Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Television Comedy: Watching 'The Good Life'

I've just been watching the first episode of 'The Good Life.' One of the great advantages of having Sky for me is the fact that there is so much classic television available to watch on catch-up or download (will someone explain what the difference is? Surely they are one and the same.) This has to be one of the finest television sitcoms produced in this country. I know when polls are held to come up with a list of the top ten or even a hundred television comedies this one often comes close to the top of the list, alongside Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and Dad's Army. From my viewing today this particular one stands up particularly well. It has hardly dated, except perhaps for fashions in clothes and the car Gerry drives (a large yellow Volvo which must have been heavy on petrol consumption.)  I know very well how the show develops, I'm fully aware that Barbara and Tom Good set up their own smallholding in their garden in Surbiton, and all the problems they encounter, in least the fact that it's in suburbia and not in rural Sussex or somewhere else in the countryside. It's the fact that they're going against the grain that makes this comedy work so well. We can all identify with Tom, wanting to escape the rat race. He starts out at the beginning of the episode working as a draughtsman in a company which makes plastic toys which are put into breakfast cereal packets. When his boss tells him the next project is to design and create a giraffe Tom can hardly keep a straight face. And who can blame him. The style of production would be typical of the way sitcoms were made for television in the 1970's, with the bulk of the action recorded on multi-camera in a studio with a 'live' audience and the exteriors shot (in advance) on location with film cameras. One imagines if it was produced today (most unlikely) they would make it on video and all on location and the audience would watch a sort of 'playback' to give the laughter track. But, let's be honest, isn't television comedy of this sort best done when there isn't a studio audience? By comparison, I'm thinking of the Peter Kay's series 'Car Share' which has no studio audience. Also, it couldn't have been made 40 years ago, as 'The Good Life' was made, basically because there wouldn't have been the technical ability to shoot it within a moving car because there weren't the small-scale cameras available as there are today. My only complaint about that show is, why were so episodes made? Why only around 4 per series, and just two series? Again, it it because the commissioners didn't have the faith in this show to allow more episodes to be made? It surely can't be the cost because it can't have been particularly expensive to make as there are only two actors in it.

What I want to know is, why were there so many excellent sitcoms produced when this was first transmitted, in 1975? Dad's Army had been running since around 1967 and by the time this came out we also had Fawlty Towers. Perhaps it was the fact that there were only three television channels in the mid 1970's. Channel 4 didn't open until 1982 and multi-channel television didn't make an appearance until at least the mid 1980's or early '90's. Television companies were presumably more likely to take a risk on a new show such as this. A series would only have been around 6-8, so if it didn't succeed in the ratings it wasn't such a disaster. It starred to consummate professionals, Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal. I think I saw Richard Briars in one of Alan Ayckbourn's plays, possibly 'The Norman Conquests' or 'Absurd Person Singular.' 'The Good Life' does rather have the feel of an Ayckbourn play. It has similar middle class characters, it pokes a finger at life in a suburban setting and has a deeper message under the comedy exterior. Even the fact that there's a sitting room with French windows and a sofa makes it similar. I think today's television commissioners are far too concerned with ratings. Also, they don't allow a show enough time to build an audience. It takes at least two seasons (series in Britain) to allow the actors a chance to develop their characters and allow the writers time to develop not just the situations but their characters. ITV had a wealth of sitcoms of it's on. They've never quite had the success with this form of television as the BBC. Perhaps because with a commercial broadcaster you have to factor in the commercial break. For a thirty-minute slot you'll have to have a running time of no more than 23-25 minutes, to allow for the commercial break and then have a sort of 'act break' in the middle to take the commercials, so your writers will have to build up the situation to then have a sort of 'curtain' as you'd have in a stage play and the, after the break, keep the situation going and just hope the audience had remained and not changed channels. Although, it has to be said, having a commercial break can have it's advantages, for example, allowing viewers to go to the toilet or go for a snack or make a cup of tea. Of course, with modern technology you can always skip the adverts when you record the programme. ITV had such shows as 'Rising Damp' which starred Leonard Rossiter and ran for a couple of series. Based on a stage play called 'The Banana Box' and originally produced at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester and starring Wilfred Brambell in the Rigsby role as played by Rossiter in the television sitcom. (this character was originally called Rooksby in the play. I have no idea why they changed his name to Rigsby for the television sitcom.) Rossiter was to go on to play the central character in another sitcom of this period 'The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin' written by David Hobbs and adapted from his novels. It was revived more recently with Martin Clunes in the title role, but for me it didn't quite have the same impact as the original. Not always a good idea to revive old sitcoms, although when ITV revived 'Birds of A Feather' it was a ratings success and has gone on to have several more series.

How many comedies have neighbours who add to the 'mix' of comedy situations? I remember 'Sykes' which starred the amazing Eric Sykes along with Hatty Jacques (as unlikely twins. How did they get away with it?) They had a neighbour, played by Richard Watts, who kept popping in and out and he represented the sort of interfering busy-body type, voice of the minority. Then, in 'The Good Life' we have Margo Leadbetter, middle-class, classic snob, married to Gerry, long-suffering husband who brings in enough money from his executive post to be able to allow Margo to have the sort of life she dreams of, plenty of gadgetry in the kitchen, decent car every couple of years and so on. This counter-points the life the Goods have created for themselves, digging up their garden to grow fruit and veg, even importing a goat and some pigs, much to Margo and Gerry's disgust. 

In 'Birds of A Feather' we also come across a neighbour who pops in and out in the shape of Dorien, played with absolute conviction by Lesley Josephs.


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