Trawling the archives of the last 30 or so years of British comedy has, for the most part, been a pleasure. I’ve discovered shows I didn’t know existed, unearthed gems which were completely side-lined by the cultural mainstream, and reintroduced myself to the glory of the likes of Nathan Barley and Marion and Geoff. I haven’t seen sunlight in days and I think I’ve started to develop rickets, but overall, the search has been worth it.
The problem is that while pigs may become adept at snuffling for truffles in the comedy forest, they’re also prone to unearth the odd heaving turd whose obscurity is likely merited.
That said, these are the 10 British comedies which really need to stay buried.
It’s often been wondered that, given the nation’s heritage of great print comics and great sense of humour, why the twain have rarely ever met on TV in the form of a great British cartoon. Whilst the Americans churn adult animated shows out with startling proficiency, the drawn image is a medium we in the British Isles have consistently and wilfully eschewed. If you were wondering why that’s historically been the case, PopeTown might just be your answer.
I was about three episodes into PopeTown when I had the startling realisation of exactly why I wasn’t laughing; there simply aren’t any jokes in it. There are no witty ripostes, no gags, no puns, no wordplay, no social faux-pas, no slapstick gags, nothing. It’s just a series of things happening, none of which are even remotely amusing, predicated on the incredibly thin joke that the Pope is in fact a spoiled brat who likes pogo sticks and hates bathing.
That’s the strange paradox about PopeTown; it bills itself as a controversial show so divisive it never even made it to air, and then proceeds to be as childishly inoffensive and laugh-free as the worst offering on CITV. PopeTown isn’t offensive to Catholics, it’s offensive to anyone with even the most basic modicum of taste.
Oh, my sweet Lord, where to even start with Blessed?
There are times in all walks of life and all forms of art where someone clearly capable of such genius puts out a work that is so reprehensibly bad you cannot comprehend how the two contrasting ends of the spectrum can possibly co-exist. How can a person of such talent be capable of such utter mediocrity? Or vice-versa.
Starring Ardal O’Hanlon and Mel Giedroyc as a couple struggling to bring up two young kids, its setup, format and pacing are classically that of a standard multi-camera sitcom, but with the striking omission of a live studio audience or canned laughter. This serves to create an unbearably hollow and mismatched tone, with lots of clunky ‘gags’ playing out to complete silence. Not that any sane studio audience would’ve been laughing anyway.
Blessed is bad in every possible sense. Despite some truly talented people behind and in front of the camera, it is howlingly, achingly, painfully unfunny. Ben Elton wrote on The Young Ones and was responsible for the best series of Blackadder, so it’s not right to vilify him as a bad writer, but before his resurgence with Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow, the mid-2000s were not kind to poor Ben, with Blessed a quite astonishing nadir. It is absolutely rotten.
Aside from all the glaring issues with the script and the actors who clearly don’t have any faith in it, the problem with the show’s main conceit is that it just isn’t funny. Children aren’t funny, and the trials and tribulations of raising them are only ever amusing to a small target audience. As a viewer, it’s just alienating and strange to have to watch constant scenes of breast-feeding and people in snot-covered garments before you feel like you’re going either to be sick or placed on some sort of register. I’ve watched shows which make me cringe, but I’ve never seen a sitcom which made me feel like such a disgusting voyeur. Watching Blessed is about as comfortable as sitting on a landmine.
Pompidou was, for a time, one of lowest rated shows on Netflix. That is practically the summit of its achievements.
Cited as being a new entry into Britain’s illustrious silent comedy tradition, the show was interminable from beginning to end, with Lucas doing his best to bumble and gurn his way through a half hour time slot with nobody on the show seemingly having any idea as to why the comedians and acts which apparently inspired Pompidou were so revered. The likes of Chaplin and Keaton could be unbelievably funny through the subtlest physical gestures and also capable of great pathos and tragedy, yet directors Hanson and Lucas seem to think that the secret to silent comedy is large slapstick gags interspersed with incomprehensible dialogue performed as though out of the mouth of a stroke victim begging for the ambulance to be called
It’s a shame that the series was so derided, because it takes guts to put out something which goes against mainstream expectations, and I really do regard Lucas as a huge comic talent when on song, but even he must have trouble in defending what is, essentially, the indefensible.
