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Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Radio Sit-Com

Having discussed sitcom in my last blog post, it's easy to write off one area that sitcoms are really successful. We tend to dismiss radio's contribution to the genre, and think that television is the only place for their production. But if it wasn't for BBC Radio Four (or, up until around 1967, when the stations were re-named) Home Service and Light Programme (which became Radio Two) we would never have had such delights as Hancock's Half-Hour which is considered, by many, to be the grandfather of sitcoms. The early episodes, right through to the much later episodes, are broadcast regularly on the digital station Radio Four Extra (originally called Radio Seven up until a few years ago.) A huge range of shows were, and still are, produced by the BBC. I could name not only 'Hancock's Half Hour' but also, 'The Navy Lark', 'The Men From The Ministry' and those shows which were adaptations of successful television shows such as 'Steptoe and Son' and 'Dad's Army'. Lesser-known, or indeed even remembered, are shows such as 'Marriage Lines' which starred very young actors of the likes of Richard Briars and Prunella Scales. 'Not In Front of The Children' which I seem to recall from the 1960's and which starred Wendy Craig. Some shows work really well on radio, whilst others don't seem to adapt too well. Perhaps if you're familiar with the television version the radio version would work for you. With radio you have to do quite a lot of work yourself as an audience-member. You have to concentrate harder when you have to listen to fairly complicated dialogue and when there's a difficult plot-situation. With radio you do have to LISTEN and CONCENTRATE, with television you don't have to work anywhere near as hard because so much of it is visual. Fairly obvious I suppose, because it has pictures as well as sound. You can have visual gags which, obviously, radio can provide.

It seems odd to think that you'd adapt a successful television sitcom for radio, as with 'Dad's Army' and 'Steptoe and Son.' Particularly 'Dad's Army' which had so much visual comedy in it's television version. 'Hancock's Half-Hour' used the idea of Tony Hancock having a sort of 'stage personality' an 'alternative' persona. The pompous, lazy, 'actor' or 'comedian.' It didn't (one presumes) really reflect his 'real' persona. It wasn't until the writers, Galton and Simpson, were rejected by Hancock as writers when he moved to I.T.V. that the B.B.C. allowed them a free hand with creating several 30-minute comedy plays that the eventual series of 'Steptoe' was developed from one particular episode called 'The Offer.' Putting character actors into the main roles meant that there was room for more character-driven plots and far more believable situations than they could write for Hancock.

As for the 'Navy Lark,' there is a certain amount of what can only be described as 'slapstick' in this very amusing show. I know it sounds crazy to describe it in those terms, but having listened to it recently on BBC Radio 4 Extra, there is nearly always some sort of incident when the ship it's set on H.M.S. Troutbridge, ends up crashing into another ship or a harbour wall or something and there's a great deal of noise and commotion as a result. In fact, that's why so much radio comedy work better in some respects than television, the sound effects that are used. I know 'The Goons' can never be classed as a sitcom, more a string of sketches, but it must have been quite revolutionary in it's use of sound effects. Feet running, explosions, clangs, pianos falling, etc etc which are just completely nuts and very funny.

A favourite radio comedy of mine is 'Clare In The Community.' It's based on the comic strip which appears in the Guardian 'society' section. Clare is a social worker who manages to sort out other people's problems but can't deal with her own, more specifically, her relationships. There's a good mix of characters and it works well on radio. I just don't want it to move to television because it will lose it distinctive flavour. Imagining what the characters look like is one of the best reasons for any form of radio drama or comedy. It's a bit like reading a novel and imagining how the characters sound and look. It can be a real disappointment when there's a film or television adaptation of your favourite novel when you see how a particular character is cast and presented, it can be a real let down.

One of the best things about radio, again particularly with comedy but also with drama in general, is that it can really stretch actor's abilities. Thinking in particular with people like Kenneth Williams, who was one of the supporting actors in 'Hancock's Half-Hour.' He had an incredible voice range and could conjure up an almost endless parade of weird and wonderful characters to support Hancock, whether it be an annoying neighbour, policemen, doctors or whatever a particular story required. It's no wonder that Hancock became obsessed with how he was so 'up-staged' by not just Williams but by Sid James and as a result they didn't move to television with him in the early 1960's. 
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