This one goes out to my friends who have recently arrived in the UK, and want to understand the second most importance quality of Britishness: comedy. The most important quality is, of course, violence, but a visit to a pub in any major city on a Saturday night will cover the basics.
Like Frankie Boyle, I’ve eliminated stand-up from the reckoning – British stand-up is a throwback to less enlightened time, when a bloke mouthing off in the corner was in some way interesting. I’ve got for TV situation comedies, because throughout the ages, this is the medium that combined sharp humour and accessibility. In the 1970s, Fawlty Towers combined traditional hatred of foreigners and sexual repression to represent the post-hippy generation, which had some big dreams of changing the world but ending up with the Common Market and unhappy marriages. In the 1980s, The Young Ones reflected the rise of ‘alternative comedy’ which mashed up a more political focus with Alexei Sayle doing a funny voice in a pork-pie hat. Father Ted probably said something about the secularisation of culture in the 1990s, although it occasionally descended into a version if the classic British ‘Irish Joke’.
However, enough with the justifications. Here’s our winners…
With anything starring either Ricky Gervais or Stephen Fry disqualified on the grounds that the pair of them forgetting that their role was court-jester and not public philosopher, Black Books retains a charm due to the interplay of the three main characters, its sardonic celebration of alcoholism (probably Britishness’ third great quality), melancholic reflections on the rise of accelerated capitalism and, really, Bernard.
Bernard remains Dylan Moran’s greatest moment. Marinated in alcohol, erudite and caustic, he seemed ill-employed as a petty bourgeois book-seller, longing to get away from work to spend more time with wine and misanthropy. Like all great British sitcoms, Black Books ran for a few series: if, like The Office, it had been adapted for American TV, Bernard’s inevitable descent into complete bitterness and substance abuse would have been chronicled. But the still youthful Moran lent Bernard a charm that managed to hide the horrible truth: every bar in Glasgow has a Bernard, after his business collapses, propping up the bar and telling people about how he used to know loads of famous people and, after the third, spiralling into a depression that usually ends up with Britain’s Top Quality, usually against women who are creeped out by his attentions.
In his relationships with Manny (Bill Bailey and his terrible haircut) and Fran (a strong female character who, unlike the women in Gervais’ comedies, had her own stories), Bernard presented the version of the alcoholic that every aging loser believes is his true personality: born for a better age, railing against the dying of culture and sexually magnetic. It’s ironic that an Irish comedian captures the quintessential delusion of the British male longing for empire.
Admittedly, Simon Pegg has gone on to be immensely disappointing: the films that he made with Edgar Wright celebrated a boorish masculinity – most notably in World’s End, when the right to get pissed and fight was set up as better than universal harmony and mistaken for ‘freedom’. Unlike the films, Spaced has a strong female lead – Jessica Stevenson and a rich supporting cast. Again, keeping it short (two series) kept the show fresh: unlike Peep Show, which was compelled to rely on the drug-addled Super Hans to keep the laughs flowing. Indeed, Spaced had its own acid casualty character (cf Kramer off Seinfield and being really racist), who took them out clubbing in an episode that manages to express the experience and ecstasy of the rave scene better than any worthy documentary.
Spaced also featured an episode about live art. Although it gets close to Two Ronnies‘ caricature, it succeeds where The Mighty Boosh just gets embarrassing. Instead of blacking up – unbelievably still acceptable – the character of Vulva teeters on the brink of drag cliche, before offering an unforgettable critique of performance pretension. If Vulva could be construed as transphobic, the sexual delirium around the performance at least offers an alternative reading: Old Greg, on the other hand, has some funny lines but is really a rip-off of Chappelle’s Rick James.
The Boosh is a great show, but I don’t want to count a show that enjoyed black-face a bit too much as representing British humour. I’m politically correct like that. Only Molly Dancers may blacken their faces, and that is because they are going to need the disguise when they bash the fuck out of the local landowners’ front gardens.
Apart from my own identification with ‘Preacher Man’ Dan Ashcroft, Nathan Barley wins because it predicted the rise of the hipster. Fawlty Towers feels less relevant every year, but the idiots who populate Barley-world have gone on to dominate every art opening in the western world. An early outing from Charlie Brooker, who now just shits misery on the TV screen with a yearly round-up, with help from Chris Morris in his pomp (other works of his are probably too dark to represent, and even this is a show that ends in an attempted kidnapping, references child and drug abuse and a guy getting his nads electrocuted), Nathan Barley has given a role model to those clowns who think having four haircuts on one head is totes amazeballs.
It’s another show that ended too soon: one series and out. Documenting the rise of hipster capitalism, where fashion is art is coolness and shallow, baby, it paraded an unforgotten collection of half-wits and wannabes, living out their bad faith and inflicting poisonous stupidity on the word through websites and media hives. The gradual reveal that the protagonist is as desperate as the idiots he rejects almost makes his tragic demise bearable, but Dan Ashcroft is an Oedipus for today who, instead of finding out that he poked his mother, discovers that an idiot is about to poke his sister.
Peep Show would have got a mention, but it went on for too long, losing its charm about the time the characters ate a dog. In fact, the scene where one of them pisses himself in church might provide an alternative phrase for jumping the shark.
The Mighty Boosh, aside from the black-face, was also short and sweet. The cockney villain who went on about ‘eels all up inside you’ and new rave was hilarious, but the terrible acting makes every scene featuring Naboo a grinding bore.
Brass Eye is another Chris Morris subversion: offensive and satirical, it is just too damn dark to be in the top three.
Bill Bailey deserves a special mention (and a free trip to the hairdressers, frankly) for being in two of these shows. His musical stand-up is worth a visit, too: he never made the long climb up his own arse that made Tim Minchin so unbearable.