These are desperate times in the world of multi-channel TV, and when a formula proves successful, you flog it to death. So, as Channel 4 ended a week of people in a house watched over by Dermot O’Leary, BBC2 dusted off the format for 100 Greatest Britons, and turned it into 50 Greatest Sitcoms.
This week we got the full list, voted for, as ever, by “you” (we think they mean us). In the coming weeks celebrities will present one-hour specials championing their pick of the top 10 contenders (Sadly, David Dickinson, Clarissa Dickson Wright and Carol Vorderman are among the advocates). Then in March we’ll vote for a winner, instantly forget it and move on to the 250 Greatest Cop Shows.
As with any such list, the top 50 sitcoms had its anomalies, with genuine classics like Sykes and On The Buses missing out, and no place for our current favourite, Two Pints. But it was good to see the great Rab C Nesbitt in there (even if it was at a lowly 49), along with the better-than-it-looked Bottom, and the wonderful Phoenix Nights.
The middle ground was a real mixture of ancient, modern, conventional, irreverent and everything in between. Waiting For God and To The Manor Born rubbed shoulders with Alan Partridge and The Young Ones, while Hancock and Steptoe mixed it with Drop The Dead Donkey and The Office. Highly-placed, but surprisingly outside the top 10, were Father Ted and one of the most brilliant (but understated) sitcoms of all, Last Of The Summer Wine.
Early into the top 10 it became clear that an electoral phenomenon had occurred. While politicians fret about low turnouts, a bunch of sitcoms had got Middle Britain into the polling booths en masse, where they’d put their collective foot very firmly down. The result was a list that looked suspiciously like a BBC comedy DVD collection chosen by people interviewed while out shopping in Marks & Spencer.
To be fair, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Yes Minister, Only Fools and Horses and One Foot In The Grave were true classics. But others, like the tedious Dad’s Army, Porridge, The Good Life and surprise inclusion Open All Hours (two running jokes and some fake Northern accents) fell more into the “it’s what people like us watch” category. And host Jonathan Ross couldn’t resist saying that no, our TVs weren’t “Fawlty”, The Vicar Of Dibley really was in the Top 10 sitcoms of all time. Not in ours it isn’t.