Comedy reboots: Never go back

by | Jul 11, 2016 | All, Reviews

Contributed by Deborah Shrewsbury

So something worrying occurred last week. Images of the new Porridge remake were circulated around the internet. Because we’re here telly nerds we had to have a look, because we’re porridge fans we’ve still not quite recovered.

Then, news of a one-off return of Goodnight Sweetheart  was announced. Yes original star Nicholas Lyndhurst is confirmed to reprise his role but do the question I’m asking here is do we really need it?!

Nostalgia – to hijack Dr Johnson’s line on patriotism – is the last refuge of a scoundrel – and it seems to be becoming the first refuge of BBC TV comedy commissioners, who are ready to assault our sensibilities with a ‘Landmark Sitcom’ season of reboots of Till Death Us Do Part, Steptoe And Son, Hancock’s Half Hour, Porridge, Up Pompeii, Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances.

Classic comedy is evergreen,” said Shane Allen, BBC comedy chief, when he broke the news in March. No, classic comedy becomes classic precisely because it is very much representative of its time and place in broadcasting history. It lives in its own paracosm; it does not survive being ripped out of its chronology and transplanted in an alien setting.

The recent big-screen resurrection of Dad’s Army may have done OK at the UK box office, but who went and actually connected with it? I watched it with fervent fans of the original TV series – we dropped off without raising a titter, despite its veritable who’s who of acting giants – and the younger cohort returned to their mobiles almost immediately. Nevertheless, I’ll doubtless make a duty visit to the Ab Fab movie as I would to a much-loved maiden aunt who was a hip kitty in her day but is now a bit deaf and repeats herself a lot.

The Germans may not have given us many loan words but that overused compound noun zeitgeist is quite useful here.

Are You Being Served? is supposed to pick up where the Jeremy Lloyd-David Croft original left off in 1985. In a new script by Derren Litten (Benidorm, The Catherine Tate Show) it is l988 at Grace Brothers, which was already a relic – antiquated family-owned department stores that used to be a landmark in many towns had all but disappeared by the late 70s.

An all-star cast will help a new Young Mr Grace (Gavin & Stacey’s Mathew Horne), grandson of the previous Young Mr Grace, try to drag Grace Brothers into the 1980s, but – LOLs abound – Mr Humphries, Captain Peacock, Mr Rumbold and Mrs Slocombe are stuck in the 1950s. Yes, because Lloyd worked in the menswear department at Simpsons of Piccadilly post-war and the characters he created were drawn from his recollections of his time there. But as we’re in the 1980s there is also a new black staff member to chivvy up the aged retainers. Oh, my sides are splitting with the tokenism of that.

Kevin Bishop stars as Fletcher’s grandson also called ‘Fletch’

Porridge (the Next Generation?) gets a modern makeover – the conceit being that Norman Stanley Fletcher’s grandson, also called ‘Fletch’, is sent to jail for white-collar cybercrime. It’s also set in a new prison (probably run by staff from an outsourcing company along the lines of G4). Gruffly affectionate ‘screws’ like MacKay no longer exist – if they ever did.

We hold out some hope for this series pilot because the writers, the original’s creators, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (my favourite TV writers ever, bar none) are geniuses. However, as they have spent the past 40 years working as script doctors in LA, how plugged into the current UK penal system could they be? Good comedy, as they know, has to be rooted in the prevailing reality. This is something they pulled off to perfection in the original series and in both Likely Lads eras and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

Although in the 70s they captured the truth that prison was no laughing matter then, it is even less so in 2016, antiquated and overcrowded as many of them are. You’d be hard put to find loveable, avuncular old lags like Fletcher inside now  – and for young, pretty innocents like Godber, a stretch is less a rite of passage than a trip to Hell – as almost every TV cop procedural bangs home. As prisons now hold extremists from the far right and increasingly foster radicalisation at the other end of scale, we are far removed from the resigned ‘us-and-them’ vibe of the old Slade prison. Whereas Ronnie Barker’s snout and homemade hooch was once jail currency, hard drugs are now endemic. Hardly the broad, anodyne stuff of mainstream BBC One comedy, whose audiences now prefer a panto with an Irishman in a dress.

