Ten underrated British sitcoms

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #10 Shelley

shelley-pic2What is it?
The titular James Shelley (Hywel Bennett) is, when we meet him, a highly qualified graduate living an easy life scrounging on the dole, while his girlfriend Fran (Belinda Sinclair) writes her novel. They find a new home in a bedsit run by nosy and abrasive landlady Mrs Hawkins (Josephine Tewson), with whom nonetheless they come to develop a friendship. Shelley’s life gets complicated, however, when Fran falls pregnant and he briefly succeeds, to his chagrin, in finding gainful employment.

Shelley ran initially for six series on ITV from 1979 to 1984, the first three written by creator Peter Tilbury, and returned for a further four series from 1988 to 1992.

Why was it good?
The series rests on the back-and-forth sarcasm of the title character, who is able to talk himself into or out of more or less anything and can outwit most of the characters in the show. In particular, Hywel Bennett’s performance is superb, and gives Shelley a layer of charm and likeability that the character might not possess on the page. Josephine Tewson’s performance as Mrs H provides him with a perfect foil.

Also worth a mention is the memorable theme tune by Ron Grainer, which is surprisingly fast for such a melancholy tune and sets a perfect tone for the show.

Why is it underrated?
Shelley was a big hit for ITV at the time, but is now probably fondly remembered by those who remember it fondly, if you see what I mean, and nobody else.

Perhaps this is because it was resolutely contemporary, so the changing fashions and topical jokes preclude repeat showings (unlike period settings or prison uniforms, say, which to some extent leave Dad’s Army and Porridge, for instance, less obviously datestamped).

That said, time has been a bit unkind to Shelley. Its pacing is very slow – and some episodes are, it must be said, wafer-thin in terms of actual story even compared to the likes of Early Doors – and it’s often well off the three-laughs-a-minute standard that sitcoms have to keep to as a minimum now; overall, it arguably struggles to hold its head up among more recent shows.

Another oddity is that although the first four series (which I’ll admit is all I’ve seen, as I’m working my way through the DVDs) take place over an on-screen period of less than a year, covering Fran’s pregnancy and the birth of the baby, they were produced from 1979 to 1982, during which the nature of unemployment changed: attitudes towards scroungers like Shelley got tougher, and unemployment soared. When the show started, part of the joke was that Shelley could easily find a job if he wanted to; a few series in, the joke rests on the immense difficulty of doing so, and the satire on unemployment becomes altogether more vicious as Shelley and Fran slide into poverty and negative equity.

Arguably therefore Shelley doesn’t deliver on its premise of charming and determined layabout beyond its first few episodes, as the title character first finds a job and then becomes in earnest need of one. I must say I also struggle to warm to Belinda Sinclair as Fran, who delivers a perfectly good straight performance but somehow lacks the comic chops of Bennett and Tewson.

That said, there’s still something enormously watchable about the show, particularly the first few bedsit-set series: it establishes a fairly cosy and likeable world that rewards a weekly visit.

Can I watch it?
The first six series are available on DVD from Network , with the remaining four supposedly due for release but showing no signs of turning up just yet.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #9 Early Doors

EARLY DOORS_EP4What is it?
Early Doors was the next “people sitting around talking and nothing happening” sitcom co-created by Craig Cash after The Royle Family, this time with Phil Mealey. It is set entirely in the Stockport pub The Grapes, and follows landlord Ken, his family (work-shy mother and student daughter) and his wider family, the pub’s regulars.

It ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Two in 2003 and 2004.

Why was it good?
Early Doors is another of the series that was well-regarded at the time, but has perhaps become a bit obscure since, being overshadowed by the return of The Royle Family for interminable Christmas specials. That said, it occasionally pops up as a repeat on BBC Four.

While the talky bits are full of quick, but very dry, Northern humour, the series is given an extra dimension by a number of through-line plots over the course of each series. These were added, according to the DVD commentaries, on the advice of Nicola Shindler and rather against the instincts of Cash and Mealey who wanted to stick to the droll talky stuff. The understated plotlines about Ken’s daughter tracking down her real father (series 1) and the threatened closure of the pub and possible romance for Ken (series 2) give the show a weight that makes it all the more watchable and effective. The cast are of course also excellent throughout (so much so that a couple of them, James McAvoy and Maxine Peake, were poached by Shameless between series). It’s a show that does a particularly good job of creating its own world for the viewer to revisit: warm and funny, but not without its rough edges.

