignant comedy.

If the rivalry between the elder and younger Steptoes could be brutal, there was at least a sense, underneath the bickering, that the two both loved and (above all) needed each other. By contrast, the Garnetts, the family at the centre of Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1966-75), rarely showed much sign of mutual affection. Patriarch Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell) was a monstrous bigot, a deluded everyman whose every pronouncement dripped with ignorant prejudice. His despairing adult daughter and her 'randy Scouse git' husband fought valiantly, if hopelessly, to expose the fallacies and inconsistencies in Alf's beliefs, while his put-upon wife, invariably dismissed as a 'silly moo', struggled to keep up. History has remembered the controversy generated by Alf's forcefully expressed racist views, but the Garnetts' relentless civil war was arguably the series' more innovative feature.

Both the Steptoes and the Garnetts broke ground in representing working-class families on television, in tune with the new on-screen visibility of the working class following the 'new wave' of British films in the late 1950s and early 60s - though neither could be considered a complimentary portrait. But as the genre developed, British sitcom more typically represented middle-class families, as with the newlyweds of Marriage Lines (BBC, 1963-66). George (Richard Briers) and Kate Starling (Prunella Scales) argued frequently from the outset, though love always won through in the end. But Kate's increasing frustration with the housewife's lot marked her out as a prototype for Wendy Craig's Ria in Butterflies (BBC, 1978-83). The sitcom was by now something of a barometer of social change.

Craig was the harassed housewife in a string of middle-class sitcoms: Not in Front of the Children (ITV, 1967-70), was soon followed by ...And Mother Makes Three (ITV, 1971-73), and its sequel, ...And Mother Makes Five (ITV, 1974-76), in which she played a widowed, then remarried, mother. Bigger than both was Butterflies, in which Ria stood for a generation of married women questioning their burden in the light of the growing feminist movement. The series charted Ria's frustrations with her emotionally distant husband Ben (Geoffrey Palmer) and two wayward sons, her many domestic failures - typified by her 'experimental' cooking - and her hesitant steps to independence happiness with amorous businessman Leonard. Ultimately, however, family always came first.

This was the age of adolescent rebellion, and Sid Abbott (Sid James) and his wife Jean (Diana Coupland), the parents of two teenagers in Bless This House (ITV, 1971-76) would have related to Ria's maternal anxieties, even if they wouldn't have recognised much else about her apparently comfortable suburban life. The working-class Abbotts were more in the mould of the Larkins or the Garnetts, though gruff Sid was, by and large, a more benevolent figure than the cantankerous Alf.

Perhaps such alarming examples were the reason why some sitcom marrieds declined to have children at all. The mismatched Ropers (Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce) of George and Mildred (ITV, 1976-79) were childless, as were both Tom (Richard Briers) and Barbara Good (Felicity Kendall) and their neighbours Jerry (Paul Eddington) and Margo Leadbeatter (Penelope Keith) in The Good Life (BBC, 1975-77). The Goods' decision to drop out of the rat race and become self-sufficient may have been interpreted as a declaration of war against suburban conformity, but they were seldom at war with each other for long. The titular pair of Terry and June (BBC, 1979-87) were altogether more conformist, and much of the comedy emerged from Terry's (Terry Scott) frequently desperate attempts to impress his social peers to the exasperation of the long-suffering June (June Whitfield).

Terry and June was a particular target for the rising 'alternative comedy' generation, which emerged in the early 1980s with the express objective of putting to the torch such cosy bourgeois comedy. The first alternative sitcom, The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84) presented a grotesque facsimile of the sitcom family, radically recast as brattish students in a squalid flatshare. You have to squint to see it, but the unsavoury quartet were a kind of parallel universe take on the template of Butterflies, with lentil-burning hippy Neil (Nigel Planer) as neurotic, put-upon mother, self-styled 'cool' lothario Mike (Christopher Ryan) as remote father, and Rik (Rik Mayall) and Vyvyan (Ade Edmondson)as squabbling sons. The less well-remembered Happy Families (BBC, 1985) offered an equally subversive take on the genre and its representation of the family, with an elderly matriarch assembling her four dispersed grandchildren (all played by Jennifer Saunders) with the objective of harvesting their organs to cure her mortal illness.