Until a few weeks ago most of us fondly assumed that, by and large, we lived in a harmonious multicultural nation. So reviving Till Death… could have sounded quite a quaint idea when it was commissioned but, post-Brexit, it seems akin to lobbing a hand grenade into the TV schedules as the racist minority have felt emboldened by the Leave vote to daub swastikas on doors.

Johnny Speight, writer of Till Death Do Us Part, along with its star Warren Mitchell, practically created the concept of postmodern-irony. It’s hard to imagine the incendiary effect asinine Alf Garnett and his rants about blacks, Jews and women had then – and the idea of a leftie Jewish Spurs supporter playing a “bald-headed, racist git” (Mitchell’s description) added extra piquancy. Would it offer the haters more of a licence now?

Speight’s writing grew out of his anger at the taxi-driver mentality he saw around him and he poured it into his brilliant characterisation of human frailty and stupidity with Alf’s long diatribes to his long-suffering family about race, white liberals and ‘silly moos’.

The series thrived in that post-Windrush period of 1965 to 1975 – during which flats were still widely advertised to possible tenants with ‘no blacks or Irish’ signs – and by the time it ended the nation, bar a few who missed the joke and took Alf to their hearts as a working-class hero, realised what a boon such incomers were, not least for propping up public services such as British Rail and the NHS.

Up Pompeii!, which ran from 1969 to 1970, also returns with a script by Paul Minett and Brian Leveson (My Family). This series was always so bound up with the archly camp personality of Frankie Howerd that it is hard to see that this will come off as anything other than a Horrible Histories homage. Structured as a farce, Up Pompeii drew on classical comedic forms and characters – will the remake understand this, or will it resort to a Plebs-style catalogue of anachronistic references?

 Him and Her’s Kerry Howard as Hyacinth Bucket in her younger days.

A one-off prequel has been spawned for Keeping Up Appearances, Roy Clarke’s 1990s sitcom about social climber Hyacinth Bucket (still inexplicably popular in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe). Set in the late 1950s, Clarke’s story will chart Hyacinth’s desperation to refashion her dysfunctional family after their mother leaves. Well, we suppose someone out there cares.

BBC Four will show recreations of three classic Lost Sitcoms. The scripts for these shows still exist but the old recordings fell victim to the BBC’s old habit of reusing tapes (which in itself reflects how broadcasters have thought differently about television over time).

The great Ray Galton and Alan Simpson can be credited with inventing the sitcom for a British audience (indeed Clement and La Frenais have admitted their debt to them). ‘The New Neighbour’, written by them, will star Kevin McNally as Hancock and Robin Sebastian as Kenneth Williams.

The recovered Hancock scripts already performed on radio by Kevin McNally and directed by Neil Pearson (both of whom recently worked on the terrific Power Monkeys) have worked well for newer audiences who don’t remember Tony Hancock. On TV, it takes an actor of McNally’s calibre to carry it off – remember Paul Merton’s reworks of Hancock scripts in the mid-90s? Nope, best forgotten. The scripts were written to Tony Hancock’s rhythms and cadences and for those of us from olden days, that was a huge part of the magic.

Steptoe & Son script ‘A Winter’s Tale’, also written by Galton and Simpson, and Till Death Us Do Part’s ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Home’, by Johnny Speight, will each be filmed in a theatrical-style presentation in front of a studio audience like plays, with the long, intense scenes that were axiomatic of their eras. People had more than a 50-second attention span in those days. For proof, watch the long one-scene dialogues inPorridge, Steptoe, or Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads. All that emotional depth is pretty rare in a half-hour sitcom.

And there’s another problem. All of these classic series were three-camera sitcoms with a live audience – something that looks a bit anachronistic since The Larry Sanders Show and The Office dragged comedy towards single camera filming.

Which brings us back to the essence of great comedies. It’s not just timing – it is the time within which they are set. The best shine like gems in their perfect setting – reset the diamond from an engagement ring into a necklace and it loses something of its meaning. It’s like trying to rekindle a romance with your college sweetheart in middle age – nothing is ever the same. The magic is gone.

There’s a good reason why canny Armando Iannucci waved goodbye to his 2005-12 gem – it was of its Noughties place and time. Last month he told the New Statesman: ‘Every time a stupid political event happens… people write to me and suggest I bring back The Thick of It. No. Absolutely not. I now find the political landscape so alien and awful that it’s hard to match the waves of cynicism it transmits on its own.”

