10 Neglected British Comedy Series

Introduction

This article is aimed primarily at those interested in acquainting themselves with the riches of British television comedy. Generally there are two types of series the adventurous viewer will want to avoid: those that are too local in flavour to appeal to non-British (e.g. Only Fools and Horses) and those that are already very well known abroad (e.g. Fawlty Towers). The selections in this article are chosen to avoid both pitfalls.

15 Storeys High

If I had to choose a single thing that British comedies are perfect at doing, it would have to be the creation of truly misanthropic characters that are yet strangely pathetic. In the lineage of Basil Fawlty and Blackadder is Vince. Vince is a disturbed man who steals stories from others and retells them as his own, gets interior decorating ideas from pornographic magazines and pretends to know the people asked for by wrong number phone callers. He is consistently rude and insensitive, and presents a bleak worldview.

15 Storeys High begins with Vince taking a roommate in his apartment, his polar opposite the naïve and gentle pushover Errol. The comedy is character-drive, generated from the bizarre situations these extreme personalities get themselves into as well as how they react to one another. Punctuating the storylines of Vince and Errol are bizarre vignettes of other residents of the apartment block that rarely have any connection to the main narrative and that rarely have a punchline.

Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe

Charlie Brooker, television's self-consciousness incarnate
Charlie Brooker, television's self-consciousness incarnate

Without a doubt the most important, intelligent series on British television, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe is a television show all about television. Much of Screenwipe consists in Brooker's hilarious analyses of individual television series as well as current trends in television. His commentaries on shows he dislikes are harsh, acerbic, downright rude, but highly witty. Occasionally Brooker arranges amusing tableaux of how television works behind-the-scenes, usually culminating in a fellatio joke or two. While much of the television covered is British television, American television will sometimes be covered; and there is an episode dedicated just to American television.

Update: Since first writing this article, Brooker has supplemented Screenwipe with Newswipe. Newswipe is conceptually the same as Screenwipe. Brooker turns a critical eye to how news programs represent the latest news stories not to illuminate the stories but to illuminate the ridiculous processes of newscasting. Brooker finds much absurdity; hilarity ensues.

Big Train

From the writers behind the popular series Father Ted comes this much wittier and more subtle sketch comedy, with the now-familiar-to-Americans face of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) in the cast. Rather than dealing in punchlines, Big Train presents one bizarre, sometimes surreal, situation after another, drawing comedy from the understated: A group of hypnotists who can't make a woman quite smoking call in an evil hypnotist for help; an intergalactic tyrant, based on Ming the Merciless, relaxes at home, watches TV, cleans up; an Antiques Roadshow appraiser overvalues trinkets to seduce the old women who brought them. The first season also includes an on-going staring contest championship complete with commentators.

The Day Today

The Day Today is a surrealistic fake news show that makes up absurd stories, reports on the mundane, tricks people on the street into giving disturbing opinions, and generally satires various news tropes--such as the graphics-gone-wild approach of modern news and the aggressive anchorman. Combined with the audacious, over-the-top nature of some of the stories is the understated dialogue that will slip by the unattentive.

The Day Today is the ideal entry into the comedy of two of the most important comedy writers in Britain, Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci. Where Iannucci has become more mainstream, with his recent film In the Loop, Morris has developed an idiosyncratic style of dark comedy that reached its perfection in Jam. The Day Today also happens to have introduced the character of Alan Partridge, around whom an entire series--and a successful one--has been crafted.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

Garth Marenghi's Dark Place is simultaneously both very smart and very silly. This is perhaps due to the series' multiple levels of narrative. The main narrative regards the twenty year anniversary of a fictional television series called "Darkplace" written by a self-important horror fiction writer (a parody of authors like Stephen King) named Garth Marenghi and produced by his agent Dean Lerner--both of whom star in the series--which occasions a retrospective and re-airing of the episodes. This retrospective includes introductions to the episodes by Marenghi and some occasional interviews.

Taking up most of the screentime, however, are the episodes of Darkplace themselves. Exaggerations of awful '80s television, each episode features extraordinarily bad acting (particularly Dean Lerner's), ludicrous plots, politically incorrect behaviour and dialogue, continuity errors galore and an overall sense of the cheap and contrived. One might expect this concept to lose its novelty after the first episode or two, but every episode exceeds the last, pushing the boundaries further; and with only six episodes in the series, it doesn't have time to become stale.

Snuff Box

Midway between sketch comedy and sitcom, Snuff Box concerns the lives of two hangmen, friends, members of an excluve hangmen's club, and devoted misanthropes, one American (Rich Fulcher) and the other, his boss, British (Matt Berry, who can also be seen in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace). The series consists of mostly unconnected sketches in which these characters find themselves in bizarre situations, like getting beaten by shop attendants for trying to buy silver cowboy boots. Some situations recurr, such as making light of their hangings, offending old men in the hangman's club, Matt offering to help women then breaking their stuff when they mention a boyfriend. Snuff Box is highly recommended for those with a darker sense of humor and a taste for alternative comedy.

How Do You Want Me?

