Britain has given the world so much over the years; apologising during sex, shouting at foreigners in their own countries and teeth bad enough to put every orthodontist’s kids through college for eternity. But Britain has also has a reputation for its production of high-quality comedy, which is unsurprising to anyone who actually has to live here. As such, it’s easy for certain programmes to slip under the radar, especially when said radar becomes congested with the likes of Miranda and Mrs. Brown’s Boys, both of which are the comedic equivalent of athletes’ foot. Or rickets.
Here are 7 shows from this odd little country that prove that we’re more than a nation of pie-eating, French-hating pig farmers with pictures of the Queen in our toilets. Or loos, as we call them.
Sirens was pretty much the definition of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ television. Only airing for a single season in 2011, Channel 4 managed to tuck it away so successfully that I sometimes have to check my DVD cabinet to reassure myself that the show really existed at all. Starring Rhys Thomas, Kayvan Novak (most familiar from Fonejacker and What we do in the Shadows) and the King in the North himself Richard Madden as three London-based paramedics, Sirens’ strengths were drawn from its unflinching honesty and realism, owing to it being based on real-life ambulance technician Brian Kelletts’ biographical account of saving lives in his semi-autobiography, Blood, Sweat & Tea. Sirens not only boasted a superb cast but a carefully crafted, strongly-written script which was as dark as it was funny, focusing heavily on strong, empathetic characters and effective human drama. Channel 4 dumped it presumably so they would have time to expend more of their energy into making Katherine Ryan a household name. If you’re an American and you don’t understand that last line, Katherine Ryan is our equivalent of glaucoma, in that she’s everywhere you look and there seems to be no readily-available cure.
Matt Berry Does…
Matt Berry Does… is testament to the idea that good comedy is as much down to performance and delivery as it is a result of its writing and production. Spawning originally from a collaboration with Bob Mortimer called ‘Lone Wolf’, which saw Berry providing a parody of nature documentaries as he commentated over footage of wolves hunting for deer, it was soon taken up by the BBC to provide a sketch for a series of love-themed programmes during the Valentine’s period on iPlayer, leading to a ‘sequel’, Wild Love, another nature doc spoof complete with dancing birds, boxing kangaroos, and of course, golden frog threesomes. Sporadic follow-ups ensued, covering subjects ranging from Halloween to Father’s Day, always reverting back, in gloriously arbitrary style, to the same format of Berry talking over random footage from nature documentaries. The origins of Father’s Day are explained through the social behaviours of drunk and belligerent monkeys, for example. Very silly and almost endlessly quotable, you can find most of the series’ instalments on YouTube. For now, at least.
The Adam and Joe Show
It’s strangely refreshing when a show comes along almost with the express intention of one day looking dated, operating as a time capsule which reflected its own peculiar era. When the Adam and Joe Show enjoyed a run from 1996 to 2001 on Channel 4, Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish seemed to revel in the odd cultural quirks of their age in a show which involved loosely knitting together vaguely topical sketches, parodies and street skits with links performed by the duo from their modest ‘bedsit’. The show was in many ways a warped tribute to its age, the final word on the decade as the 90s gave way to the noughties and ushered in a new era of Millennium Bugs and Aviator shades. Although often scathing and decidedly acerbic (the segment People Place whereby vapid presenters offer the most basic of insights into the mundanity of daily life through sloppily edited on-location interviews defines British daytime television), the show often derived its strength from its genuinely home-made production values; the startlingly short ending credits typify a programme untainted by external interference from network executives and unburned by worries of fulfilling quota-based demographics or key audiences figures. The Adam and Joe Show was precisely what it promised to be; the product of two men’s collective imagination. And it did stop-motion sketches involving toys and dolls nearly 10 years before Robot Chicken.
