British Comedy: A Guide (Part V: One Hour Comedy)

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster


We’ve had SitComs, Sketch Shows, and Panel Shows.  But wait, there’s more to comedy than that.  There’s also the One Hour Comedies.  These are relatively rare commodities and all the ones that I’ve come in contact with are pretty darn good.

What distinguishes the one-hour from the half-hour comedy shows is that they almost always a strong presence of the sad and dramatic involved at some point in the episode (rather than reserving the series finale).  Characters may die or lose loved-ones, they’re self-aware, and they need desperately.  Sometimes.  Other times, it’s just longer.

They also, often, have a better grasp of the story arch than their SitCom brethren.  These arcs build your investment in the characters and keep the story from getting too samey.  Some of these are hard to distinguish from mini-series by any content-based criteria.

Gags and puns take a back seat to situational or character-driven humor.  Character-driven humor that doesn’t rely on funny wigs and stupid voices or stupid wigs and funny voices is more complicated to accomplish and inevitably lives or dies by your own tastes.

As “taste” implies, there is variety here.  Things go from the G-rated happy-fest to the R-rated boobs and killing dark comedies.  Something for everyone.  Unless you don’t like funny, boobs, or killings.


All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990)

Based on the fantastic books by James Herriot’s life and career as a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales during the 1930’s and 40’s.  The books were written in a rather adaptable form consisting of a series of linked short stories generally about a single animal and their colorful owners.

James (Christopher Timothy) is new to veterinary practice and is taken on by Siegfried Farnon (Robert Hardy) the highly forgetful and slightly womanizing veteran vet.  Then there’s Siegfried’s brother, Tristan (Peter Davison), who is basically a shambles of a vet, but he lives the dream.  There’s also the beautiful Helen (Lynda Bellingham) who will eventually become James’ wife.  She is so understanding that it’s hard to credit.

As the cliche goes, the books are better, and the show is just a pale imitation.  That’s made truer by the fact that the show was made in the late 70’s and 80’s and are rather poor in the production levels.  The best way to enjoy these stories are on tape or Audible where Chris Timothy reads them incredibly incredibly well and nostalgia reigns supreme.

On it’s own, however, I would rate this quite highly.  As pale imitations go, it’s just as well that this show is based upon one of the funniest series of books I’ve ever come across.  If I were to analogize, I would say The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) comes the closest in tone.  Yorkshire may be filled with oddities, but they’re a bunch of sweethearts, really.

The Region 2 (linked above) is about a third cheaper than the Region 1.

Doc Martin (2004-)

It’d be as if they set House M.D. (2004-12) in Duluth, MN and took his team away.  And his wit.  And then made Duluth a beautiful fishing village.  Basically, you’ve got a curmudgeonly genius doctor in rural England.  Okay, it’s nothing like House, but I’m trying here.

Doctor Martin Ellingham (Martin Clunes) has left his successful practice as a surgeon in London and has come back to his child-hood vacation spot to set up shop as a general practitioner (GP).  Why?  Because his practice was unexpectedly hampered when he found he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or the smell of burning flesh without vomiting.

First, he needs to satisfy a board of local doctors along with layperson, Louisa Glaston (Caroline Catz).  She ain’t so sure about him at first, but maybe that will change.  He’s clearly a genius, but he’s got the bed side manner of a taciturn ogre.  Oh, we love our taciturn ogres don’t we?  Yes.  Like All Creatures Great and Small, there is an alarming amount of illness and injury going around, but this time with the humans.  Local weirdos include Bert Large (Ian McNeice), the piss-poor plumber, and Mrs. Tishell (Selina Cadell), the pharmacist who wears a neck brace for some reason.

As I said, I love these kinds of characters.  Like Sherlock Holmes or most other detectives, they work on a single joke that never fails to produce laughs.  We always expect human decency, but they’ve apparently lost that gift.  For about three series, they work on the same basic formula of someone (or everyone) contracting some bizarre ailment that Doc Martin tries to diagnose (and usually screws up twice) while Louisa tries to get something going with the Doc who impresses her with his skill and occasional selflessness.  By the third series, we laugh because we care, but it’s wearing thin and we all feel it.  Happily, in series 4, we shift focus to Louisa and Doc really trying to get together and events conspiring to force them together.