Irish standup comedian Dylan Moran's first comedy series is the dramedy How Do You Want Me?, in which Moran plays a cityboy who marries a countrygirl (Charlotte Coleman) and moves with her back to the country. Comedy derives from the open hatred Moran's father-in-law (Frank Finlay), an important man in the village, bears for him, Moran's uninhibited rudeness, and the inept attempts of Moran to integrate himself into the country lifestyle. Added to this is Mark Heap (who can be seen in Big Train) as the coworker and still-in-love ex-boyfriend of Moran's wife and Peter Serafinowicz (the voice of Darth Maul) as her insane and bullyish brother.

The great Mitchell and Webb
The great Mitchell and Webb

That Mitchell and Webb Look

That Mitchell and Webb Look is a sketch comedy series written and performed by David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who also make the very popular series Peep Show. However, I've decided to draw attention instead to That Mitchell and Webb Look, because it's less likely to be known to foreign audiences than Peep Show and also because it puts the Mitchell and Webb humour, sans storylines, much more sharply on display.

Highlights include the history of numberwang (an invented gameshow with incomprehensible rules), the Adventures of Angel Summoner and BMX Boy, and an incredibly rude elitist in a variety of guises who takes on modern informality with vicious monologues.

Respectable

While Respectable is what one might call a dramedy series with a heart, don't let that be a deterrant: this series has a sharp wit and is arguably quite tasteless. Michael, a meek man in a loveless marriage with no joy or excitement in his life decides to try a brothel. Too shy to ask for sex, he decides to just talk to the prostitute Hayley, with whom he falls in love. So Michael has to balance his desire to spend time with Hayley and his suburban, mundane life at home.

The peculiar cast of characters filling the brothel, such as Yelena the aggressive, Serbian prostitute, and the events that transpire behind the scenes, as it were, in the brothel provide amusement. In addition to this is Barry, a constant customer at the brothel, with whom Michael becomes a reluctant friend. In Barry's words, they are the "two whoresmen of the apussylips." Awkward moments provide some of the now-typical British humor more strongly on display in The Office.

Would I Lie to You?

Would I Lie to You? proves an excellent entry into the British panel show, a style of comedy series rather unique to Britiain. A series of celebrities, mostly comedians, are invited as guests on the series. Two team captains--both well-known comedians (in this case one of whom is David Mitchell, from Mitchell and Webb)--are present each time. The host then asks questions in a some contrived gameshow style games in which the objective is more to be funny than to actually win the game.

In the case of Would I Lie to You? the setup is to take unusual stories, some from current events and some from the lives of the guests and team captains, and have the teams try figure out which are lies. The setup and the attempts to figure out which are truths and which are lies generally allow hilarity to ensue: and indeed it does.

Other series of this nature worth looking into are the much more popular (and admittedly superior) Q.I. and the news-oriented Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You. Also recommended is Room 101, in which various comedians and C-list celebrities are invited to argue that various things they hate deserve to be placed in 'room 101' (i.e. removed from existence) while the host comedian makes light.

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Comments 21 comments

JennaJackson profile image

JennaJackson 7 years ago

As an American who fell in love with British comedy and the day to day British humour when living in Windermere, I appreciate your hub more than you will know.

It really is a shame we do not have more of these great shows playing on t.v. here in the U.S. Brilliant humour!


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 7 years ago Author

Awesome, you even spell 'humour' the British way.

Thanks for your comment, Jenna! I got into British humour thanks to youtube and buying whatever DVD sets I could get in Canada. I envy your getting to live there, though.

Cheers!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

I recognise a couple of those...really enjoyed Big Train and Mitchell and Webb [also loved Peep Show [Mitchell and Webb again]...did you catch that in Canada?

Don't whether these titles are familiar to you, but I loved

The League of Gentlemen, [from which, incidentally, Little Britain ripped off some of their ideas] and Spaced but my big favourite is I am Not an Animal.

The story begins at "Vivi-sec" a scientific laboratory where a group of animals have been humanised for experimental purposes. They live sheltered, civilised lives there...playing board games, reading, drinking cups of tea. One stormy night they are *rescued* by Animal Liberation...all hell breaks loose and they end up on their own, trying to make their way to London, which they imagine to be the mecca of sophisticated culture but end up in a farmhouse pretending to be humans.

Some of the characters include:

An intellectual horse with literary pretensions

A sluttish mouse

A romantic dog who idolises Tim Robbins

A right-wing sparrow who makes a splash on youtube with his music videos.

An affable monkey.

There was an arrogant, sarcastic cat but he was decapitated during an experiment.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hi Jane,

Yes, I've seen the whole of Peep Show. It's funny in a cringe-inducing way, like The Office crossed with Seinfeld. I'm convinced the main character, Mark, is mentally ill.

I haven't seen much of The League of Gentlemen. I watched the series finale two years ago and that was it. Very weird and dark stuff. It didn't make me laugh, but I still want to see more.

And I Am Not an Animal is all new to me. Not sure how that slipped past my radar. I'll certainly be looking into it now. Thanks for the heads-up!

Cheers!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Mark is the sensible one! Lol. He's ok, he's just frustrated because not much in his life is how he would like it to be.He can't get his *real self* connected to the outside world.