In the Tinder age, Mrs Slocombe’s pussy sits very uneasily beside the sexual ennui of Catastrophe’s one-night stand. Innuendo will always have its place in comedy, but the question is, who are these reboots aimed at? The baby boomers who make up most of the UK’s TV audience – who actually watch broadcast TV in droves as opposed to other online media – know and love (or loathe) the originals and, for them, the late Wendy Richard will forever be Miss Brahms. But for millennials? – “Meh, what did you see in this, Gran?”

For those in between, like me, these series were part of growing up and I cherish them, but they are not Shakespeare – eternal truths to be reworked for any era.

And no, I don’t want to see Jason Watkins try to raise Mr Humphries from the dead – he’s a superlative actor who has inhabited his own great characters, and will carry on doing so if new writers out there are commissioned to script their own visions. BBC, show more courage and belief in new writers – be as daring as your BBC TV Centre forebears were – give comedy talent its head once more.

It’s not just reboots that don’t work it’s rehashing old sitcoms that ended perfectly well. You’d have to look very hard to find a comedy that ended more satisfyingly than Only Fools and Horses. When the Trotter brothers stumbled across an antique watch in their disorganized garage and became millionaires fans were delighted. We literally watched as our beloved wheeler dealers walked off into the sunset with David Jason’s Del Boy quipping, ‘This time next year we could be billionaires!”  

Obviously the show was missed and in 2001 someone somewhere convinced the late John Sullivan to bring the boys back. As huge fans it was exciting but as soon as 2001’s If They Could See us Now started we knew it was a disappointing mistake. Sullivan’s 2001 – 2003 trilogy lacked the magic of the original series. In the time between 1996 and 2001 the brilliant Buster Merryfield (Uncle Albert) had died and David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst were looking too old in their role. The fact that in the few moments of the new special Sullivan had the Trotters lose their fortune meant fans dreams were shattered as the reset button was pushed and the Trotters were banished back to their flat in Nelson Mandela House.  We have vague memories of how the show finally bowed out in 2003 but by then the damage had been done. 

The Royle Family ‘The Queen of Sheba’ in 2006

When Craig Cash and the late Caroline Aherne resurrected their work of genius The Royle Family with 2006’s The Queen of Sheba we were blown away. The hour long episode saw the terribly sad of Liz Smith’s Nanna. It was a bittersweet goodbye to a much loved comedy character but the episode itself featured everything a Royle Family fan would want. However, when it returned at Christmas in 2008 all hope went out of the window. The Queen of Sheba was full of comedy, pathos, The New Sofa (the special that followed) through all that out of the window. It was as if Cash and Aherne had forgotten what had made their BAFTA winning comedy such a hit with fans. We enjoyed the relatable sofa chats and the lovable banter between the family. What we got in 2008 was unbearable slapstick comedy that revolved around hapless Dave and Denise being completely clueless about how to prepare a Christmas dinner for the family. The Dave and Denise in the original series were normal people. Dave liked a drink in the Feathers and wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, his wife Denise was lazy. For some reason we can’t fathom, Aherne and Cash decided to turn their characters into utter buffoons.  One particularly cringe inducing scene saw Dave shaving in the bath with the turkey in hopes of defrosting it. A scene of this nature belonged in the Mr. Bean universe it was as far away from the Royle Family as it was possible to get! In subsequent specials the pair were never really able to capture the heart of the original comedy, further proof we need to leave things were they are!

British comedy isn’t dead, it’s not in the healthy vibrant state we were used to a few years ago, but it’s still hanging on in there. 

Peter Kay’s Car Share is to return next year for a 4-part series.

The huge popularity of Peter Kay’s Car Share last year proved when comedy is good and resonates with an audience it can’t be beaten. We loathe Mrs. Brown Boys we every fiber of our body but the audience figures it brings in can’t be sniffed at. The point here is that the BBC and every other network really shouldn’t be wasting their money on trying to recreate the magic of sitcoms gone by, they should putting every ounce of their energy in creating the shows that our generation can look back on with the fondness these older shows garner. 

If we want to wallow in nostalgia, let’s have repeats rather than retreads.

Deborah Shrewsbury

Deborah Shrewsbury



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