Pompidou is essentially watching an educationally disadvantaged man-baby struggle to complete the most basic of daily tasks in the most gut-wrenchingly unfunny ways imaginable. It doesn’t make you laugh. It makes you feel sad.
The things I watch, honestly.
The best I can say about ‘Orrible, is that it made me miserable from practically the opening two minutes of episode one. I think there’s a plot in there somewhere, but honestly I can’t remember and unless you have quite literally nothing better to do with your time, an explanation of ‘Orrible would only serve to waste it. It’s set in Acton, West London, with Johnny Vaughan and Ricky Grover as a couple of cockney wheeler-dealer types. You need know no more.
Everything about the show is a lesson in sub-mediocrity. The script is remarkably flat, compounded by weak acting and unconvincing delivery, to the extent that you often have to remind yourself that this is actually billed as a comedy. None of the characters are in any way charismatic, interesting or likeable, least of all the two leads, behaving like the sort of wideboy tools you wouldn’t want to be stuck in the same postcode as. The storylines are thin, the pace is dull and bland, and even the settings and locations serve to make a person feel depressed and morose.
If laddish tropes of manhood were being cleverly subverted, or there was an interesting social commentary about class or masculinity running in the background, there might have an interesting angle off which to hang proceedings. Yet there’s no sense of anything close to the show having any self-awareness or ideas beyond the superficial and banal. It’s like being down the worst dead-end boozer or working men’s club in the country with a flat pint and a pack of dry peanuts staring into the abyss and wondering what went wrong. Truly soul-crushing.
Bob Mortimer as a creator and main writer? Good. Calling a sketch show…that. Not so good. Mortimer and Jill Parker’s female-led sketch show did have some signs pointing in the right direction; decent writers, good performers and a slot of BBC Three which would allow for a degree of boundary-pushing creative freedom. It even gained some half-decent reviews (in amongst the bad ones) and ran for three whole series, which for this list pretty much makes it a British institution.
But how many of us sit down of an evening to dig out our favourite Tittybangbang sketches from the archives, or cradle our Tittybangbang DVD as we snuggle up beneath our Tittybangbang duvet cover set with matching pyjamas? No, it’s not fair to say TBB is actively bad, and there are certainly some moments of genuine promise, such as stand-out Lucy Montgomery’s ‘Don’t Look at me I’m Shy’ Italian maid, but the show feels like a series of half-decent premises confidently performed but always lacking in a decent script. In the end, there’s only so much loud, aggressively raunchy comedy a person can take before it starts feeling like being slapped over the head repeatedly by Barbara Windsor’s tits.
6. Sam’s Game
There are some TV casting choices which stretch the bounds of credulity, but being told that Davina McCall was once in a prime-time British sitcom is like finding out that Gemma Collins used to present Newsnight.
It’s never a good idea to try to imitate Friends. It’s so immensely popular even now that any attempts to reinvent the recipe which gave us one of the most successful TV shows of all time are going to look like pale imitations by comparison. And pale doesn’t even cover Sam’s Game.
In fairness to Davina, she’s not actually that bad as an actor, and Ed Byrne certainly commits to his role as a dozy long-haired slacker, but there is so little to recommend Sam’s Game to anyone aside from the mere curiosity of watching what possessed any sane commissioning editor to think that the show was a good idea in the first place. It’s not as aggressively offensive or as some of the other entries on this list, and at times I found myself desperately wanting to like Sam’s Game, such is its good-natured banality, but my powers of imagination can only stretch so far.
Despite the fact that it’s been almost completely buried in the sands of time, possibly by design, you can find it playing on Amazon Prime. Which begs the question; what on Earth are Amazon Prime doing streaming an old Davina McCall sitcom? Maybe they couldn’t stretch to all 10 seasons of Friends and thought no-one would notice.
7. Big Top
You know what, I can excuse Sam’s Game for its bland form of chirpy mediocrity. But I can’t, and won’t, excuse Big Top.