Why is it underrated?
Some aspects of the show are down to taste: it’s very Northern, and the business of people sitting around talking and nothing very much happening (or at least not very obviously or quickly) probably limited its appeal. Those who liked it, however, undoubtedly really liked it, and it’s included here in the hope of nudging it to keep alive in the memory for a bit longer rather than because it got any particularly raw deal at the time.

Can I watch it?
Both series are available on DVD.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #8 PhoneShop

phoneshop1What is it?
The only show on this list that’s currently in production, PhoneShop is an ensemble sitcom following the workers at a branch of PhoneShop on a high street in south London. It initially focuses on the arrival of a new staff member, the wet-behind-the-ears Christopher, a graduate who clearly didn’t expect to be working retail.

PhoneShop has had two series so far on E4, with subsequent HD broadcasts on C4, having started life in 2009 as one of Channel 4’s Comedy Showcase pilots. A third series is currently being broadcast.

Why is it good?
PhoneShop can’t be accused of being the most original sitcom in the world: a workplace mockumentary* with a strong vein of embarrassment humour, it clearly traces at least some of its lineage back to The Office – not coincidentally, as Ricky Gervais script-edited the pilot, broadcast in 2009. There is more to PhoneShop than that, however: the characters and humour quickly became more stylised than in The Office. Large though they may be, the characters are developed enough to give rise to a lot of the humour, with much of the rest coming from a (perhaps slightly unkind) satire on the modern high street and consumer. Ultimately the shop’s staff, despite the brutal environment they inhabit, form a bit of a family among themselves, and the second series shows somewhat more warmth between them.

PhoneShop was created, produced and written by Phil Bowker, whose other credits include Pulling, with additional material coming from the excellent cast and associate producer Jon Macqueen. The faux patois banter between salesmen Ashley and Jerwayne (Andrew Brooke and Javone Prince) is always a highlight of an episode. As with several other shows on this list, the music is particularly effective, with unpleasant, jarring bursts of dance and electro turning the high street into a hostile and frightening place to visit.

Why is it underrated?
I can’t help but think PhoneShop isn’t so much underrated as a bit under-promoted, at least until recently. The production of a second series had passed me by until I came to research this blog, and Channel 4 is arguably not in one of its stronger patches for comedy, with panel shows dominating over sitcoms, and even those mainly older formats running slightly on fumes. Nonetheless PhoneShop is a success that finally seems to be getting recognised, with the current new series having been rather more heavily promoted.

Can I watch it?
PhoneShop is available on 4OD , and its first series is on DVD. And of course, you can watch the current series on E4 on Thursdays at 10pm.

* As Jon Macqueen has pointed out on Twitter, ‘mockumentary’ isn’t the right word for PhoneShop at all – almost certainly that’d be me confusing myself with the reference to The Office…

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #7 Free Agents

free-agents-s1e1-20090203182247-2_625x352What is it?
The series opens immediately after the two lead characters, Alex (Stephen Mangan) and Helen (Sharon Horgan) have had sex in an ill-advised one night stand, whereupon Alex bursts into tears. He is going through a divorce from his wife and the mother of his children, while Helen is still recovering from the sudden death of her fiance shortly before their planned wedding. The two work in the same talent agency, run by the gregarious and utterly perverted Stephen Cauldwell (Anthony Stewart-Head), and the series charts their efforts to recover from their personal disappointments, alternately leaning on each other and falling out.

Free Agents ran for one series of six episodes on Channel 4 in 2008.

Why was it good?
Free Agents was an example of arguably a sub-genre within British TV comedy: the sad sitcom (see also Respectable and, at a push, Pulling and The Job Lot). Neither of the lead characters finds much solace over the course of the series. There’s a strong vein of embarrassment humour in it too, particularly for Horgan’s character, which is somewhat balanced by the pathos of Mangan’s.

The comedy is heightened by the strong dramatic premise; there is also some sharp verbal humour arising acutely from the characters’ situations, as Alex and Helen trade acute observational one-liners; it also attracted complaints for bad language from the Mary Whitehouse brigade, so it was doing something right.

