Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Night They Drove Old Rigsby Down

Mention 'comedy' and 'ITV' together and you're guaranteed a laugh, though sarcasm is likely to be its main driving force. The commercial behemoth has never had a reputation as a comedic powerhouse, and things are as bad as ever at the moment, with a balding ex-doctor making catty remarks about Pam St Clement being the only thing on its books worth even mentioning, laughs-wise.

As it happens, I've done summat on the vexed topic of ITV comedy – concentrating on its Sunday output – for the latest edition of Kettering, the ever-loving magazine of elderly British comedy, available now from here, and you should get it for the vast amount of ace stuff I haven't been involved in, like the in-depth foray into Morecambe and Wise's Christmas specials, and the appraisal of the long-obscured World in Ferment. No salesman will call.

But delving into ITV's comedy output got me thinking – if, as everyone seems to agree, situation comedy is pretty much dead on the independent channel, what thoughtless action from Them Upstairs killed it off, and when? Here are a few suspects.

7.15PM May 17th 1981 – Bernard Cribbins comes out of his caravan

Lew Grade's never knowingly undersold ATV, by now not long for this world, decided to go for broke and plough everything – money, stars, technical talent – into Shillingbury Tales, a series of hour-long comedy films set in the eponymous chocolate box village, in which not-very-outrageous rock star Robin Nedwell and Diane Keen turned up to arouse the suspicions of locals Trevor Howard, Bernard Cribbins and Jack Douglas, but not for very long as they find out they all get along just fine in the end. And very lovely it was too – the perfect early evening, let-it-wash-over-you accompaniment to Shipham's potted meat spread sarnies, Mr Kipling French Fancies and perhaps a mint Club wafer (or, if wet, a Banjo). Lovely, that is, on occasion. But the mighty success of half-timbered hilarity gave ITV executives pause to muse: 'People like them, let's make some more of them. Actually, sod “some”. Make it “chuffing loads”.' No one appreciated the Pandora's box it had opened until it was too late, and Sunday teatimes became carpeted with Heartbeats, Kingdoms, Monarchs of the Glens and all manner of endlessly multiplying whimsical heritage froth, conspiring to make the modern televisual Sabbath an indigestible confection – all Battenberg and no crumpet.

9.30PM September 1st 1983 – Chas and Dave defect to the Beeb

If ever there was an archetypal ITV musical act, it was Chas and Dave. Their Christmas knees-up, housed in a fully mocked-up East End boozer at Teddington Studios, complete with working beer pumps but, crucially, no toilets – had Thames all over it, but they knocked a few sitcom themes off for the Euston Road mob too. The tunes they turned out are testament to the duo's musical versatility. Roy Kinnear building site comedy Cowboys was introduced by a stomping paean to the art of bodging ('If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong/With a nail too short and a screw too long'), with an oddly Kraftwerkian electro backing. Then came Leslie Ash advertising sitcom The Happy Apple, in which C'n'D summarised the programme's plot to the tune of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ('Oh, Nancy/Was a secretary/In an advertising agency…') Slightly more trad was the opener for LWT Askwith Unigate bawdry Bottle Boys. ('Milk, eggs and butter, got 'em all on the float/Anything you're short of, darling, leave us a note…') However, the Gertchameisters now began working for the other side, at the front end of Alf Garnett: the Next Generation, aka In Sickness and In Health, which was much more of a home game for the boys. ('But they don't give a monkey's down the DHSS…') Then came the retooled Crackerjack theme ('Oh, Uncle Jack!') and Snooker Loopy, which was practically a trailer for the Beeb's Crucible coverage, and that was that. Aside from a slight return to the third channel for the theme to floundering chimpanzee cartoon Bangers and Mash ('Mash and Bangers's clangers come about quite frequently…'), ITV lost its most distinctive light entertainment musical asset this side of Colin Keys. 'Bloody poorer, that's a fact!'

