A British sitcom is a situation comedy programme produced for British television. Although styles of sitcom have changed over the years they tend to be based on a family, workplace or other institution, where the same group of contrasting characters is brought together in each episode. British sitcoms are typically produced in one or more series of six episodes. Most such series are written by one or two people (who also originally conceived the show).
The majority of British sitcoms are 30 minutes long and are recorded on studio sets in a multiple-camera setup. However, several notable sitcoms in recent years have experimented with different production methods (e.g. The Office or Peep Show).
A subset of British comedy consciously avoids traditional situation comedy themes and story lines to branch out into more unusual topics or narrative methods. Such freedom and experimentation has produced such series as The League of Gentlemen, Marion and Geoff, 15 Storeys High, Spaced, Black Books and Green Wing.
Novel approaches to the situation can be seen in Blackadder and Yes Minister, moving what is often a domestic or workplace genre into the corridors of power. Another popular development in recent years has been spoof television series, as in KYTV, People Like Us, The Day Today and The Office.
The first British sitcom was Pinwright’s Progress, broadcast by the BBC from 1946 to 1947, but the form didn’t really take off until the transfer of Hancock’s Half Hour from BBC radio in 1956. “Hancock’s persona of the pompous loser out of his depth in an uncomprehending society still informs many programmes today”, according to Phil Wickham. Some of the scripts written for Hancock by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson almost repudiated a narrative structure altogether and attempted to reproduce an everyday environment with the intention of also reproducing its comedy. ITV’s most successful sitcom of this period was probably The Army Game (1957–61), featuring some of the comedians who would soon appear in the Carry On film series.
In the 1960s the BBC produced the earliest of Richard Waring‘s domestic comedies, Marriage Lines (1961–66), with Richard Briers and Prunella Scales, and a then-rare workplace comedy with The Rag Trade (1961–63, 1977–78). Two long-running series began around this time, Steptoe and Son (1962–65, 1970–74) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965–68, 1972–75), the latter criticised by Clean-Up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse for its bad language. With Steptoe (and The Likely Lads, 1964–66) producers began to cast straight actors, rather than comedians, around whom earlier series like Whack-O! (1956–60, 1971–72), with Jimmy Edwards, or those featuring Hancock, had been built.
A gentle mockery of Britain’s ‘finest hour’ occurred with the home guard comedy Dad’s Army (1968–77) and the church with All Gas and Gaiters (1966–71). Women generally had very secondary roles at this time, though various series with Wendy Craig in the leading role and those developed by scriptwriter Carla Lane, the first successful female writer in the form, were challenges to this situation. Lane’s career initially began in collaboration with other writers on The Liver Birds (1969–79, 1996).