It hardly needs saying, but the cast was brilliant: Mangan, Horgan and a superbly filthy and devilish performance from Head anchored the show, but credit should also go to Matthew Holness and Sara Pascoe in wonderful supporting roles.

Why is it underrated?
This is another of the shows that wasn’t poorly regarded at the time, but now seems to have become a bit forgotten due to the passing of time. I’m unsure why it didn’t get a second series: the ratings and critical reception were neither great nor awful from what I can tell; perhaps it was just never the plan by writer Chris Niel (himself also a talent agent). Whatever the reasons, the lack of a second series definitely represents an opportunity missed, it seems to me.

Can I watch it?
The show is currently available quite cheaply on DVD but not on 4OD at present, though it has been in the past so who know if it will turn up again?

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #6 Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

two pintsWhat is it?
Two Pints starts off as the story of five friends in early adulthood, with little education and even less money, striking out on their own in Runcorn (it draws closely on the experiences of creator Susan Nickson, who is the same age as her characters and was therefore impressively young to have a sitcom commissioned).

The friends comprise two couples: the homely pairing of well-intentioned layabout Jonny (Ralf Little) and the only slightly more industrious Janet (Sheridan Smith), and the altogether more feisty and barbed pairing of mechanic Gaz (Will Mellor) and the perpetually angry Donna (Natalie Casey); the shallow, self-obsessed and squeaky Louise (Kathryn Drysdale) makes up the five.

Two Pints ran for nine series plus sundry specials from 2001 to 2011, totalling 80 episodes by my count (though IMDB says 83 for some reason), across BBC Two, BBC Choice and BBC Three.

Why was it good?
Like many of the sitcoms featured in these posts, Two Pints limits its appeals somewhat by one of its key characteristics: it’s only for you if you like really crude humour. But it was a warm show: the humour was unsubtle, but this was not a show about people being horrible to each other; ultimately, it was a show about a group of friends that had a warm tone, verging on the cosy.

The cast was superb – all now well-regarded actors, not least Sheridan Smith who has gone from starring in a widely-maligned show to being flavour of the month – and the characters also well-drawn and capable of driving the plot. These two things allowed for some really compelling episodes, such as the two-hander at the start of series 8 between Will Mellor and Sheridan Smith, apparently shot all in a single as-live take.

The show also gave rise to several specials: a musical at the start of series 4 remains probably the best, and was followed by a highly effective horror ep at the end of series 6, the live broadcast of the first episode of series 7 (the last live sitcom to come from Television Centre?), a crossover episode for Children in Need with the other two BBC Three sitcoms created or worked on by Susan Nickson, Grownups (also starring Sheridan Smith) and Coming of Age, and finally after series 8 a second musical episode and then Sliding Gaz, a bold two-hander between Mellor and Casey, switching between two possible scenarios for Gaz and Donna, the ‘real’ one being revealed at the start of the ninth and final series.

Why is it underrated?
Few things in relation to television annoy me more than the way in which Two Pints has become the ready punchline to many a lazy joke, as a byword for poor quality. It’s very hard to see how this can be justified: bad shows do not run for nine series or become the de facto flagship programme on their channel.

The reasons for the general low esteem in which the show is held are mostly (but not entirely) unrelated to its content and more to do with context. At the time of its launch the knives were well and truly out for anything that looked like traditional TV, particularly multi-camera sitcoms. Contemporary working class characters are always somewhat unloved within the TV industry, and by the second half of the 2000s the buzzword of the day was “chav” – a term that could be applied to both Jonny and Janet in Two Pints. The programme was also arguably rather over-exposed by the constant looping of repeats (mostly of series 2 to 6) on BBC Three at around the same time.

That said, as noted above the humour is undoubtedly a bit divisive and it’s certainly possible to argue that the show ran for too long. Story-wise, the relationships between the characters were played out by the end of series five (by which point the writers had taken them through the inevitable splitting up, cheating and getting back together again), although Louise was egregiously one-dimensional and really had little to offer story-wise after about the third series. From series six onwards the stories became more forced and contrived, with the show deliberately jumping the shark to explain the writing-out of Jonny after Ralf Little left between series. By the final series (which I’ll admit I’ve not seen – I’m part-way through a re-watch of the show and have series nine sitting on my DVD shelf waiting for me to get to it), only Gaz and Donna remained of the original cast. Sadly Two Pints ended on a cliffhanger in the hope of a re-commission; Zai Bennett’s purge of BBC Three comedy shows put paid to that. A more dignified wrapping-up a little earlier might have been preferable, but it certainly deserves to be remembered as a well-written, well-acted and successful show, not as the byword for bad taste it has become.

