British comedy

British comedy

British comedy, in film, radio and television, is known for its consistently quirky characters, plots and settings, and has produced some of the most famous and memorable comic actors and characters in the last fifty years.


Film comedy

British comedy films are legion, but among the most notable are the Ealing comedies, the 1950s work of the Boulting Brothers, and innumerable popular comedy series including the St Trinian's films, the "Doctor" series, and the long-running Carry On films. Some of the best known British film comedy stars include Will Hay, George Formby, Norman Wisdom, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and the Monty Python team. Other actors associated with British comedy films include Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Margaret Rutherford, Irene Handl and Leslie Phillips.

Recent successful films include the working class comedies Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997), the more middle class Richard Curtis-scripted films Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999) the pop-culture referencing Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and a movie based on a real life event The Boat That Rocked (2009).

See Cinema of the United Kingdom.


Radio comedy in Britain has been almost exclusively the preserve of the BBC, and a number of British radio comedies achieved considerable renown in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the 1940s and 1950s variety dominated the schedules, and popular series included ITMA and Much Binding in the Marsh. In the mid 1950s, however, two notable series emerged which would help to shape the future of radio and television comedy in Britain. The Goons (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe) starred in their own anarchic series The Goon Show which ran throughout the 1950s. At the same time, the BBC was also running Hancock's Half Hour starring Tony Hancock, the first of a new generation of comedies based on believable characters and situations. Hancock's Half Hour later transferred to TV and was phenomenally successful throughout the '50s, running concurrently on radio and television until 1960.

Another notable radio show was the double entendre-laden Round the Horne (1965–1968), a sequel to the earlier series Beyond Our Ken, which ran from 1959 to 1964.

Later radio shows made use of the panel game format, including the long-running Just a Minute (from 1967 to date) and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (from 1972). This in turn has influenced TV series like Have I Got News for You (from 1990) and They Think It's All Over (from 1995).

BBC Radio has continued to be a breeding ground for new talent and many programmes have transferred successfully to television in recent years, including Whose Line is it Anyway?, Goodness Gracious Me, Knowing Me, Knowing You and Little Britain.


Although many popular shows of recent years began life on BBC radio, there have been many successful and influential series which were designed purely for TV.

Following the success of Hancock's Half Hour, the sitcom became firmly entrenched in the television schedules. Some of the most successful examples include As Time Goes By, Steptoe and Son, Dad's Army, Keeping Up Appearances, The Likely Lads, Fawlty Towers, Allo Allo, The Good Life, Are You Being Served?, Yes Minister, Only Fools and Horses, Absolutely Fabulous, Red Dwarf, The Vicar of Dibley, Father Ted, Blackadder, One Foot in the Grave, Some Mothers Do Ave Em, Porridge, The Thin Blue Line, The Office, Coupling, Outnumbered and Game On.

The BBC has generally been dominant in television comedy, but the commercial stations have also had some successes. ITV's most successful sitcoms were generally produced in the 1970s, including Rising Damp, On the Buses, George and Mildred, Man About The House and the now unfashionable Love Thy Neighbour. Other BBC series are Early Doors with James McAvoy and Grandma's House with Simon Amstell.

Commercial station Channel 4 has been more successful than ITV with situation comedies in recent years. Some of the better-known examples are Chelmsford 123, Chance in a Million, Drop the Dead Donkey, Spaced, Father Ted, Black Books, Peep Show, Green Wing,The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, Shameless and Da Ali G Show.

Other formats have also been popular, with sketch shows, stand-up comedy, impressionists and even puppet shows finding success. Although impressionists experienced a lull in popularity in the 1990s, the recent success of Dead Ringers (another BBC radio cross-over) has been notable.

The most notable satirical comedies are the ground-breaking 1960s series That Was The Week That Was, ITV's controversial puppet show Spitting Image. British satire has also washed over into Quiz shows – popular examples include the news quiz Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week and music-based Never Mind The Buzzcocks.

One of the most influential sketch shows was Monty Python's Flying Circus, a comedy from the late 1960s and early seventies that introduced us to such luminaries as John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. The Pythons went on to produce several feature films and had a profound influence on British comedy. They themselves had been influenced by The Goons and Spike Milligan's Q series. Python found surprising popularity in the United States in the 1970s, as did the less cerebral humour of Benny Hill and his ITV sketch series The Benny Hill Show.

Other notable sketch-based series include Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, The Goodies, French and Saunders, Absolutely, Little Britain,The Catherine Tate Show and The Fast Show.

Vic Reeves Big Night Out influenced the style of a whole new generation of comics in the 1990s until the present day.[1]

The 1990s and 2000s have also seen the rise of a new set of British comedians who have made innovative contributions mainly in the form of sitcoms. Programmes such as Green Wing, Peep Show, Black Books, Spaced, Smack the Pony, Big Train, The Office, and Extras have used editing, surreal humour and cultural references to great effect. A loose clique of stars, including Simon Pegg, Dylan Moran, Jessica Stevenson, Mark Heap, Ricky Gervais, Tamsin Greig and Bill Bailey have revolved around these series, with the most obvious acknowledgement of this coming in the scene in the film Shaun of the Dead when the two groups of survivors troop past each other, with cameos galore.

See also


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