The Enduring Popularity of The Britcom
For more than a decade, American television on Saturday nights has been dominated by the Britcom. These, for those reading who don't know, are British situation comedies, originally produced for the BBC, which have been brought to the US by PBS stations across the country. These shows have become an integral part of Americana and almost everyone you know not only knows about them but has a favorite among them.
Which leads one to wonder why these British TV series, being telecast here in the States sometimes years after their original BBC runs, are so popular. Well, for me the answer is simple. Even though some of them carried a social message (think The Vicar of Dibley,) for the most part they were made for none other reason than to entertain their audiences. And this they've been doing for years.
Inarguably, the most popular of the Britcoms has been Keeping Up Appearances. The adventures of Hyacinth Bucket - excuse me, make that Bouquet - have been causing fits of laughter in Americans for years. Everyone has a Hyacinth in their family. An aunt of mine fits that bill very well. Hyacinth and her social climbing ambitions were continuously frustrated by her working class family, an inescapable encumbrance she has been trying for years to leave behind, but which she'll never be able to do because her roots won't let her. Portrayed by the incomparable Patricia Routledge, a seasoned stage actress, Hyacinth strikes a chord with global audiences who are either laughing with her or at her. Her enduring popularity is a testament to Ms. Routledge's unlimited talent and the appeal of this unforgettable character she brought to life with such zeal. Hyacinth is a classic who will undoubtedly still be entertaining audiences fifty years from now.
Then you have Diana Trent and Tom Ballard of Waiting For God. This pair of infectious oldsters continues to remain contemporary because in today's world those who we refer to as senior citizens are running the show more and more regularly. Diana is a retired photo journalist who resents growing old and is determined to show the world that her age is not the definition of her identity. Tom, her paramour, in contrast embraces his old age while refusing to let it encroach on his life. He accepts being elderly by ignoring it. The series is set in a retirement village in Bournemouth, England, which were becoming a staple in England at the time the series was originally produced, and Waiting For God reminds audiences everywhere that just because you're getting long in the tooth doesn't mean you have to exist quietly while you wait to die. You can still be very much alive and very much involved in your world no matter how old you might be.
As Time Goes By is a perennial favorite with practically everyone I know. Dame Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer brought to life the personages of Jean Pargeter and Lionel Hardcastle with such ferocity that people the world over have fallen in love with them. The story of young lovers who lost touch because of an undelivered letter during the Korean War, and who are unexpectedly reunited thirty-eight years later, Dench and Palmer created such believable characters that they resonate with viewers to this day. As Jean and Lionel rediscovered their passion for each other, they dealt with hysterical family members and storylines that were so real we all can relate an experience to them. As Time Goes By remains wildly popular with the American audience because it is as realistic as it tried to be, and because its characters are beloved. Quaint, cozy, and delicious, it keeps pleasing viewers year after year because it is quaint, cozy, and delicious.
Set in a fictitious London department store called Grace Brothers, Are You Being Served? is a look inside the lives of the employees of the mens' and womens' department. Mrs. Slocum, Captain Peacock, Mr. Humphries, Mr. Grainger, Miss Brahms, Mr. Lucas, and Mr. Rumbold are the employees in question and the way they run their floor has been hilariously enteraining viewers for almost forty years. As slapstick and as physical as the comedy of this show was, it did impart a believable aspect of the pains the working class endures on a daily basis, but it did so in such a hysterical manner that nobody could resist its high handed brand of comedy. These characters and their lives were so popular with viewers that most were reunited seven years after the original show ended in a sequel called Grace and Favour. The American audience has never lost its love for these misfits who served Londoners at Grace Brothers and Are You Being Served? remains a favorite on US television to this day.
Conceived at a time when female clergy were just emerging, The Vicar of Dibley was a huge hit for the BBC. Geraldine Grainger is a woman of girth and presence who became a minister because she chose to answer the call of the almighty instead of becoming just another working class woman. Her first assignment was to replace an elderly, recently deceased vicar in the small village of Dibley and she found herself surrounded by a cast of oddballs who caused sidesplitting laughter with audiences the world over. Dawn French brought Geraldine to life in such a realistic way that people actually thought she was Geraldine Grainger. As big a hit with US audiences as any other Britcom entry, no one can sit through an episode of The Vicar of Dibley without laughing so hard your sides hurt. It is that good. And it tackled some heavy social issues with such finesse that people were moved to action to combat such plagues as world hunger with gusto.
Absolutely Fabulous is a scream. Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone are a couple of middle aged women striving to remain successful in their careers as a PR executive and a magazine editor respectively. They are hard drinking ladies who are not opposed to using some medicinal agents to give them additional highs. Patsy and Edina come alive on the television and bring as much comedy to their audience as they do insanity to those who populate their fictional world. This wildly popular series stretches believability to its limits without overwhelming its audience. The adventures of Patsy and Edina are so popular with viewers the series refuses to die. Just this year new episodes are airing two decades after Absolutely Fabulous first premiered. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley bring Patsy and Edina to life with screaming success and their timeless presence charms the world year after year. Ab Fab is a hit that will undoubtedly remain so for a long time to come.
To The Manor Born is a Britcom that was first produced many years ago but which is really popular with the American audience today, no doubt because its premise of a woman used to being aristrocratic but whose financial situation has deteriorated to the point where she has to sell her baronial estate to survive resonates with today's viewers like mad. The current economic climate makes Penelope Keith and her portrayal of Audrey fforbes-Hamilton extremely contemporary. As Audrey struggled to come to terms with her new financial station in life, she found herself romancing - and being romanced - by the man who'd bought her manor house until the series finale when she married him and delighted viewers by triumphing over her demons. This "happily ever after" scenario is pure escapism, but in today's world it is welcomed and beloved because its message is timeless.
Last of The Summer Wine, Mulberry, A Fine Romance, Good Neighbors, and My Hero are just a sampling of other Britcoms which have found a home in the US in the last decade. These shows are pure entertainment and they make people laugh because that's what they were meant to do. Produced for none other than their comedic value, the social messages and screamingly funny storylines they bring with them are as much a part of today's world as anything else. The actors and actresses who brought these characters to life are as famous with viewers as any Hollywood star can boast and their talents are undeniable.
Britcoms are a part of our culture and they deserve to be as well. American audiences love them. They are destined to remain classics. As long as people enjoy being entertained, Britcoms will keep people laughing. And justly so.