Can I watch it?
All series are available on DVD, though sadly the days of constant looped repeats of the show on BBC Three are long over.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #5 Joking Apart

joking apart 2What is it?
The series opens with its protagonist, Mark Taylor (Robert Bathurst), performing a stand-up routine beginning with the words: “My wife left me.” A romcom in reverse, it starts with Mark’s separation from Becky (Fiona Gillies), and flashes back to their meeting and the earlier stages of their relationship. Much of the comedy is farce, as Mark tries to win Becky back, usually involving their friends Robert and Tracey (Paul Raffield, Tracie Bennett) and Becky’s lover Trevor (Paul-Mark Elliott).

Joking Apart ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Two in 1993 and 1995.

Why was it good?
Joking Apart was Steven Moffat’s second TV series, after Press Gang, and his first sitcom. Believing that the second series of Press Gang would be its last (wrongly, it turned out), Moffat began pitching an idea for a sitcom set in a school, drawing on his own experiences as a teacher. His producer Andre Ptaszynski observed that in conversation he spoke far more passionately and engagingly about the divorce he was going through than about his proposed sitcom, and suggested he write about that instead.

The scripts contain Moffat’s trademarks in spades: intricate plots that close around the characters like a steel trap – in this case as excruciatingly acute farce, rather than timey-wimey story arcs – and relentless punchlines in almost every word of dialogue. The nature of the subject material means that the stakes are high for the characters from the get-go, which heightens both the drama and the comedy. The show also benefits from an excellent cast who sell all the characters to good effect.

Critics of Moffat’s ability to write women (a debate I don’t want to get much into, frankly) should have a look at this show: while Becky is the instigator of the end of the marriage, reflecting how Moffat’s own first marriage ended, she is often a more level-headed and sympathetic character than the angry and emotional Mark.

The penultimate episode particularly sticks in the mind: concussed after a knock to the head, Mark hallucinates a new friend, Dick, who seems to be the talking personification of his own penis. Dick accompanies him throughout the episode, with only Mark able to see him, offering a brutally frank and funny critique of male sexuality throughout, and eventually condemning Mark as a “brainhead” when he does the decent thing and turns down an inappropriate proposition.

joking apart 1Why is it underrated?
This is another sitcom whose subject matter will instantly alienate a chunk of the potential audience, its acidic and brutal treatment of it even more so. For those with a taste for it however, Joking Apart undoubtedly held a lot of appeal on broadcast.

Part of the reason why the show is remembered by some as a “lost classic” rather than “classic” without qualification was the problematic nature of its scheduling. There was a long delays between transmission of the two series: the second eventually aired in early 1995, two years after the first, the pilot having been shot in 1990, and lacked a stable time slot. Moffat has stated that because of this, this sitcom actually lasted slightly longer than the marriage it was inspired by.

For today’s audience, it’s got to be said that the use of Chris Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over as a title song massively and jarringly datestamps it to the early 1990s, though the comedy itself is fairly timeless.

Overall however, Joking Apart delivers a fine line in farce, some acute observations on relationships and an occasionally vicious finishing touch.

Can I watch it?
Rather pleasingly, both series are available on DVD thanks to the efforts of a fan, who bought the rights, digitally restored the episodes and set up his own independent DVD label purely to release the show (and he went on to release Moffat’s widely-maligned sitcom Chalk too – or at least its first series, before the recession bit and further releases became uneconomical).

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).

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #3 Clone

cloneWhat is it?
In his ‘Mark Lawson talks to…’ interview Mark Gatiss identified Clone, along with Sex Lives of the Potato Men, as both an example of a project he had been involved with that had flopped and an unhappy working experience. It ran for one series of six episodes on BBC Three at the end of 2008.