But if the alternative generation thought they could kill the suburban family sitcom, they were fooling only themselves. Terry and June outlived The Young Ones, while the succeeding years brought us Richard Briers' obsessive Martin Bryce and his ever-tolerant wife Ann (Penelope Wilton) in Ever Decreasing Circles (BBC, 1984-87), the retired Meldrews - saintly Margaret (Annette Crosbie) and her permanently outraged husband Victor (Richard Wilson) - in One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2000), and Patricia Routledge's ├╝ber-snob Hyacinth Bucket and embarrassing relatives in Keeping Up Appearances (BBC, 1990-95).

Better examples of a 'post-alternative' school of sitcom family were to be found in the alarmingly dysfunctional Nesbitts, presided over by drunken philosopher Rab C Nesbitt (BBC, 1989-99) - the only sitcom family whose arguments regularly turned violent - and in Jennifer Saunders' own Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-2003), in which Saunders' decadent, selfish Edina was a perpetual worry to and burden on her daughter and her mother (the latter played by Terry and June's June Whitfield).

But more successful than all of these was Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-96). The all-male Trotters - Del Boy (David Jason), younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst and granddad (Lennard Pearce) (later replaced by Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield)) - resembled an updated Albert and Harold Steptoe, with their low-status business (a Peckham market stall) and ever-faltering hopes of social advancement. But while the trio frequently fell into disputes over the collapse of yet another hair-brained moneymaking scheme, there was no doubting the strength of their familial bonds. Just as tight-knit and downtrodden were the Boswells of Bread (BBC, 1987-91), who responded to the challenges of Thatcher-era economics in their own way, but always together, presided over by forceful matriarch Ma (Jean Boht).

Family has been at the centre of each of Britain's small number of black and Asian sitcoms, from The Fosters (ITV, 1976-77) on, although whether this reflects a greater attachment to family among black and Asian Britons is open to question. Still, with intergenerational conflict already offering such enduring comic potential, the very different experiences and outlooks of parents born overseas and their British-born children were presumably too rich in possibility for writers to resist. Much of the comedy in Tandoori Nights (Channel 4, 1985-87) and Desmond's (Channel 4, 1989-94) stemmed from just these sorts of differences and misunderstandings. ITV's earlier No Problem! (1983-85), however, took an unusual approach, focusing on the struggles of the five kids of the Powell family to get along with life and each other after their parents have retired to Jamaica. More unusual still was The Kumars at Number 42 (BBC, 2001-03), in which Sanjeev Bhaskar's budding chat show host contends with constant humiliating interruptions from his ever-present elders and betters.

Sitcom innovation has been a feature of the 1990s and 2000s, as in the fusion of sitcom and 'mockumentary' that was The Office (BBC, 2001-03). But the conventional family sitcom has survived in the form of 2point4 Children (BBC, 1991-99) and My Family (BBC, 2000-), both of which returned to the time-honoured image of the bickering middle-class family. Less conventional was The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2000), which, like The Office, jettisoned the studio laughter, but also allowed the humour to emerge from the working-class Royles' casual banter more than from elaborately concocted situations. This approach, coupled with an unobtrusive style more redolent of documentary, suggested a more 'truthful' representation of the interactions of an ordinary family, no more united or divided than any other, and certainly no less loving. Another approach to realism was taken by the more recent Outnumbered (BBC, 2007-), in which semi-improvised performances from the three child actors supported the overall impression of the difficulties faced by middle-class parents Pete and Sue Brockman in attempting to control their unpredictable offspring.

Throughout its more than fifty-year history, TV sitcom has offered us a bewildering variety of families, reflecting the changing shape of the family. Sitcoms have given us families both middle- and working-class (and, occasionally, aristocratic), extended families, nuclear families, childless families, single-parent families, families that are broken and families that ought to be - and found something to laugh about in all of them. On the way they have shown us something about society's - and our own - attitudes to the great but always fraught institution of the family.

Mark Duguid

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Thumbnail image of 2point4 Children (1991-99)

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Thumbnail image of Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2003)

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Hugely influential sitcom about a ghastly PR executive

Thumbnail image of Bless This House (1971-76)

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Thumbnail image of Bread (1986-91)

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Thumbnail image of George and Mildred (1976-79)

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Thumbnail image of My Family (2000-)

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Thumbnail image of One Foot In The Grave (1990-2000)

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Thumbnail image of Only Fools and Horses (1981-96)

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Thumbnail image of Rab C Nesbitt (1989-99)

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Thumbnail image of Royle Family, The (1998-2000)

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Thumbnail image of Steptoe and Son (1962-74)

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Thumbnail image of Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75)

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