8.45PM January 9th 1985 – Prunella Gee takes six Valium and collapses into Penelope Keith's fireplace

The middle class mid-life crisis sitcom was the bane of ITV in particular during the 1980s – Holding the Fort, Pig in the Middle, It Takes a Worried Man, Chintz… chock full of bittersweet one-liners about mortgage arrears, sad-eyed faces peering forlornly across the breakfast table over unfurled gas bills, and balding character actors in cardigans sighing heavily by the hall table. There was obviously a market for this sort of thing, though God knows where it lived. The apotheosis of the glum genre has to be Moving, a none-more-1985 series about well-to-do couple Penelope Keith and – Mr Radio Four light drama himself – Ronald Pickup, er, trying to move house. Well, it's the third most traumatic event in one's life, you know. And, judging by this series, about the 675th funniest. But this was different from all the others, as it was a bit – whisper it – 'dark', featuring no studio audience and a sub-plot about Keith's sister – the great Ms Gee – being a Valium addict, hence the above laugh-free faint into the commercial break during the first episode. No Christmas special followed.

8.30PM September 3rd 1986Tripper's Day becomes Slinger's Day

The original was bad enough: what turned out to be Leonard Rossiter's final TV outing as the bowler-hatted manager of a supermarket which made Store Wars in Whizzer and Chips comic look like the height of social realism. Even the set looked hopelessly fake – quite an achievement, as the interior of a supermarket is possibly the one real life location that looks exactly like a studio set in the first place. After Rossiter's untimely death halfway through the screening of a second series that existed on the strength of his name alone, Thames madly decided the original premise was worth resurrecting on its own terms. Madder still, they picked Bruce Forsyth as Rossiter's replacement. Forsyth's acting skills, while not to be entirely dismissed, are perhaps the least important part of his formidable showbiz arsenal, and indeed, here he's constantly trying to turn a straight-down-the-middle sitcom into something approaching the light entertainment spectaculars he'd been hankering after since the overstuffed Bruce's Big Night slipped in a puddle and fell on its arse in front of the entire nation. You Bet! would eventually let him work his passage back from Play Your Cards Right purgatory, but not before Bruce had suffered through two helpings of this, and an ill-fated attempt to break America with Bill Grundy-produced game show Hot Streak, a televised mix of Articulate and Chinese Whispers which didn't take but did briefly get whooping Stateside audiences joining in with the 'nice to see you' catchphrase, which must count for something.

10.30PM July 3rd 1988
– ITV knocks satirical sitcoms on the head

1988 saw a lot of long-standing British comedy traditions come to an end. The Grumbleweeds breathed their last, on telly at least, meaning an end to people going 'rattle rattle, jewellery jewellery' and Bertice Reading trying to sing Stormy Weather with a straight face while 'the lads' prannied about behind her with air horns and gorilla suits. Fresh Fields was remade and remodelled as French Fields, with Sonia jettisoned, an accordion stuck on the theme tune and a string of garlic stuck on the set. And Central finally stopped repeating The Gaffer. For shame! Arguably even more tragic was the end of several years of satirical sitcoms which used to alternate with Spitting Image in ITV's 10PM 'naughty' slot, of which the greatest was surely Hot Metal, the manic tabloid newspaper romp with Robert Hardy in dual roles and Alan Price on vibes. Slightly less majestic but still great was Room at the Bottom, the story of put-upon light entertainment producer James Bolam, suffering at the sadistic hands of controller Keith Barron. When the second series of that came to a close, nothing worth mentioning really took its place, and though Spitting Image carried on a few more years, Sunday night appointment TV never really recovered.

10PM October 27th 1996Sometime, Never

And this is the sort of stuff that replaced it: a sitcom built, if you please, around the Philadelphia Girls, aka Sara Crowe and Ann Bryson, whose ditzy office temps of the sing-song estuary voices and the unhealthy obsession with that rubbery cheese spread that always smelt faintly of tarmac evoke the mid-1990s more completely than any Britpop mix tape or clip of John Major talking about cricket and parsnips. Amazingly, they were given two cracks at TV stardom off the back of those – in 1995 Channel Four stuck them behind desks for sixthirtysomething, an early evening round up of celebrity news delivered in tones of mild sarcasm, which was something fresh and original at the time, and not, as it is now, the unappetising gruel making up 80% of all telly ever. Then came this, a rather less original sitcom where the pair swapped run-of-the-mill observations on the tribulations of being the wrong side of thirty over a bottle of cooking sherry. After that: nothing. Funny, that.