The set-up is as follows. Top secret military research scientist Victor Blenkinsop (Jonathan Pryce) has artificially bred a soldier, designed to be the perfect tool for military operations; unfortunately, when the clone (Stuart McLoughlin) emerges from the tank he proves to be clumsy, childlike and totally lacking any sort of aggressive instinct. Victor goes on the run from Colonel Black (Gatiss) of MI7, knowing that he and Clone risk being executed to save the military’s blushes. They end up in an obscure English village, lodging at a pub run by inexplicable twenty-something maths prodigy Rose (Fiona Glascott). The series takes place in the village, as Victor, Clone and Rose attempt to rub along together, while Victor tries to keep his identity secret from Rose, keep his location secret from Colonel Black, and find a way of unlocking the clone’s potential to save both their lives.

Why was it good?
Despite its sci-fi trappings, Clone was actually an odd couple, fish-out-of-water comedy, with Victor railing at being stuck in an unsophisticated backwater and lumbered with raising Clone, effectively a child in an adult’s body. Much of the humour is deeply silly, and arises both from Clone’s childlike misunderstandings of the world around him, and Victor’s too-clever-by-half gambits to get out of his predicament.

Such very silly humour will always rely on the performers to sell it, and the cast of Clone do so with style. Pryce is convincingly scathing and nasty, but also fallible, as Victor; Stuart McLoughlin gives a charming and loose-limbed performance as Clone; Fiona Glascott is immensely likeable as the sassy but somehow still vulnerable Rose; and Gatiss, despite his later disdain for the project, offers a gloriously swivel-eyed, scenery-chewing turn as Black.

Why is it underrated?
There can be little doubt that Clone was badly received; indeed, it attracted some of the most vicious reviews of any programme I’ve ever seen, and quickly came to be regarded as a byword for failure.

It is perhaps an example of a show that doesn’t fulfil its contract with the audience. Superficially Clone looked like it would be some sort of sci-fi comedy, perhaps more like Red Dwarf than anything else; the screwball whimsy it delivered, albeit deft and endearing, was really very different, so it’s perhaps unsurprising it failed to find an audience.

I do wonder if it might have done better if it had started with its second episode, and not opened so heavily with its unrepresentative sci-fi setup. Ultimately, the sci-fi angle was very silly and cartoonish; the three-way relationship between Clone, Victor and Rose was the centrepiece of the show, and the scenes cutting away to Mark Gatiss’s character overseeing the search for Victor with OTT menace did sometimes seem rather like side-steps into another (no less silly, but somewhat less charming) show.

All of this gave anyone who wanted it the sticks with which to beat a BBC Three, multi-camera, laugh-tracked sitcom. But ultimately it still makes me laugh, and achieves that highly desirable goal for any television show of creating a distinctive world that I want to re-visit. Its final episode left things in a place for a second series that I’d certainly have been interested to watch.

Can I watch it?
Clone appears not to have been shown on the BBC since its original run, and is presumably unlikely to turn up on Dave or similar. It also seems to be unavailable on DVD at present, if it ever was – the limited retail listings visible online suggest its release might have been cancelled entirely after it flopped so badly on TV. Extensive clips have been put online unofficially – no doubt you know where to look.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #2 White Van Man

wvmpromo-4What is it?
Will Mellor plays Ollie, who has set aside his own dreams of opening a restaurant to take over his father Tony’s (Clive Mantle) handyman business after the latter suffers a heart attack. He pounds the streets of Maplebury (which roughly = Stockport in Greater Manchester) with his work-shy assistant Darren (Joel Fry), occasionally aided by his girlfriend Emma (Georgia Moffett) and Ollie’s sister Liz (Naomi Bentley), who works in the local hardware supplier and nurses a crush on Ollie to which he is entirely oblivious.

White Van Man ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Three in 2011 and 2012.

Why was it good?
White Van Man’s strength was principally that it was very well written by Adrian Poynton, who created a fully rounded sitcom. Although the humour often arose from Ollie getting into awkward situations with clients, this was always built around the characters and strong themes, for instance Ollie trying to do the right thing or not be a pushover; conflict arises from character, usually Ollie versus his father, or Darren, or Emma (forever stealing his good ideas and setting up her own unsuccessful businesses, with no small amount of incompetence and, at worst, deceitfulness and spite). The show offered tight storylining too, with climactic scenes and punchlines diligently set up across each episode.

The scripts were also sold brilliantly by a strong cast firing on all cylinders. Without going through every member – though I could – Ollie is endearingly played by Will Mellor, rather underrated as a character actor in my view, who turns in a convincingly different performance from his other BBC Three comedy role, as Gaz in Two Pints. The episodes often centre on the double act he forms with Joel Fry, who is also a joy to watch.

