Witty, self-deprecating, occasionally chaotic, often naughty, always clever at its best, British humour is loved and cherished throughout the world. Here are ten beloved British sitcoms, or britcoms if you prefer, that first hit the screens before 1990 and have since reached classic status:
The ultimate sci-fi sitcom, Red Dwarf chronicles the hilarious adventures in space of good-natured layabout Dave Lister, who happens to be the last human alive, and his improbable companions on the ship Red Dwarf: an obnoxious hologram (Arnold J. Rimmer), a funky cat-man (Cat), a domestic android (Kryten), and an absent-minded computer (Holly).
Tough not all ten series are rated as high as the first few, Red Dwarf is without doubt a cult classic. The humour may not be of the most sophisticated type, and the acting may lack polish, but they suit the rough and ready feel of the show, which at its best has charm and creativity to spare. Also, Chris Barrie is brilliant as Rimmer, the irritating hologram.
Red Dwarf is set to come back in 2016 with two new series, which makes it the only show on the list still around in its original form.
Hancock's Half Hour
The oldest programme on this list, and seen by many as the first successful British sitcom, Hancock's Half Hour made its small screen debut in 1956. Like other sitcoms of its era, it was based on a radio show of the same name. Both starred Tony Hancock, a popular British comedian at that time, who basically played an incompetent and neurotic version of his own persona.
Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who also gave us Steptoe and Son, the episodes are loosely connected in terms of plot; other than Hancock, the only regularly recurring character is Sid, played by Carry On actor Sid James.
Of all the shows on the list, Hancock's Half Hour would probably appeal the least to modern audiences, but its influence on later programmes can't be underestimated. That isn't to say that many fans of British humour wouldn't enjoy it for its own sake.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
Dissatisfied with his boring job and life, the quirky protagonist of this even quirkier sitcom decides to leave it all behind and pretend he is dead. After coming back to life, he becomes a successful businessman despite his efforts to the contrary, and indulges in various extravagant acts with funny and unexpected consequences. However, he has several rivals in strange behaviour among the supporting characters, particularly his paranoid brother-in-law Jimmy.
Adapted by David Nobbs from his own novels, this comedy features a strong undercurrent of social commentary as well as a slew of memorable catchphrases, which, truth be told, can become rather annoying after a while. One of the best things about the show is Leonard Rossiter's nuanced portrayal of the eccentric main character.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was remade as Reggie Perrin in 2009 with limited success.
Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale play two rather different prison inmates who find themselves having to share a cell in this terrific comedy from the 70s. As they both try to make the best of their unfortunate situation, world-weary Fletcher, who's a criminal by occupation, becomes an unwilling mentor for inexperienced Godber, who's serving his first sentence. The former knows all the ropes of prison life and the latter is only to eager to learn. Their habitual adversaries are the wardens, especially the forbidding Mr. McKay.
Though it only ran for three series, Porridge has become an unquestionable classic of British comedy, partly because of the then-unique premise, but mostly due to the sheer quality of the writing and acting. Sadly, spin-off series Going Straight, which follows the characters after their release from prison, only went on for one series.
Steptoe and Son
A delightful comedy-drama from the 60s and 70s, Steptoe and Son tells the story of two rag-and-bone men (father and son, as you might have guessed) and their complicated, often explosive relationship. The two characters, whose worldviews and inclinations clash constantly with hilarious and sometimes pathetic results, are brilliantly portrayed by Wilfrid Brambell (Steptoe) and Harry H. Corbett (Son).
Crafty grumbler Albert constantly embarrasses his son with his reactionary ways, while frustrated dreamer Harold strives to make a better life for himself without much success. The two show more psychological depth than most television characters you'll ever meet: they feel like real people, only funnier, which is what makes this show special.
Steptoe and Son was adapted twice for the big screen and provided the inspiration for US sitcom Stanford and Son.
Only Fools and Horses
This extremely popular sitcom, penned by John Sullivan, deals with two working class brothers, Del and Rodney Trotter, and their inexhaustible and (usually) failed attempts at becoming millionaires. The characters may not always find themselves on the right side of the law, but they're likable, relatable, and mostly harmless.
Del Boy's ventures never fail to bring the laughs, nor do Rodney's often outraged reactions, or the quirks of the supporting characters, such as naive good-guy Trigger's inability to understand that Rodney's name isn't Dave (... it's funny when you watch the show.)
After winning a 2004 BBC poll, Only Fools and Horses was declared Britain's favourite sitcom. Scenes like the one where the boys smash a chandelier, or David Jason as Del Boy falls through the bar are, for many fans at least, the stuff of comedy legend.
This is the sitcom that brought humour into history, or, depending on how you look at it, history into humour. The four series feature four incarnations of self-serving aristocrat Edmund Blackadder, together with silly sidekick Baldrick and a loony cast of supporting characters, played by stars of British comedy such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Rik Mayall.
Smarter than everyone around him—except in the first series, when everyone around him seems smarter than him—Blackadder’s schemes still turn against him more often than not, hence his trademark cynicism, expertly portrayed by Rowan Atkinson.
Each series is set at a different time in history (Middle Ages, Elizabethan, Regency, and World War I) and each has its own charm, even the underrated first one. However, it's the fourth and final one, with its surprisingly serious (but undoubtedly appropriate) ending sequence, that garnered the most critical acclaim.
If clever, elegant and relevant comedy is what you're looking for, this is the right programme for you. Superb acting, impeccable wit, and great character dynamics are only a few of the elements that make this sitcom special. Set in the world of British politics, Yes Minister centres on the relationship between wily civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby and blundering politician Jim Hacker, with the latter's secretary Bernard Woolley acting as a mediator of sorts.
The satire has kept its bite after almost thirty years since the sitcom’s debut, and much of it is almost educational—a crash course on the inner workings of government and politics. Not an optimistic one, but that won't deter anyone's enjoyment. The sitcom’s sequel Yes Prime Minister is just as good. Sadly, its 2013 remake isn't.
Irascible and irrepressible hotel owner Basil Fawlty, played with gusto by John Cleese, always runs into trouble in this short-lived, very much loved sitcom from the 70s. He has a violent fight with his car, does an imitation of Hitler for a group of German tourists, tells misguided lies to the guests, has several nervous breakdowns per episode, and abuses pretty much everyone around—and usually that's just the beginning.
Written by Cleese, together with then-wife Connie Booth (who plays hotel employee Polly), Fawlty Towers features some of the funniest physical comedy of all time. Its sheer brilliance is nicely complemented by a wealth of witty lines and a cast of memorable characters, such as Manuel, the clueless waiter from Barcelona, and Basil's even-tempered wife Sybil, who's usually the one who gets him and the eponymous hotel out of trouble.
The obvious winner. If Britain has a national sitcom, this is it. Penned by the popular team of Jimmy Perry and David Croft, Dad's Army chronicles the adventures of a Home Guard (Local Defence Volunteers) platoon during World War II.
Self-important but rather heroic bank manager Captain Mainwaring leads the lovable motley crew, seconded by blue-blooded but self-effacing Sergeant Wilson. Other notable characters include elderly butcher Corporal Jones, Scottish undertaker Private Frazer, and teenage bank clerk Private Pike. While you wouldn't exactly call them an effective battle unit, they try hard and their hearts are in the right place, which makes Dad's Army touching as well as hilarious.
The sitcom first aired way back in 1968 and ended in 1977, but its popularity endures, so it's only natural that the platoon should come back in a film remake planned for 2016.