The 10 best BBC comedies
The BBC is one hundred! And love or hate its funding model, there’s one thing you can’t deny – the Corporation has produced some outstandingly good comedy over the years. Indeed, many of the best-known British comedic exports across the globe from John Cleese to Ricky Gervais got their big break on the Beeb before going on to conquer the globe in the movies or on streaming services.
BBC comedy has been a breeding ground for brilliance for a century (and although many of the shows in this list aren’t a hundred years old) I have picked some of my favourites for you to disagree with.
Now, if I had more time and could think of 100 BBC comedies, I would -and possibly should- have made the best 100 BBC comedies of the past 100 years, but for now, hopefully, ten will do. Maybe I’ll do 101 best comedies for the 101st birthday of Aunty instead?
OK, that’s enough preamble, lets’s start to amble through the list of the 10 best BBC comedies…
The bastard child of The Young Ones, Bottom is often overlooked amongst the great BBC sitcoms. Perhaps because on the face of it Rik Mayall and Adrain Edmondson’s riotous romp is nothing more than that – a lot of silliness, slapstick and vulgarity. But peel beneath the surface and Bottom is a series that may at times be crude but is clever and offers social commentary and a side-eyed glance at the human condition through the weird and eccentric Richie and Eddie. Running between 1991 and 1995 the series still has many committed fans who hoped that it would return one day, a prospect that was sadly made impossible by the untimely death of the great Rik Mayall in 2014.
9. Hancock’s Half Hour
Whether on television or on the radio, Hancock’s Half Hour is one of the most important and influential pieces of comedy ever to have been made. From the great minds of Ray Gaulton and Alan Simpson, the show was in many ways the first of its kind to explore a lead who is playing an exaggerated version of themselves and showcased the varied talents of some of the comedy greats of the 1950s from Bill Kerr, Sid James and Hattie Jacques to the brilliant Kenneth Williams. Dark, depressing to incredibly compelling, the adventures of the resident of 23 Railway Cuttings in East Cheam will live on in comedy history forever.
A pint, that’s very nearly an armful. Yep, just checking you’ve seen it.
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8. The Good Life
The Good Life had it all. Brilliant actors, electric writing, social commentary, snobbery and silliness. This was – and still is – a comedy that represents some of the very best work the BBC can produce. It’s rare to see such on-screen chemistry from four actors, but it was hard not to believe in the dynamics between Tom, Barbara, Margot and Jerry played by the brilliant Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Kieth and Paul Eddington. Running between 1975 and 1978 the story of a couple attempting to be self-sufficient in the suburbs of Surbiton living next door to conservative neighbours continues to delight audiences new and old.
Top tip, don’t order your entire Christmas by mail order. You might end up spending Christmas Day with the Goods.
7. The Day Today
Created by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, this 1994 television news satire was an adaptation of the Radio 4 show On the Hour. As well as being the home of Alan Partridge for the first time on television (more from him later in the list) this incredibly funny and clever programme was apparently many years ahead of its time. When The Day Today broadcast in the 1990s its ridiculous hyperbole, lurid graphics and fast-paced storytelling seemed on the edge of reality – but for those tuning into the news (and social media today) it seems almost reasonable… and that’s a worry! Without doubt as influential in comedy as it was funny, this is a show that isn’t talked about enough. Until now!
6. Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister
Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s masterful lampooning of the corridors of power ran for much of the 1980s in one of its two states, first with Jim Hacker as the Minister for Administrative Affairs and later somehow becoming Prime Minister. A show filled with satire, clever wordplay and classic fascicle scenarios, the programme featured an exceptional cast with beautiful on-screen chemistry that brought every story alive as Nigel Hawthorne’s Humphrey Appleby battled with Paul Eddington’s Hacker whilst poor Bernard Wooley )played by Derek Fowlds) was left in the middle to try to sort out the mess. Adored by the political classes, and those who don’t like politicians equally – it must have been doing something right!
Running across four main series from 1984 to 1989 Blackadder follows the story of Edmund Blackadder through four time periods beginning in 1485 and ending in 1917. Starring Rowan Atkinson as the brilliantly cynical Blackadder, the show is a who’s who of British comedy talent of the time featuring the writing skills of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and memorable performances from Tony Robinson as Baldrick, as well as fabulous turns from Hugh Laurie, Steven Fry and Rik Mayall to name but a few. A beautiful mix of satire, clever wordplay and complete absurdity, you can revisit this show time and again.
4. Fawlty Towers
John Cleese and Connie Booth’s hotel-based sitcom from the 1970s is cited as a comedy influence by almost every British comedian who has come since. The manic and frustrated character of Basil Fawlty takes frustrating humour to the next level as he week in and week out becomes the architect of his own downfall as he attempts to outwit his wife Cybil (Prunella Scales) while also keeping his Torquay hotel running with Manuel (Andre Sachs) and Polly (Connie Booth) by his side. Despite only being twelve episodes of this brilliant series in existence, it is and always will be at the heart of British comedic sensibilities.
3. I’m Alan Partridge
Complaints on a postcard for putting this ahead of Fawlty Towers, but it’s my list. The frustrated radio and television personality of Alan Partridge is one the greatest comedy creations of the modern era, no, any era – and he peaked in the brilliant I’m Alan Partridge. The sitcom, which was created by Steve Coogan, Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci took the character that had been forged as a television and radio personality through On the Hour, The Day Today and both versions of Knowing Me Knowing You and made him three dimensional. Partridge became a man and not just a presenter – his oddities, his hangups and his curious ways of thinking and doing things made middle aged men squirm and everyone else delight. Much more than the catchphrases you hear people shout, this series is one of the finest pieces of British comedy ever made.
2. Only Fools and Horses
A situation comedy isn’t really about the situation, it’s about the characters – what is more, for a sitcom to truly prosper it needs its audience to deeply care about the people they are watching, their journeys and their ultimate happiness. The late great John Sullivan was the master of this understanding, drawing characters in Del Boy and Rodney Trotter that were flawed but loveable, and made them and their stories into headline news and one of the biggest comedy successes for the BBC. John Challis, who played Boycie and sadly passed away in September 2021, once told me that he thought the Beeb was “slightly embarrassed” by the huge impact of Only Fools, but love it or not at the time it was a show that drew audience figures that were unrivalled in its later days. A true comedy great with a uniquely British feel, it grew and grew and grew, and will continue to be shown time and again for as long as there are people watching comedy.
1. The Office
There would have been a time when I’d have been afraid of putting this show at number one because I hate to be accused of just favouring modern shows. However, luckily (in some ways), twenty-plus years have somehow passed since Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office first tested poorly with audiences and aired on BBC Two to mediocre viewing figures. However, the BBC stuck with this word-of-mouth mockumentary hit starring Gervais as David Brent and it went on to become one of the most important and influential British comedies of the modern era. Although it only has two short series and the Christmas specials, this show not only spawned international remakes, made global stars of its creators and supercharged the careers of its cast, it showcased an incredible mix of depth and pathos with razor sharp comedy, cringe humour and characterisation of the highest order. But most of all, it felt like life. As Gervais and Merchant remind us, they left the boring bits in… and that worked – and how we thank them for it.
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