Next year the BBC is launching a Landmark Sitcom Season, marking the 60th anniversary of the TV debut of Britain’s first modern sitcom, Hancock’s Half Hour.
Several things have already been announced: there will be a completely live broadcast of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a comedy drama detailing the making of Dad’s Army, and several documentaries are to be expected.
However, most of what has been revealed so far are remakes and new editions of classic sitcoms. The ones confirmed at the time of writing include Porridge, The Good Life, Keeping Up Appearances, Up Pompeii! and Are You Being Served? There have also been rumours that Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em might be revived too. This brings up an important question: is there any chance that the BBC might commission something that is brand new?
Of course I like these old sitcoms, some more than others admittedly, but I do like them. The problem is that it just comes across as lazy if the BBC just digs up old sitcoms and gives people a nostalgiafest. You know, indeed everybody knows, that these revived and remade sitcoms won’t be as good as the originals.
The BBC reviving sitcoms is nothing new and sometimes they are successful: see the final three episodes of Only Fools and Horses. But more recently only two have really been brought back with true success: Birds of a Feather and Red Dwarf, and in both of these cases these were originally BBC sitcoms whose revival they turned down. Birds of a Feather was brought back by ITV and became a ratings success, and Red Dwarf was recommissioned by Dave, where it will be extended to at least Series XII. Both of these sitcoms do have one major factor as to why they could be brought back successfully, which was that all the major talent involved is still alive.
Out of the sitcoms that the BBC has certainly revived, the only one which arguably still has most of the major stars still alive is Keeping Up Appearances. Patricia Routledge, Clive Swift, Josephine Tewson and David Griffin, who played Hyacinth, Richard, Elizabeth and Emmet respectively, are thankfully still around. Sadly Geoffrey Hughes who played Onslow died in 2012. If Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em is confirmed though, that would at least seem to be better, as both Michael Crawford and Michele Dotrice are still performing too, and they were the only stars of the show so you have everyone on board. Also, I must confess that I do quite like that idea of Crawford still trying to do his stunts even though he’s in his seventies.
However, in the other cases, most of the original cast are no longer around. We no longer have the talents of Ronnie Barker, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington, Frankie Howerd, John Inman, Mollie Sugden and the countless others who made these shows the icons they are. That still didn’t stop the BBC in 2013 bringing back Open All Hours without Ronnie Barker. Luckily, Barker was the only major star no longer with us involved with that show, and they did their best to make sure his presence was still felt. Which is also the problem – you know that something is still missing and nothing can be done to bring it back.
What would be really good to see is a season of new sitcoms, trying to encourage new ideas, to try and find a new BBC sitcom gem. The problem here is that the BBC is unlikely to make such a risk, and certainly would never give it as much attention as these old revivals.
I think what we need is something like Seven of One. This was a series of seven sitcom pilots, all starring Ronnie Barker, made back in 1973. This season of pilots resulted in the creation of both Porridge and Open All Hours. A third pilot, My Old Man, also became a series, but it moved to ITV and starred Clive Dunn instead. Perhaps if the BBC created a season of pilots starring a big, popular figure in the world of comedy, it may result in the creation of a hit series, starring a big name. It is a plan worth exploring, because at least we might have something that is actually new rather than something old that has been slightly redecorated.