I love British TV so much that I even like to read books about it.
I know. I’m a total nerd.
Well, so be it. Welcome to a new feature, “Essential Reading for Brit TV Viewing.” This week’s book? Dave Thompson’s excellent Britcoms FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Our Favorite Sophisticated, Outrageous British Television Comedies.
I don’t know that the book contains ALL that’s left to know, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Thompson, a British ex-pat who currently lives in Delaware and has written more than 100 books, many on pop culture subjects, clearly knows his way around his subject, and brings a great deal of affection and enthusiasm to it as well. The book functions somewhat as a history of British sitcoms, opening with chapters on such early BBC shows* as “Hancock’s Half Hour,” “The Goons,” “That Was the Week That Was,” “On the Buses,” “Steptoe and Son” (on which America’s “Sanford and Son” was based), “Till Death Us Do Part” (on which America’s “All in the Family” was based–you’re starting to get a feel now, aren’t you, for how much classic American TV was based on classic British TV?), and many more. Sadly many of these are shows can no longer be seen in their entire runs; as Thompson notes in a fascinating introduction, “Britain broadcasting’s policy of wiping, junking and otherwise disposing of programs that appeared to have reached the end of their useful life…” (p. xiv.) meant that at least some episodes of many series are lost to history.
I loved the history and context and insider information not only about British comedies, but also about many of their creators, like Herbie Hancock, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the Monty Python crew, Jimmy Perry, David Croft, Jeremy Lloyd, and many more. But mainly I loved the plot descriptions of these shows and Thompson’s nostalgic yet straightforward appraisals of them. I simply had to go find whatever DVDs of “Dad’s Army” that I could find after reading this:
“Set in what was then the not-so-distant past of 1940, and the opening rounds of World War II, “Dad’s Army” was writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s reimagining of the Home Guard, a volunteer service comprising men who were otherwise exempt from military service, but still wished to do their bit…As the service’s name implies, Home Guard units were fiercely local, drawn from the immediate community–of course they were; with the country on permanent lookout for enemy spies, what could have been more suspicious than a total stranger asking to join the local defense force?
Or likely to create so many hilarious misunderstandings?
“Dad’s Army” was a sitcom, then: an often breathtakingly deft balance of slapstick comedy and scripted humor, frequently understated, and never (or at least rarely) seeking out the easiest, cheapest laugh in any given situation.” (pp. 85-86.)
Well, I was sold. And I got a compilation DVD from the library. When we watched the first episode on that disc, “The Day the Balloon Went Up,” not only did I enjoy it, but so did my three-year-old. How often does that happen?
The book is also a great source for related viewing suggestions: “Television dramas like “Piece of Cake,” “Wish Me Luck” and “We’ll Meet Again” all sought to capture different aspects of the war, to varying degrees of success. In terms of popularity, however, and with “Dad’s Army” indisputably king of the castle, few succeeded more thoroughly than the aforementioned “It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum.”” (p. 96.)
Also included are nearly 100 pages of appendix material, listing the shows discussed and all their episode titles, including all 31 seasons of the show “Last of the Summer Wine” (now THAT is dedication), recommended titles of other Britcoms not discussed in the book, British movies based on British TV shows, a listing of singles and albums related to Britcoms, and a lovely bibliography. Now, the book’s not TOTALLY perfect; its coverage largely ends with 1990s sitcoms like “Absolutely Fabulous” and “Coupling,” but overall? This is required reading for all serious Anglophiles and British TV fans.
*Many of which I’ve never even heard. Gasp!”