What’s great about British sitcoms is how hilariously and sometimes almost scarily accurately they portray the lives of the varied British population, particularly in contrast to the sometimes unrealistic and glossed over portrayal of Americans presented in some US sitcoms. Much of British humour within these sitcoms is built around satire, sarcasm, crassness, innuendos, rudeness, impressions and parodies or stereotypes, visual gags and outrageous costumes, black humour, and slapstick comedy, with themes in shows revolving around everyday life, politics, the British class system, history, sex and sexuality, and British society in general.
The following 10 sitcoms are ones I have grown up watching from as young as a teenager or have, over the years, been introduced to and grown to love as well. I’ve rated them based on: their longevity as a sitcom that encompasses all or most that is mentioned above, the cast and individual or a few characters who stand out that either carry the show well or have great supporting roles, the quality of jokes told and enacted by the actors involved in the scenes, as well as the general flow and drama of the episodes or series themselves. Well, those criteria on top of mainly by how often I can rewatch them all and still find funny anyway…
10) The Office
A master at deadpan comedy, Ricky Gervais’ The Office was an early pioneer of the “mockumentary” style show that began a wave of them in the 21st Century. A brave move to essentially deliver almost non-stop dry humour about the mundane day-to-day lives of office workers, it was popular enough to spark a US version that, while a hit in the US, ultimately fell deaf on British ears and even the New York Daily News compared it unfavourably to the original. Though there were few real laugh out loud moments in the series, Gervais’ sarcasm was both relatable but also inimitable. And as well as propelling Ricky to celebrity status, the show helped others such as Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis gain footing in the acting industry and eventually Hollywood too.
9) Only Fools and Horses
Though I never really used to watch this show much, recent re-introductions to it have allowed me to appreciate its quality. One of the best star pairings in David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst led to a comic duo that worked well and stood the test of time over its time on air, even in the later specials (something few sitcoms really manage to do without being too farfetched or different). Humour came mostly in the form of the pair’s naivety, insults towards each other and classic slapstick comedy. A number of brilliant actors and comedians featured in recurring supporting roles, which is a rarity in most sitcoms. And the show continued to prove its appeal with a surprisingly outstanding West End stage musical production.
Victoria Wood was a multi-talented woman who acted, wrote and often produced and directed everything she created and starred in – even composing the theme tunes to the shows as well. Dinnerladies was an unfortunately short-lived but brilliant show that, while its premise of featuring canteen workers chatting and gossiping most of the time may not have appealed to people upon hearing it, turned out to be a big success. Wood’s dedication to her craft made her one of the most respected one-woman comediennes and she was thankfully also nearly always backed by a roster of people that appeared in most of her work; most notably, Julie Walters, who gave us the best laughs as Woods’ character’s promiscuous, negligent, drunken mother. It was a shame the show stopped after just 2 series and 16 episodes but it did so fittingly, and almost naturally, without being dragged out unnecessarily, which is sadly often the case with many.
7) Absolutely Fabulous
Jennifer Saunders’ most famous solo work was with her second comedy partner, Joanna Lumley, who to be honest, rightfully hogged most of the limelight in this show. A controversial concept that almost glamourised older women partaking in alcohol, drugs, promiscuity and having foul mouths, Ab Fab was a runaway phenomenon that captured the relatable hearts of gays everywhere and inspired US versions to be pitched but not produced, and even a French film based on the show before its own blockbuster in 2016. With June Whitfield and Jane Horrocks in great supporting roles, it was also one of few British sitcoms that featured a vast number of celebrities appearing as themselves, as well as other well known comedians in guest roles.
6) The Vicar of Dibley
A show ahead of its time, The Vicar of Dibley catapulted off the back of women being ordained in the Church of England a couple of years prior and before they became more widely popular and accepted. This was French’s most popular solo success and she took on the role of Geraldine Granger better than one can imagine any other comedienne could. Bubbly and sweet natured but also cheeky, gluttonous, a little short tempered, potty mouthed and vain, she played the part both within its limits (so as to not besmirch or anger the CoE) and pushed the boundaries so that it was still a tongue-in-cheek, belly laughable and relatable sitcom. Emma Chambers as her verger also helped earn laughs for her dimwittedness.
