Ten underrated British sitcoms: #4 Is It Legal?

vlcsnap-2013-05-27-21h17m05s250What is it?
Is It Legal? is an ensemble sitcom, written by Simon Nye and set in the offices of Hounslow solicitors Lotus, Spackman and Phelps. We join the story as newly-qualified solicitor Colin Lotus (Richard Lumsden) starts work at the practice, courtesy of his retired father’s position as a founding partner rather than any ability as a lawyer on Colin’s part. Here he meets the other partners – Dick Spackman (Jeremy Clyde), who does nothing but play golf, and the fiercesome mainstay of the business Stella (Imelda Staunton), increasingly dissatisfied with her life and career as she heads into middle age – plus the lovestruck clerk Bob, lazy and shallow secretary Alison (Kate Isitt) and well-intentioned office boy Darren (Matthew Ashforde).

Is It Legal? ran for two series on ITV in 1995 and 1996, and a third on Channel 4 in 1998.

Why was it good?
Unlike the first few underrated sitcoms highlighted in this series, Is It Legal? didn’t meet with much in the way of undue opprobrium or suffer from an unjustly short run. It is, however, an example of an arguably work-a-day sitcom that ran its course and is now largely forgotten.

It’s the show’s lack of spectacular-ness that I rather like about it: it was a decently-done sitcom, nothing more and nothing less – but that is no small thing to be. Its scripts and performances and never less than sound and do what a sitcom should by keeping the laughs coming at a regular pace; the characters don’t have masses of depth, perhaps bar Stella, but are sharply enough drawn for much of the humour to arise from their interactions.

Viewed at a bit of a distance, it now also has a certain fascination in terms of being relatively modern, but featuring an office in which the workers do not have computers on their desks (indeed, it has one episode involving the introduction of computers, which is fascinatingly dated, but whose humour was topical at the time) – if it had started just a few years later this would have been unimaginable.

Unfortunately the inventive title sequence for series 1 and 2, with wind-up “see no evil” monkeys (pictured) was replaced for the Channel 4 run by a rather cartoony effort that seemed to be someone’s idea of what a sitcom title sequence should be, rather than an actual attempt to produce a good title sequence. It seems a small thing to mention, but it always jars with me.

Why is it underrated?
Successful ITV sitcoms tend to get forgotten quickly, doubly so anything made after the supposed “golden age”. In the mid-90s, multi-camera sitcoms appeared to be the last word in unfashionability. Arguably the show appears a bit bog standard: a studio-based, office sitcom – though I’d argue that’s exactly why it deserves credit, as it presents a generic format extremely well.

That said, perhaps the show doesn’t offer much of an edge beyond that; Stella and Bob start a tentative affair in the last series, and while this is charmingly played, the series was clearly never going to hang on the developing personal relationships between characters. That said, it’s still a little surprising that the show appears not to be better remembered: Imelda Staunton is better known than ever now, Kate Isitt went on to even greater success in Coupling, Simon Nye continues to have a strong pedigree, and the show ran for three series after all. Is It Legal remains a great showcase for the talents of all concerned.

Can I watch it?
All three series are available on DVD courtesy of Network (but don’t expect any extras).

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