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Ever-popular television genre

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The situation comedy has proved one of the defining and most enduring genres in British television, despite its share of brickbats and setbacks. Over the last 40 or so years sitcoms have helped British society engage with itself - the promise of laughter allowing audiences to cope with more difficult material than they might sit through in a drama or documentary. The great British sitcom characters (Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Edina Monsoon, David Brent et al) tell us about the way we live, and not always things we would wish to hear. Audiences have responded to these portrayals in millions and reruns of shows more than 25 years old still regularly get significant ratings.

Sitcom is a deceptively simple concept - comedy arising from a consistent situation. It has a distinctive relationship with its audience, requiring time to develop an understanding of its protagonists, its place and the humour that arises from them. It is thus perfectly suited to television in its demands for time, continuity and intimacy.

The form originated in radio, but prospered as television ownership spread dramatically in the 1950s. Like radio, television is a mass medium that works on familiarity to build an audience, but it also offered a wealth of hilarious visual possibilities.

Initially radio sitcoms of the time were simply transferred to television, but eventually the need for new material encouraged the development of shows and forms designed specially for the medium. The first great British sitcom, Hancock's Half Hour (BBC, 1956-60) - later Hancock - was a transfer from radio. British TV situation comedy was born here, for Hancock's persona of the pompous loser out of his depth in an uncomprehending society still informs many programmes today. The quality of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's scripts laid down a benchmark for authored sitcom writing, helping to steer Britain down a different path to the team writing system in America.

It was the phenomenal success of Galton and Simpson's next series, Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74), however, which bolted the form firmly in place; sitcom became a central part of cultural life. Steptoe and Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1966-75) were major statements of contemporary Britain at a time of enormous social change, where there was now a television in most homes.

The period from 1970-79 in particular is often regarded as the 'Golden Age' of British sitcom. During this time shows such as Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77), Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1973-74), Porridge (BBC, 1974-77), The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79), Rising Damp (ITV, 1974-78) and Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975-79) were hugely popular and critically praised. All have been rerun in the last few years, many more than once. More populist shows that pleased the critics less, like On the Buses (ITV, 1969-73), The Good Life (BBC, 1975-77), Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1973-1985) and George and Mildred (ITV, 1976-79), also gained massive audiences.

These shows followed the classic sitcom format - a set of characters, or one main character with a number of dependents, are stuck together in a situation from which they cannot escape, usually family or work. During the course of an episode events will occur that might disrupt or cause difficulties to this status quo, but by the end we are always back where we started. Each show lasts for thirty minutes and is filmed before a live studio audience. They were very much writer-led and the BBC was regarded as utterly dominant in producing comedy.

At the end of the 1970s the arrival of the Thatcher government saw sitcom suffer a loss of prestige. The shows were regarded as being safe and reactionary, as comedy became a rather simplistic battleground - suburban sitcoms like Terry and June (BBC, 1979-87) were contrasted with the new 'alternative comedy' based on stand-up routines and sketches. The public still watched in the '80s however; the biggest traditional show was Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-96), while hits informed by the supposedly 'alternative' comedy movement were The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84) and Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89). However, apart from these few exceptions, many thought sitcom was dead by the end of the 1980s.

Come the 1990s, however, the genre was reinvigorated. One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2000) became a key part of British popular culture, just as Dad's Army and Steptoe and Son had been twenty years earlier. Other successes which followed included Men Behaving Badly (ITV, 1992/BBC, 1994-98), Father Ted (C4, 1995-98) and Jennifer Saunders' Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-96). These shows succeeded despite the new, more market-orientated broadcasting landscape.

Shows like dinnerladies (BBC, 1998-2000) and My Family (BBC, 2000-01) show that traditional sitcoms still find audiences, but the dominant style has changed. The new sitcoms dispense with the old formal conventions like the studio audience, heavy lighting and theatrical performances, as technology and audience tastes have changed. Instead shows pursue laughs through realism, particularly after the success of The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2000), which let humour emerge naturally through character, rather than jokes or plot. Sitcoms now reflect the viewer's different experience of the media; no longer does television have a privileged position, but seems part of everyday life. Thus many shows have used new TV conventions, like 'docusoaps' - none more successfully than The Office (BBC, 2001-02).