Like Respectable, White Van Man is enhanced by its soundtrack, with a prominent mix of ska and dub reggae forming an unexpected but hugely enjoyable wrapper for the action.

Why is it underrated?
White Van Man came with the usual dose of snobbery about BBC Three sitcoms from some quarters (even though the truth is that the channel has been a mainstay of British comedy over the last decade, and our sitcom landscape would have looked pretty desolate without it). But the main sense in which White Van Man is underrated is that it was cancelled after two series as part of Zai Bennett’s clear-out of all the comedy shows he inherited when he took up his post as controller of BBC Three – only Russell Howard’s Good News survived the cull, which also claimed non-comedy shows including Doctor Who Confidential. It was a real shame: White Van Man had a lot of heart, and was easily worth a third series.

Can I watch it?
Both series are available on DVD for not much money (series 1, series 2), though the show is in that extremely annoying category of a programme made in HD but not available on Bluray. Repeats of any sort look unlikely, and especially so in HD as the BBC HD channel has now become BBC Two HD. But who knows, it could turn up on a satellite or digital channel at some point.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #1 Respectable

For some reason the only high quality photos still online of Respectable are ones of Jodi Albert in her underwear...

For some reason the only high quality photos still online of Respectable are ones of Jodi Albert in her underwear…

What is it?
Michael Price (played by Justin Edwards), a middle manager entering middle age, feels that life is passing him by. In a sexually unfulfilling marriage to the fiercesome Pippa (“she’s wonderful… very punctual”) he decides to address his mid-life crisis by visiting a brothel in the anonymous suburb where he lives. There he befriends the prostitute Hayley (Jodie Albert) but is far too hesitant to have sex with her (“I’ve got a talker!”); nonetheless, what begins as a a quasi-counselling relationship gradually turns into an unlikely but genuine, and unfulfillable, romance. Michael increasingly has to hide his secret life from his wife, as well as reconciling himself to it.

Respectable ran for a single series of six episodes on Channel 5, with involvement from Paramount Comedy, in 2006 – in a double bill, as I recall, with the surprisingly effective sex-themed sketch show Swinging.

Why was it good? (1) Sidebar on the subject matter
There’s one thing about Respectable that we need to address up-front: it’s a sitcom set in a brothel. Is this off-limits as a subject for a sitcom? Is it deriving humour from the exploitation of women and therefore unforgivable?

Undeniably the sex work depicted in Respectable is at the gentler end of the subject, like Belle De Jour’s novels and their TV adaptation: Respectable presents a suburban brothel run by a gruff mother figure old pro, with a receptionist and prostitutes who include Hayley and her best friend Kate, a student working to fund her studies. Some might argue that by showing the relatively safe end of a murky world the show was irresponsibly complicit in immoral activity (however one approaches the morality of sex work).

I must say I don’t find these objections very convincing (and wouldn’t be including Respectable on the list if I did). The same or similar objections can be levelled at lots of other fondly-regarded sitcoms that operate at the cosier end of unpleasant subject areas: Dad’s Army shows a World War Two of well-intentioned bumbling, not of people being blown to smithereens or bombed out of their homes; Only Fools and Horses and Porridge are both set deep in the world of criminality; Whoops Apocalypse! involves a nuclear armageddon; Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies, in showing people employed in low-paid work, arguably gets laughs from economic exploitation.

Now, there’s a case that perhaps comedy should not go into unpleasant territory that can, even if not shown on screen, involve suffering; but it seems to me that in order to mount this argument against Respectable one either has to argue against a whole range of sitcoms, or argue that there is something exceptional about sexual exploitation compared to any other kind of bad thing. Both arguments are possible, but I can’t say I have much truck with either, and don’t feel there’s any intrinsic problem in a sitcom being set in the world in which Respectable is set.

Indeed, the programme’s makers claimed that the brothel it shows – five women working together in a shared house on an anonymous street – is a type present in many a British suburb; and it’s certainly a model that is safer for the workers and whose continued criminalisation attracts well-evidenced criticism, as I understand the debate. That said, it’s no doubt about as accurate a depiction of that world as Dad’s Army is as life in the Home Guard – recognisable in outline, but not realistic as such. But ultimately one pays one’s money and takes one’s choice; undoubtedly some people will, for good reasons or bad, struggle to get past Respectable’s subject matter.