5) Mrs Brown’s Boys
One of the two most controversial sitcoms in this list, Mrs Brown’s Boys is technically Irish, but because it was shown on the BBC, I’ve included it. Much of this show’s hilarity comes from creator Brendan O’Carroll’s crude and slapstick humour as well as the show’s very relaxed production in which cast and crew mistakes, off-side jokes and off-script improvisation or one-liners have live and home audiences laughing. That aside, it’s the most negatively reviewed sitcom on the list, often heavily blasted by critics – but maybe that’s because its crude, innuendo-filled humour and depiction of families arguing and swearing at each other hits too close to home for some to admit? Many of the cast is made up of O’Carroll’s real life family and friends, hence subpar and sometimes cringeworthy acting by most of them, though this – either intentionally or unintentionally – adds to the comedy.
4) Keeping Up Appearances
Patricia Routledge as the snobbish social climber who believes she is upper class but is actually lower middle class at best, became a household name and legend in British comedy with this show. A lighthearted and often satirical take on the disparity between Britain’s social classes, Keeping Up Appearances appealed to many who don’t identify with Hyacinth’s eccentricity or her family’s grubbiness. Everyone however, understood and related to the pride the characters feel about themselves and their status – even her family.
Much of its humour stemmed from Mrs Bucket’s attempts at climbing the social order whilst concealing her background from others, with more often than not, poor but hilarious results. And Patricia may have been the star but a great supporting cast of exasperated and even scared shitless family, neighbours and other locals added to the show’s comedy and dynamics.
Benidorm may have begun to lose its appeal around series 7 after the Garveys left, but a mostly dynamic cast throughout kept the majority of the remaining episodes and storylines afloat. Some of those storylines in later series were often rather silly, from which stemmed more weird and awkward humour than anything else (Troy being kidnapped or Mateo being held hostage, for example) and the show itself had more dunces than others from the 9 remaining shows in this list put together. Nonetheless, Benidorm was a harmless, usually funny show (more from certain cast members, one liners and particular scenes) that allowed us to escape from the reality of boring, cold and rainy Britain and we all identified with at least one of the many characters from it.
2) Gimme Gimme Gimme
Gays everywhere loved this show, but the gay media hated it for some reason. Gimme Gimme Gimme was full of crass humour and vulgar language with the majority of laughs coming from name calling, visual gags, poking fun at homosexuality and the two main characters’ over confidence in themselves (which in Linda La Hughes’ case bordered on mental disabilities). So while its appeal (or not in the case of the media) was often childish adult humour, the odder than usual “odd couple” format between Tom and Linda worked wonders – both were too similar in character and mindset to admit it, especially Tom. The third series was a little stranger and even sillier in its premise but its bittersweet ending touched hearts for one of very few times as well as continued to tickle funny bones.
1) The Royle Family
The Royle Family was one of the first sitcoms I was introduced to as a teenager and today it has still stuck with me and retains its top position in my book. Never would most people have thought that a working class family sat talking and arguing in the living room whilst watching TV would become so relatable and popular, but it did. Later specials were a little less funnier, with settings and characters moving further away from what originally made them funny (Joe in Joe’s Crackers talks more – and a lot of rubbish – in this episode than he ever did, and Denise and Dave’s attempts at cooking in The New Sofa had me quizzical and bemused at their stupidity and naivety being taken too far) but they often had more heart and emotion (Queen of Sheba and Barbara’s Old Ring, for example). The Royle Family stood out from others in that there was no live audience to laugh or judge its comedy and the actors’ – particularly Ricky Tomlinson – comic timing was naturally on point, often leaving myself and probably others wondering whether their characters’ raucous and sometimes seemingly uncontrolled laughter was genuine or not.
The show’s humour mainly came from its dryness and sarcasm, realistic family dynamics, social commentary on current issues and what was on TV (which paved the way for Gogglebox years later), and the characters’ – again, predominantly Jim’s – hypocrisy towards others. Out of all the shows on the list, it is most unique for its quintessential take on modern, working class Britain that is inimitable compared to the others. US versions of the others have been attempted or you might be able to imagine them, but The Royle Family is one that you’d be hard pressed to replicate in its entirety for a different audience.