League of Gentlemen is very weird and dark that's for sure, yet there's a cohesion to all the stories...it's actually one big intricate story. Royston Vasey is the bubbling underbelly...the dark underneath of suburban normality, where all the neurosis are. Its brilliant.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

I see Mark has you fooled as he has the rest of the world. But not I. ;)

Have you seen Yes, Minister? I think Mark is mad in the same way Sir Humphrey Appleby is in Yes, Minister. He seems normal until you start to really think about the choices he makes and the things he says/thinks. What you say is true, though. It's just that he's kinda responsible for things not going as he desires in his life.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Well if you're gonna get moralistic about it...

I just learned the makers of League of Gentlemen has brought out a new series..*Psychoville* which looks promising.


Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

I'm a huge fan of "Father Ted", the bizarre and the surreal, so I must check out "Big Train". Actually all of your picks look excellent. I recently devoured the entire "League of Gentlemen" series, so I'm hungry for more of the sophisticated silly stuff you can only get from the British comedies. Thanks Arthur.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Another League of Gentlemen fan. I'm going to have to watch that one soon. Any one of these shows can be sampled on youtube, I think.

Incidentally, I notice you were a television writer. That's awesome! I've spent so many hours of my life on television I must have seen some show you wrote for at some point.


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

The only ones I have seen are Mitchell and Webb, ( and the long gone but not forgotten "Father Ted" and "Fawlty Towers" ) -- I wish they'd show more of these on BBC -- sounds like a great deal of fun!!!!


the pink umbrella profile image

the pink umbrella 6 years ago from the darkened forest deep within me.

I took british and american humor as an elective in highschool. I was so excited because the only thing i had ever seen was monty python and the holy grail, and flying circus. Well that's what we ended up watching every single day for a whole semester. We watched it so much that i started skipping class but it didn't matter because the teacher had a strick everyone gets an a policy. I mean seriouly, he ruined those two for me. Im pretty sure the man knew nthing of brittish humor and just picked two widely known movies and force fed them to us every day.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

carolina muscle: I watched them all on youtube, actually. A few are available on DVD, but I've never seen any of them on TV. At the very least youtube provides a way to sample them before buying.

Cheers!


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey Pinkie,

Sounds like you got ripped off with that course. There are plenty of worthwhile books on comedy, including one written by John Cleese. Then there are the stand-up comedians like Eddie Izzard, written comedy like Douglas Adams, and the various shows I mention here. No excuse to only show Monty Python.

But then, it was high school. In my high school we didn't even get a choice of the courses we took. When I was in high school I would have loved a class of just watching Monty Python and getting an A no matter what. College, where you pay for courses, I took a lot more seriously and thankfully so do the professors.

Cheers!


joachim 6 years ago

Hey Arthur,

great list. Thanks!

My favourite all time was "The Mighty Boosh". It was something like a cult because it had as many people who hated it as much as loved it. Also if panel shows are your cup of tea, may I suggest "Never Mind The Buzzcocks".

cheers,

joachim


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey Joachim,

I have to admit The Mighty Boosh doesn't make me laugh. But I know a lot of folks who like it.

Yep, Nevermind the Buzzcocks is very funny, especially once Simon Amstell took over. I'm not so keen on the Mark Lamar days. Other panel shows worth watching are 8 out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week, Would I Lie to You, and Charlie Brooker's You Have Been Watching.

Cheers!


Antonius Blockk profile image

Antonius Blockk 6 years ago from L'Etats Unis

Nice Hub. Have you ever seen "Jam"?


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey Antonius,

Thanks. Yeah, I've seen some of "Jam". It's funny and yet kinda disturbing. I always feel like having a shower after watching it--but it's worth it. I don't think there's anything else even remotely like it. The closest thing I've seen to "Jam" anywhere is the Kids in the Hall sketch 'Sausages' and maybe the Mr. Creosote episode of The Meaning of Life.

Cheers!


reddders1 5 years ago

love the hubs Arthur, keep them coming esp the dark stuff, check out the inbetweeners if you've not already, a cross between american pie and peep show.


Charby 5 years ago from Edinburgh/Newcastle, United Kingdom

I live in Britain and always have yet am amazed to have not seen or heard of half of these! I know what I'm doing this weekend! I echo your love of Mitchell and Webb, but would say that That Mitchell and Webb Sound on the radio is probably better than That MItchell and Webb Look, but a lot of the sketches are the same. Have you seen 10 o'clock Live yet?


Mock The Week 5 years ago

These are absolutely brilliant. I'm just going through Snuff Box -that is a classic.


Bill in the Colonies 4 years ago

I was just introduced to "Would I Lie to You?" last weekend when my wife and I visited our daughter and son-in-law and they shared it with us via YouTube. I haven't laughed so hard and long and had such a good time in ages. But I was bitterly disappointed when I tried to buy the series in DVD form online and found that only Season 4 was available and it was in non-US format. I think producing comedy on that scale and not making it available to those of us who live in the...um...ex-Colonies is just spiteful. It's obvious that the BBC is still holding a grudge against us for that little tiff we had back in the late 1700s. Do we need to declare war on Britain to get access to all of those shows, past, present, and future?

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