Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted on 13 May , 2013

The Real Right Way. Beyond The Joke May 2013

The Real Right Way. Beyond The Joke May 2013

Expectations for the Count Arthur TV Show are running high… see this opinion article from

Opinion: The Wright Way – A Very, Very Slight Defence

Let’s get one thing straight. I’m certainly not backtracking on my opinion of Ben Elton’s pitiful sitcom. But at the same time I’ve found some of the objections to The Wright Way particularly interesting. Maybe it’s the rise of Twitter and Facebook, maybe it’s just my friends being too choosy, but what it has highlighted in a way I’ve never noticed to this extent before, is the snobbery about British sitcoms.

I don’t even think Mrs Brown’s Boys caused quite so much vitriol, presumably because there was not the same sense of betrayal. If Brendan O’Carroll had co-authored one of the greatest-ever sitcom scenes we might well have felt the same sense of shame watching Mrs Brown’s Boys as when seeing Ben Elton’s cliched lead character getting into cliched embarrassing situations, usually in an office toilet at around the time that the female cleaner is due to pop her head around the door.

This is one of the reasons why The Wright Way has received such a savaging, but the attacks have also revealed and highlighted a chasm between mainstream, crowdpleasing comedies and intelligent, sophisticated sitcoms. On the one extreme, let’s say, The Thick of It, Alan Partridge and The Office, on the other Mrs Browns Boys, The Wright Way and the new Ian McKellen vehicle, Vicious.

I was wondering then, is it possible to please both audiences? It certainly seemed to be in the past, with Fawlty Towers and the Blackadder cycle being both mainstream hits and having an intelligent edge too. But these shows are few and far between. Dad’s Army or Only Fools and Horses are funny populist shows but I’m not sure if there was anything subversive, arch or particularly clever about them. OK, Dad’s Army showed us that our Home Guard troops were a bit flakey in WW2. But what else?

More recently the only series that seems to straddle these two camps successfully is Miranda, but this is a complex one. I know there are plenty of smart critics who dismiss it, but to me it can be read as either traditional or postmodern. Sometimes the two styles end up being interchangeable. When it first went out I interviewed Miranda Hart and asked if her looks to the camera were influenced by the cult American sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Hart replied she knew about Shandling but was more influenced by Frankie Howerd and Eric Morecambe.

This highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy only really seems to be an issue in the UK. In England Seinfeld was considered to be upmarket and boasting a recherché wit and went out late on BBC2 when the snooker wasn’t on. In America it was one of the biggest rating sitcoms of all time. So who says Americans are snobs or dumb? The Simpsons is seen as a smart, subversive sitcom in the UK, in the country that makes it it is just another hit comedy, albeit a record-breaking long-running comedy.

The only other recent British sitcoms that seem able to cross the divide between quality and brains seem to be connected to Graham Linehan. Arthur Mathews’ and Linehan’s Father Ted managed to make popular culture jokes about Radiohead and Keanu Reeves movies and also attract fans who maybe just liked the crazy Irish antics and had no idea who Thom Yorke was (The writers were brilliant at having their pop-reference cake and eating it. I was watching the Flight into Terror episode last night and Ted referenced Jeff Bridges in Fearless, before adding when there are not many laughs, something on the lines of “maybe that reference was a bit obscure”).

Linehan’s IT Crowd pulled off the same trick of being a classic mainly studio-based sitcom but an extremely funny one that wore its self-knowledge on its sleeve. It is great to hear that a final episode is due to start filming later this month. If anyone can bridge this gap maybe there was a time when we might have said Ben Elton could do it. His generic police sitcom The Thin Blue Line had its moments, but looking back it nows marks the start of a steep decline in quality for Elton rather than a move into making contemporary Blackadder-style gags for a mass audience.

Perhaps Graham Linehan is the great hope for smart high-rating humour. As well as the final IT Crowd he has also been working on the eagerly-awaited TV transition of character comedian Steve Delaney’s hapless, word-mangling Doncastrian variety veteran Count Arthur Strong (pictured), which mixes the trad and the mad and should start on BBC2 in June. This bossy, bumptious wannabe tinpot tyrant has all the makings of a mainstream star. I suspect Strong will get compared to Captain Mainwaring, but under the instantly recognisable universal sitcom trait of being useless but power-crazed I suspect there will be some intelligence. In fact with Linehan involved I’m sure there will be. Ben Elton has shown us the wrong way to make a sitcom for a broad audience, Steve Delaney and Graham Linehan should show us the real right way.

Bruce Dessau writes for The Times and the Guardian and is the comedy critic of the Evening Standard.