Again, I’ve linked the UK/Region 2 discs because they’re cheaper.  Also available in Region 1 and streaming through Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

Extras (2005-07)

Who says you can’t make a show about showbiz?  Oh, you didn’t know they said that?  Well they do.  But they’re wrong because Ricky’s on the case.

Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) is a pretty regular guy who wants to be an actor.  The only gigs he gets, though, are as extras in films and television.  His bestie is the rather thick Maggie Jacobs (Ashley Jensen) who just isn’t going anywhere at the moment.  Every episode, they’re treated with varying shades of degradation by the “real actors.”  Andy’s agent Darren (Stephen Merchant) is no help because he has no belief in Andy whatsoever.

For the first series, Andy is trying to land a gig or sell his script for a one-hour comedy.  Each episode includes at least one major guest, like Daniel Radcliffe or Ian McKellen who make a bit of a fool of themselves usually by playing against their public perceptions.  It’s drop dead hilarious from the writing and the performances.  If the situations don’t tickle you, you’ve got the entirely platonic relationship of Andy and Maggie to get you through the day.  They are fantastic together as utterly believable friends.  Great show, must buy.

The Region 2 is actually roughly the same (shipping considered) as the Region 1.

Fortysomething (2003)

Dr. Paul Slippery (Hugh Laurie) is going through a confusing time in his life.  Either he can read his wife Estelle’s (Anna Chancellor) mind or he’s having a nervous breakdown.  Breakdown’s not out of the question as his sons, Rory (Benedict Cumberbatch), Daniel (Neil Henry), and Edwin (Joe Van Moyland), and their love lives (not to mention business ventures) are enough to test anyone’s sanity.  It doesn’t help that one of his partners in practice, Dr. Pilfrey (Peter Capaldi), is kind of a douche.

This show only makes it for one 6-episode series, which is slightly surprising considering the level of performances.  Perhaps there wasn’t much to say after the first series.  I’m not sure they had all that much to say during the first, to be honest.  They start the series with this mind-reading motif and dropped it so quickly that I figured it was a kind of metaphor.  Then it came back and threw me for a loop.

Still, the show was funny and that’s really all you can ask.  Well, not all, but it’s good enough and better than most.  It was slightly odd to have the main character be a doctor but where the fact is almost irrelevant to the show.  Sure, there’s some funny business and a little sadness tied up with it, but it certainly wasn’t a focus.  A good diversion for a weekend.

Also on Netflix.  The UK price is slightly cheaper, so you’d need to put together a big purchase to make the shipping sensible.

Jeeves & Wooster (1990-93)

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are simply the best there ever were or will be as this dynamic duo.

Bertie Wooster (Laurie) is a good-hearted, incredibly well-read bumbler and Jeeves (Fry) is his brain-box valet (gentleman’s personal gentleman).  In this world, people are usually quite rich or, at the least, titled and basically fall hopelessly in love all the time and, often due to that frequency, try to get out of engagements.  Bertie has a great number of old pals from school and such and it is in the Code of the Woosters to never let a pal down.  That rule appears not to lessen when his own pals invariable let him down.  “Ah, well, Jeeves,” says I.  “Yes, sir?” he replies.  “C’est la vie, what?”  I say.  “Indeed, sir.”

They have taken these roles and, if anything, improved on the source material. To improve on P.G. Wodehouse, probably the funniest literature has to offer, is ludicrously high praise. The charm and the comedy in this series are unrivaled in anything I have experienced heretofore in the filmy media.  It exudes charm and the main characters are so loveable that I do, in fact, love them.  The show excises the more self-serving nature of Jeeves in the books while slightly increasing his snobbery.  Both strong moves, I think.

They really put their all into these shows, there isn’t the kind of half-assing you see in the Victorian BBC adaptations.  Maybe because it was made for ITV.  I don’t want to overstate it.  After all, the cast is a carousel with some of actors jumping on twice, but for different characters.  It’s of no consequence, really, because their only function is to bring the problems to Bertie and for Jeeves to sort things out with brilliant efficiency.  I seem to recall one boat race night…

For $26 this is a no-brainer.

Kingdom (2007-09)

Peter Kingdom (Stephen Fry) runs a small legal practice in Market Shipborough with Lyle Anderson (Karl Davies) as his intern.  His friend Gloria (Celia Imrie), who is loved by Mr. Snell (Tony Slattery), is also his secretary.  Life gets a little more complicated when his sister, Beatrice (Hermione Norris), who is insane, comes to live with him.