But the new sitcoms retain the thematic concerns of the British sitcom classics. Their subjects are individual disappointment and social failure and the courage of people in the face of their problems.

British sitcoms have often dealt with social change. Certainly there are few cultural forms that have offered a better analysis of the changing British class system, and the conflicts and prejudices it produces. Race has been more problematic - there was a willingness to debate attitudes around the subject, but these varied from the brilliant, if controversial, Till Death Us Do Part to the merely offensive Love thy Neighbour (ITV, 1972-76). More recently the Afro-Caribbean Desmond's (C4, 1988-94) and the Asian The Kumars at Number 42 (BBC, 2001-02) have reflected a comic perspective on British life from a now established non-white population. For a long time women were sidelined in sitcoms in sensible, long-suffering roles but modern sitcoms, through writer-performers like Jennifer Saunders, Caroline Aherne, Victoria Wood and Jessica Stevenson, have successfully feminised a once very masculine form.

Sitcoms have had an important influence on British life in the last 40 years. They have made us think about ourselves by making us laugh at our own absurdity. Good sitcoms are a kind of virtual reality - they reflect the rhythms of everyday life, the pain of the human condition and, of course, the joy of laughter.

Phil Wickham

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Thumbnail image of 'Allo 'Allo (1984-92)

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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 Are You Being Served? (1973-85)

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Thumbnail image of Bless This House (1971-76)

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Thumbnail image of Butterflies (1978-83)

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Thumbnail image of Citizen Smith (1977-80)

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Thumbnail image of Dad's Army (1968-77)

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Thumbnail image of Desmond's (1988-94)

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Thumbnail image of Ever Decreasing Circles (1984-87)

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Thumbnail image of Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The (1976-79)

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Thumbnail image of Fawlty Towers (1975, 79)

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Thumbnail image of Good Life, The (1975-77)

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Much-loved sitcom about a self-sufficient couple in Surbiton

Thumbnail image of Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)

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The original British sitcom - and still one of the best

Thumbnail image of It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81)

It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81)

Popular sitcom from the creators of Dad's Army

Thumbnail image of Office, The (2001-03)

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

One Foot In The Grave (1990-2000)

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

Only Fools and Horses (1981-96)

Hugely popular comedy about Peckham wheeler-dealers

Thumbnail image of Porridge (1974-77)

Porridge (1974-77)

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Thumbnail image of Rab C Nesbitt (1989-99)

Rab C Nesbitt (1989-99)

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Thumbnail image of Rag Trade, The (1961-63)

Rag Trade, The (1961-63)

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Thumbnail image of Rising Damp (1974-78)

Rising Damp (1974-78)

Leonard Rossiter's first great sitcom role as seedy landlord Rigsby

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

Royle Family, The (1998-2000)

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Thumbnail image of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973-75, 1978)

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973-75, 1978)

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Thumbnail image of Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced (1999-2001)

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Thumbnail image of Steptoe and Son (1962-74)

Steptoe and Son (1962-74)

Galton & Simpson classic about father-and-son rag-and-bone men

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

Till Death Us Do Part (1966-75)

Controversial comedy with Warren Mitchell as the bigoted Alf Garnett

Thumbnail image of Whack-O! (1956-60, 1971-72)

Whack-O! (1956-60, 1971-72)

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Thumbnail image of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (1973-74)

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Thumbnail image of Worker, The (1965, 1969-70)

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Thumbnail image of Yes Minister (1980-84)

Yes Minister (1980-84)

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Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Anarchic sitcom which launched a generation of alternative comedians

Thumbnail image of dinnerladies (1998-2000)

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Victoria Wood's only sitcom, set in a chaotic factory canteen

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