Why was it good? (2) So, why was it good?
So, having got that out of the way, why was Respectable good? It boiled down in some ways to a “secret life” story, a staple of plenty of comedies where the protagonist has to keep their “other” life secret. This gives rise to a fine line in farce at times, though fortunately the mainstay of Respectable’s comedy isn’t an ever-more implausible list of excuses from Michael.

If anything, Respectable gets a lot of its humour from poking fun at the middle classes: however nice a man he may be, Michael is undoubtedly dull and conventional, admiring few people more than Judge John Deed, seldom happier than when sipping a pint of IPA, and chronically embarrassed about sex. His wife Pippa too is highly conventional, albeit in a materialistic kind of way; together the couple appear to have lost perspective on what matters in life, which the series exploits to good effect.

But it’s the relationship between Michael and Hayley that ultimately makes Respectable work: both are highly sympathetic characters who are, by the end of the series, clearly each the best friend that the other has, even though their love is impossible – a fine creation by Shaun Pye and Harry Thompson. Justin Edwards and Jodi Albert both turn in wonderfully likeable performances as convincingly flawed characters, and there is a thoroughly satisfying emotional pay-off at the end of the series, teeing it up nicely for a second… which never came.

Finally, the music deserves a mention: both the theme tune and the incidental music are built around a sad and understated piano theme, which is given a bigger and more stirring arrangement for the touching last scene between Michael and Hayley in the finale; the music builds to a climax with the story in a rather impressive way.

Why is it underrated?
However much I might like to build the case for these underrated sitcoms, very often they are underrated for a reason and there’s no shying away from it. No comedy is ever to everyone’s taste, but Respectable perhaps limited its appeal more than most. Rightly or wrongly, the brothel setting no doubt lost a chunk of the potential audience instantly.

Even beyond that, its appeal is clearly not universal. I once loaned my DVD of the series to a director for whom I was writing a feature script, in an effort to find some shared common ground on comedy as we tackled the next rewrite; he watched it all, and made a point of telling me how awful he thought it was, and seemed genuinely not to believe that I liked it (I left the project soon after, as we were clearly not going to see the same future direction for the film). I never quite figured out why, but if you don’t go a bomb on unfulfillable love stories or humour poking fun at the English middle classes, it won’t resonate much.

Worse still, it was on Channel 5, which must have supplied plenty of reviewers with ample excuse to be sneering: if it was part of a raft of sitcoms from the channel it might have been taken more seriously, but as it was it arguably seemed (if you didn’t bother to watch it) like another tawdry sex-themed C5 show, its scheduling alongside the similarly adult Swinging clearly not helping – although both deserved more acclaim than they got.

But more seriously, the show did suffer from an unevenness of tone: the character-led humour, revolving around Michael’s relationships with Hayley, Pippa and Barry was quite a contrast with the other dimension to the humour, which featured a lot of knob gags and similar sex-based humour. It was often very deftly done, by playing on Michael’s very English awkwardness about sex, but sometimes it was much more straightforward rudery. Now I enjoyed both, but the cruder stuff undeniably does at times jar a bit with the character-led material. Similarly Hayley is portrayed as extremely uneducated – perhaps not unrealistically – but this can occasionally translate into her being gauche or even at times plain stupid, which can feel uncomfortable when she is generally such a sympathetic character

Ultimately, it’s not the subject matter one has to forgive, but the sometimes awkward blend of deft character-driven comedy and plain dirty jokes (though I wouldn’t want to overstate this – it’s rated 15 rather than 18 on DVD, to the extent that that’s any gauge; and for the avoidance if doubt, nobody has their naughty bits on display at any time). Both are, however, very well done in my view, so for my money the fact that they don’t sit easily alongside each other can happily be overlooked if one is in the market for either.

Despite its flaws, Respectable still stands out, to me anyway, as a well-crafted sitcom that tells a strong story, contains plenty of laughs, and has much more heart and charm than one might expect given the premise.

Can I watch it?
Respectable is available on DVD, still very cheaply from some retailers. That said, others list it for higher prices, which suggests it may be out of print; if you feel like taking a punt for a few quid, get in quick would be my advice.