15 Storeys High
15 Storeys High was a British sitcom which ran on the BBC, first as a radio comedy on BBC Radio 4 and later as a fully-fledged TV series, following the life of Sean Lock’s semi-autobiographical lead Vince, a moody and reclusive man irked by everyday life, and his chirpy if naïve flatmate Errol, the MCU’S very own Benedict Wong. The show was a small, low-key affair adept at finding humour in the mundane idiosyncrasies of life in a South London tower block through sharp portraits of its inhabitants. Yes, it’s dark and often surreal to watch, but peppered with enough genuine wit and spark to make its dreary environs feel alive and textured. It might take you a while to get into it, especially if you’re used to broader, zippier American shows, but give it enough time and 15 Storeys High will reward you richly. It’s popped up on YouTube as of writing, although a DVD might be your best bet just to be safe. If you’re reading this and you were born post-2000, a DVD is something your grandparents used before they discovered Netflix. And fire.
A Touch of Cloth
There was a time when the sure-fire way to make sure a TV comedy gained almost no viewers or popularity whatsoever was to put it on Sky. Such was the fate of the beautifully named cop drama parody pun fest A Touch of Cloth, Charlie Brooker (yes, from Black Mirror) and David Maier’s answer to the better-known American spoof Police Squad!, (later to become the Naked Gun series of movies with Leslie Nielsen). With a cast split between police procedural specialists such as John Hannah and Suzanne Jones, and sitcom heavyweights like Julian Rhind-Tutt, the series mercilessly tore apart the tropes of the genre thanks to a well-observed script and some exquisite comic turns, especially from Hannah himself as the Eponymous D.I. Jack Cloth, the archetypal ‘broken-man’ of the cop show format. Immensely silly without becoming insufferably stupid, affectionate without being self-indulgent, ATOC provided the antidote to ITV’s unending stream of grey-laden procedurals and still makes me laugh more than almost anything else on TV. Although it’s now absurdly obscure, the box set is still available and is worth checking out, containing all three series of a show gone before it could truly ever be missed.
Look Around You
Before Robert Popper went on to write the immensely popular sitcom Friday Night Dinner and before Peter Serafinowicz was The Tick (besides a lot else), the two men worked together to create the eternal cult hit Look Around You for BBC Two. Parodying the spectacularly clunky tone and eye-gougingly banal production values of 1980s educational schools’ programmes, it covered topics from Water to Music, Ghosts to The Brain in its own uniquely surreal style. Everything is pitch perfect, from the stilted dialogue of its awkward presenters to its arbitrary locations and murderously unsettling soundtrack, so that viewers can sometimes become so immersed in the lie it creates that ‘facts’ such as the Beatles having a number one hit with ‘The Scarecrow Song’ or that there is a piece of lab equipment called a ‘Besselheim Plate’ can often go unnoticed, whilst gag’s such as the paradoxically named ‘St. Heathen’s Grammar School’ in Grantham can slip under the radar on first viewing. Particular fun can be had in watching science experiments unfold with almost no logical purpose, arbitrary quizzes which test completely unknowable information, and a colony of well-trained ants inexplicably building an igloo using tiny blocks of ice. Meticulously well-observed and eerily familiar to anyone who went through the British school system even now, it’s a startling achievement to find humour and warmth from such unfathomably soggy and banal kindling.
It’s hard to describe what Snuff Box is, let alone why you should invest any time into watching it. Spawned from the creative partnership of Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher after the two met whilst working on the more well-known The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box is a part-sitcom-part-sketch-show melange of surreal, slightly dark humour loosely plotted around a set of trivial circumstances. Set predominantly at the pair’s gentleman’s club for hangmen, it’s a lowkey exhibition of two immensely talented comic performers more than anything. Although it never gained The Boosh’s immense popularity, the series has built a steady cult following over the years and remains well-worth checking out, especially as the show’s sketch-like nature has made it easy to dig out choice skits and scenes on places like YouTube. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially if you’re coming to it off the back of watching the sitcom which ‘spawned’ it, but it will likely satisfy those Mighty Boosh fans who weren’t 14-year-old girls who wore fingerless gloves and dyed their hair purple.