This is a comedy of rurality, similar to Doc Martin, but with way more heart and far less misanthropy.  In fact, almost all conflict in this program is so easily and lovingly resolved that you wonder what rotten luck it is that almost nobody lives in these places.  Then you remember this is a TV show and Norfolk is probably home to as many hick twerps as anywhere else with their hatred of all things non-Norfolkist.

That’s really the only downside to the show.  Too darn sweet.  People make things hard for Peter, but he deals with them with love and care.  Sometimes you just want someone to get the cane out of the cupboard and give them a damn good thrashing.  Even All Creatures Great and Small, a show not improximate to Kingdom, there’s less honey-sweet and more of a bacon and eggs wholesome tone to it.

For some reason, Region 1 only has Series 2 and 3.  Doesn’t matter.  Region 2 (linked above) is stupid cheap.  Also doesn’t matter because it’s on Netflix.

Misfits (2009-)

A group of kids are doing community service for their assorted crimes.  Simon (Iwan Rheon) is shy, Kelly (Lauren Socha) is a chav, Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is an athlete, Nathan (Robert Sheehan) is disgusting, and Alisha (Antonia Thomas) is a hussy.  One day, there’s a huge storm and they all get assorted super powers that typically have something to do with their characters (but don’t have to).  Well, as you might expect, they aren’t always responsible with their powers–that is, once they learn what they are, exactly.

This show, created by Howard Overman, was terrifically funny.  It got pretty darn close to the edge of decency, but never was quite able to actually become decent.  It weren’t decent, but it was a damn fine show.  The story was strong and the dialogue was sharp and witty with a couple fart jokes thrown in.  Just my cup of tea.  In Series 2, things got a little crazy and it wasn’t quite clear how they were going to walk back from it, but there was loads of promise.

Well, they didn’t deliver on that.  Sufficed to say, the gang was in a position to reboot their powers, but we weren’t going to find out how they did until Series 3.  Then, in Series 3 we find that the best character has been replaced by a sick weirdo Rudy (Joseph Gilgun) and all their powers are crap.  So, instead of taking the opportunity to re-approach the powers business with a fresh eye to how it affects the narrative, they instead pick a bunch of useless stuff that they hardly ever use to any affect.

Do yourself a solid, watch Misfits, but stop after Series 2.  Reading the synopsis, it looks like Series 3 started to focus on plot over character, in a similar fashion to MI-5/Spooks (2002-11) (did someone say British drama guide?).

On Hulu.

The Office (2001-03)

David Brent (Ricky Gervais) is an idiot manager of a paper company.  He doesn’t seem to really know what he’s doing.  Tim (Martin Freeman) is an office lacky with a modicum of intelligence that makes him probably the most capable one in the office.  He’s got a serious thing for Dawn (Lucy Davis) who helps him tease the very stupid Gareth (Mackenzie Crook).  There isn’t much you can summarize about what happens, except for all the usual dumb things that happen in an office where an unknown documentary crew…documents things.

This isn’t the US version.  This is the real The Office.  We don’t get deep into the other people around the office.  The crew doesn’t care about them, really.  This is an office, not a SitCom.  Life is boring and little is done.  The characters are subdued and dumb.  Keeping your head down is rule number one in office work and that’s what this show is about.

The obvious description is “awkward.”  Most of the show is like this.  Characters will do something or half-do something and get into awkward pauses or say something they shouldn’t have or whatever.  It’s one of the few British comedies that doesn’t operate with any frequency on wordplay.  It’s the situation that rules the show, and the situation is the stupidity and self-importance of an office.  And it’s all done perfectly.

Like Extras, there’s some sadness to it, especially in the Christmas special.  Gervais’s specialty is to take us as low as we can go and then orchestrate a massive payoff that leaves you, probably, in tears.

Same rules as Fortysomething/Region 2.  Or watch it on Netflix or Hulu.

Those I haven’t seen yet:

Ballykissangel (1996-2001)
Teachers (2001-04)

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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1 Response to British Comedy: A Guide (Part V: One Hour Comedy)

  1. Pingback: British Comedy: A Guide (Part I: Introduction) | Prof. Ratigan Reviews

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