Back when the BBC announced its sitcom season, which after much anticipation begins transmission this weekend, I planned a post lamenting the conservatism of the choices of shows to be featured and suggesting some shows that might have been more interesting – if challenging – options. This needs a bit of revision now: for one thing, one of my suggestions actually got announced as a late addition to the line-up; and one of my suggestions of ‘probably too difficult’ shows became genuinely impossible.
But also, I don’t want to write a whinge. Whatever its flaws, the season is going to present an interesting blend of spin-offs, remakes and continuations of old shows, recreations of now lost episodes, and of course a series of new pilots. But it comes at a time when the sitcom is in the doldrums in terms of mass ratings (when a sitcom does make it into the week’s most viewed programmes, it’s usually a repeat of Dad’s Army), albeit definitely not in terms of quality (Uncle, Fleabag and, beyond the BBC, Plebs and Drifters are all doing great business). A spotlight on the genre will be welcome if it can kick-start one or more new series for the future – although there’s undoubtedly the danger that it might accidentally reinforce the idea that it was better in ‘the old days’.
Also, the season continues the process of challenging how we think of a TV show: as something that runs for a few seasons and then is over. But why shouldn’t the story be picked up again years later (after all, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads did it 40 years ago; Are You Being Served? got its own follow-up, Grace and Favour; and Shelley was revived successfully in the ‘90s)? Or why shouldn’t the same characters be revisited with different writers and casts? Bands re-form and songs get covered, so why not do the TV equivalents? This season isn’t unique on current TV in doing this, of course: Birds of a Feather has been revived on ITV, Red Dwarf on Dave and Yes, Minister (perhaps ill-advisedly) on Gold; plus the most prominent (only?) example of a show revived on its original channel, Still Open All Hours. Drama is being similarly developed, with Cold Feet back soon, the Upstairs Downstairs revival being rather better than it as generally credited with and, of course, Doctor Who still the grandaddy of all revivals (though the wretched This Life +10 shows that dangers of this kind of exercise… and the less said about wartime-set Eastenders prequel Civvy Street, the better).
That said, the conservatism of the choices is a bit of a pity. Wherever the idea of a ‘golden age’ of TV and, by extension, a ‘golden age’ of sitcoms came from, it remains pervasive: only two shows selected were created after the 1970s. So I had a little think and came up with a list of potentially more interesting choices, mostly more recent. If the season is meant to celebrate sixty years of the BBC sitcom, after all, it seems odd to ignore the last two or three decades.
Tempting though it was to list some relatively unpopular or unsuccessful shows that I have a soft spot for (Clone, Badults, Josh…), I’ve tried to keep it both feasible and focused on successful shows – although, for fun, I have a list of not-quite-possible as well…
Part One: Shows the BBC could and perhaps should have included
This is the one that needed re-writing, of course – and very welcome that is. My original thought was that, 17 years on, Gary is living in 1962, and the modern world would seem as alien to him as the 1940s did when he first went down Duckett’s Passage. This seems very much the approach the new show (pilot) is following, and I really hope it delivers.
It would have been great to see the squad back in Blighty, with a one-off story to round things off, perhaps as was done to such good effect with Pulling (and I’m under the impression the writers had an idea for the 4th series – I’d love to see those characters away from Afghanistan).
Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
The flagship show for its channel in its day, remember. The final series ended on a cliffhanger, having only just been re-booted with new characters. It deserves a proper ending.
It Sticks Out Half A Mile
Now, bear with me here. This was a radio follow-up to Dad’s Army, in which some of the former Home Guard platoon buy and operate the pier at Walmington-on-Sea. Originally to star Arthur Lowe as well as others, it was re-cast to feature Bill Pertwee’s Warden Hodges when Lowe died after recording the pilot. The Dad’s Army characters have recently been re-cast twice, for the movie and the BBC’s ‘We’re Doomed!’, so any taboo about that has been broken – and both ventures had some extremely good re-casting that could be cherry-picked to bring this radio show to the screen for the first time.
Part Two: Non-runners, but it’s nice to think about
Steven Moffat left his thoughts for where the characters ended up on Outpost Gallifrey… could he pick it up ten years on from that? One question though is what the basis of the humour would be, now that, presumably, they’re all settled? As far as I can see, the show is simply over.
The Likely Lads
The feud between Bewes and Bolam, which dates back to just after the completion of the Likely Lads film, would probably rule this out. But would we like to see what Bob and Terry are like in old age, wandering around modern-day Newcastle and grumbling about Sage Gateshead? I think so!
This is the one that, sadly, is now a total write-off. But while Ronnie Corbett was still alive, I was going to suggest, it would have been fascinating to see what Timothy Lumsden was like in old age. If the joke originally was that, in his 40s, he was still essentially a schoolboy, perhaps in his dotage he’d be nearly ready for a mid-life crisis? Though to be fair, that’s quite close to the original premise of Last of the Summer Wine (which had its own prequel, of course… it’s really not such a big deal, this sitcom spin-off business, is it?).
Ever Decreasing Circles
This is a show where the lead actor is no longer with us but two of the key supporting cast members are. If the show were to be revisited perhaps a melancholic character-led reunion of Paul and Ann, reflecting on the memory of Martin, could work… but, arguing against myself, without Martin getting annoyed by Paul, there’s really no show. Plus, there is a precedent for revisiting a successful show with just the supporting cast – The Legacy of Reginald Perrin – which is probably more of a warning than a recommendation (and let’s also note that sadly we’ve lost Stanley Lebor as Howard too). Then again, maybe a prequel could be workable – why did Martin turn out like he did? And what did happen between Martin and Ann in Kidderminster…?
All images copyright BBC.