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The Best of Cult UK TV Comedy

Updated on January 9, 2012

Everybody knows the classic British comedy shows: Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Blackadder and I'm Alan Partridge, to name a few. Even if you don't find them funny, I'm sure you've heard of them. But there are many funny shows that have been overlooked down the years. The reasons are numerous, from the shows failing to gain a mass appeal, through to the stars moving on and wanting to do something else. This article, with the help of some examples from youtube will hopefully bring some exposure to the comedy that deserves to make more people laugh. These are just a few cult shows that I felt needed a mention and most of them are available on DVD, check them out if you like the clips I've posted. I know there any many more shows that I've missed out. If you think I've left one out and want to mention a decent UK comedy show that deserves more exposure, use the comment box at the bottom of the article.

Big Train

Big Train is a surreal sketch show written by Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan; the writers best known for creating the successful Channel Four sitcom Father Ted. It ran for two series from 1998-2002 and featured a now very well known cast featuring the likes of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing), among other recognisable comedy faces.

The show, is superbly written, as you would expect from Matthews and Linehan. It is a departure from their previous character driven Father Ted, as the sketches are numerous and didn't recur as much as the sketch show format usually demands. The sketches themselves are brave and some are down right bizarre, but on many occasions work only because of the dead pan way in which the superb cast deliver their lines, as if playing out a kitchen sink sitcom.

The clip I've chosen from the show uses this technique to hilarious effect. The formal way in which the voice over delivers his wildlife style dialogue, contrasts perfectly with the ludicrous scene that plays out. This is surreal comedy at its best.

The Day Today

Running for only one series in 1994, The Day Today remains an influential satire on modern news, and is still relevant today. The show is fronted by Chris Morris  as he anchors a series of reports and sketches in the style of a daily news programme. Like the actual news we are introduced to correspondents on a range of issues from sports to finance. Unlike the actual news, the stories are fictional and very funny (e.g Dogs being used as bombing devices in town centres, see below).

Like Big Train, the programme introduces us to familiar faces of the UK TV comedy circuit. Steve Coogan plays a variety of characters but most notably makes his debut as Norwich based reporter Alan Partridge and Rebecca Front makes a typically brilliant cameo as part of the ensemble cast.

The Day Today is a success from the first overly dramatic title sequence and continues in the same vein. It is primarily a satire on the way in which news is reported but it is the variety of comedy on show that makes this a timeless classic essential for any DVD collection. Morris went on to front the channel 4 spoof current affairs show Brasseye, itself a very influential programme, but one that has it's roots firmly in The Day Today.

The Armando Ianucci Shows

Armando Ianucci has an extremely impressive comedy CV. He has been involved with some of the best British television comedy ever made, including the aforementioned The Day Today. His other works include I'm Alan Partridge, Time trumpet and The thick of it, all of which he contributed to writing. However Ianucci is not very well known as a screen presence despite being very funny in his own right, his television exposure has mainly been limited to panel shows and guest appearances.

In 2001 The Armando Ianucci shows allowed him to take the lead in a series of surreal sketches and monologues, loosely exploring a particular theme each programme. The freedom that Ianucci has here is on show throughout as he is uncompromising with his material. As a result he himself cites this channel 4 programme as the work he is most proud of. Despite being a collaborative show it has all the hallmarks of Armando Ianucci's writing style: a unique mixture of the social satirical commentary and the absurd. This blend has made Ianucci one of the most consistently funny writers around. 

The clip below comments on his own social awkwardness and I think demonstrates all of the reasons why this is a show that deserved a lot more exposure than it got. 

We Need Answers

We Need Answers first caught the eye at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, where festival regulars Mark Watson, Tim Key and Alex Horne used the 63336 text answers service to create a quiz. After two successful runs the show was picked up by the BBC and has this year finished it's second series.

Airing on BBC four We Need Answers invites two celebrity guests to play against each other and answer questions very loosely based on a theme such as 'Women (and Steven Gerrard)', 'Love (and sleeping around)' and 'Music and Fauna and Smut.' Each programme has a variety of rounds culminating in the house prize showdown where the winning guest gets to win a prize that is taken from a house of one of the presenters.

This show is in the mould of 'Shooting Stars' in that the quiz element of the game is just a device for laughs, usually at the expense of the guests. The three presenters each have their own personalities that complement each other nicely which makes for a really good atmosphere for the show. Nothing is taken too seriously and this is part of it's charm. The set is cheap, the questions are ridiculous and no-one really learns anything but most importantly its hilarious. A BBC two airing is long overdue.

Monkey Dust

One of BBC Three's early programmes, Monkey Dust covered themes that most comedy programmes wouldn't touch. This animated sketch show is set in a nocturnal urban world where darkness is the order of the night, in all respects. These separate sketches, although animated in very different ways, are stitched together by being part of the same dimly lit world. It is a world where murder, paedophilia and crime are all addressed, but despite this heavy material the show still retains its twisted humour.

Monkey Dust is a show designed for anyone who has ever watched a black comedy animation and liked it. Yet it still remains faithful to the tried and tested method of putting a sketch show together. There are several recurring sketches including Clive Pringle, a man who returns to his wife late, only to use well known stories as an excuse for his lateness, in order to cover up the sickening truth (see below), and Ivan Dobsky, a criminal wrongly accused in the 70s for a series of murders, failing to adjust to 21st century life. So much so that he commits crimes to get himself back in prison. However there are also one off sketches to keep each episode fresh. 

Because of it's contentious content this programme will not be for everyone, but if you don't mind a bit of dark humour then you'll love it.


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