Billed as a classic family-friendly sitcom, Big Top followed the travelling ‘Circus Maestro’ as it tries to keep things on an even-keel despite the weakness of its performers and a serious lack of funds. Fronted by Amanda Holden, it was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end, panned viciously by critics and even hated by a viewing public who can have a tendency to turn a blind eye to such awfulness. Not even the dimmest audience member could be impressed by Big Top, and when you’re resorting to having special appearances from the likes of The Krankies, things aren’t looking so rosy.
There are some members of the cast you feel really should’ve been above the show. Tony Robinson was in Blackadder for goodness’ sake. John Thomson was in the Fast Show and used to work with the likes of Steve Coogan. Amanda Holden, meanwhile, probably found her level with Big Top.
A sitcom set in a circus could’ve been a chance for some lightweight comic mayhem, but like the worst of shows everything just falls completely flat, often revolving around members of the cast standing around feeding one another bad set-ups with unrewarding and obvious pay-offs like amateur dramatists at the readthrough of a village panto. Big Top could’ve worked given a decent script, but the main conceit of the show seems to have been an excuse to see Amanda Holden prance around in a Ringmaster’s outfit complete with tights and black hotpants. No thanks.
8. Bromwell High
The purpose of school is to grow as an individual, find your identity and question everything in the pursuit of knowledge. Bromwell High certainly had me asking questions. Questions like “What is this?”, “Why is this happening?” and “What can I do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?” Billed as ‘The adventures of three students and their inept teachers at a London high school’, this third-rate cartoon series only ran for a single season in 2005 before being consigned to the scrapheap.
Bromwell High does little to undermine the view that the British haven’t really mastered the adult animated format. In fact, the show seems to suffer from the same afflictions as PopeTown; a complete lack of wit, humour and direction compounded by the sort of art style that makes you regret having sight. Honestly, British cartoons are often ugly, but Bromwell High is about as attractive as a gangrenous wound. It looks like the sort of thing you’d make on Paint back when you were 11, and that’s doing a disservice to Paint.
It doesn’t hold a strong overall rating on IMDB, but there are a few positive reviews. To quote one avid fan; ‘South Park may not be funny but this is and so is Family Guy.’ He then goes on to say of the show’s detractors; “if you spend all your time watching television and criticizing them then you have no LIFE.” Touché.
If you want proof that we live in a Godless, unjust universe, consider the fact that Sheridan Smith’s BBC 3 sitcom Grownups managed 22 whole episodes before its ultimate demise. 15 Storeys High only got 12.
The thing about sitcoms is that the best ones look and feel smooth and effortless and the worst are as hard work as painting the Sistine Chapel with your tongue. The cheap look of the show coupled with its clunky, undercooked script seemingly comprised of bits deemed too poor even for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps are so jarring that it often feels like one of those sitcoms used to teach foreigners another language, full of lots of empty spaces and tortured set-ups, with characters feeding the jokes to one another as naturally as hostage negotiators participating in a particularly tense standoff.
In fact, Grownups doesn’t so much tell jokes as inject them into your eyeballs with a big neon needle, and some gags are about as painful as putting your hand in a blender. Comedy and sex are inherently intertwined, but laboured jokes about characters’ tiresome sexual frustrations just come off as tacky and boring. It’s like a cool teacher trying to be laddy with some of the sixth-formers. It’s lazy, forced and embarrassing, which in retrospect, might have been a better name for the show.
10. The Wright Way
Remember when I said that Blessed was the nadir of Ben Elton’s career? Well, it’s got serious competition in the form of The Wright Way, an incredibly misguided sitcom centring on David Haig as an overly uptight health and safety director living with his daughter and her girlfriend. Imagine.
It’s one of those shows that I’d like to mock mercilessly, but doing so just makes me feel sad. It’s like picking on a sickly bird that can’t fight back, tired and defenceless from all of the ribbing it’s received during its short and miserable life. I want to take shows like The Wright Way home with me and nurse them back to health and tell them that I love them even if no-one else does. Or stomp on their heads so that they don’t suffer anymore. Google ‘The Wright Way’ for clips and you’re directed to a series of workouts with reality star Mark Wright. It really comes to something when I’d rather watch those instead.
In fairness to Elton, he never, ever stops trying, and although lesser men might have decided that the magic truly had deserted them when they saw the reviews for The Wright Way, he’s continually sought out the latest project in an attempt to turn things around. I think that’s admirable.