Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Comedy Archaeology - Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can't Live Without ‘Em

The classic British sitcom dynamic as we know owes a lot to these two writers, in my opinion. That’s not to shun the efforts of writers like Croft and Perry in crafting classics like Dad’s Army but the writing team of Galton and Simpson are, in my mind, the ones whose template has lasted the longest.

Trapped Together
The key element to the dynamic that still lasts to this day is the idea of a duo who drive each other mad and yet are unable to be apart. It’s there to a lesser extent in Hancock’s Half Hour with the dynamic between Tony and Sid but the one on which it really comes to the fore is in the interplay between Harold and Albert in Steptoe And Son*. Their living situation traps them together - being on the poverty line as struggling rag-and-bone men doesn’t give them many options - and Albert’s need for his son to help support them is balanced by Harold’s guilt at moving on from his father. On paper, this doesn’t sound like the stuff that hilarious comedies are made of and that was one of the innovations that Galton and Simpson were keen to push through - there’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy and,  if the characters are fully formed enough, it’s alright to walk that line sometimes.

Desire Vs Reality
What both Hancock and Steptoe have in common is characters who not only yearn for something more but have pretensions of being greater than they are. They sneer at those who exhibit traits that aren’t cultured  or those who are satisfied with their lot in life but, deep down, envy that satisfaction that others have with their own lifestyle. Harold constantly longs to leave behind what he perceives to be the squalid life that they live for the fineries of high society but secretly would be quite happy with a plate of fish and chips. Hancock is an out-and-out snob but one without the money and background to back up that snobbery. Both have their pretensions pricked constantly by their comedy partner (Albert for Harold and Sid for Hancock) and end up back where they started, stuck with their same lot in life.

I do enjoy both series but don’t watch them very often. They are important though for the strong influence on British sitcom over the years as we shall see...

* Small Side Note:- There is a long tradition of attempting to export UK sitcoms to the States for remaking with varying degrees of success. Steptoe And Son was one of the more successful ones, being launched in the US in 1972 as Sanford And Son. It lasted for five years and produced three other spin-off/sequel series. Transferring sitcoms the other way has been far less successful - the less said about The Brighton Belles, a British version of The Golden Girls, the better...

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