Where are the new classic sitcoms?

Sitcoms took 10 of the top 20 places in The One Show's vote to find the most-loved BBC programmes of the last 100 years, outnumbering dramas by two to one

When The One Show recently ran a poll to find the best-loved BBC shows ever, half of the top programmes were sitcoms – but none was launched within the last 15 years. So where are the future classics?

The mission to make the nation laugh is not taken lightly by one of the people tasked with finding things for us to laugh at.

“There’s a pressure because comedy to British people is quite a unique thing,” says the BBC’s director of comedy Jon Petrie, speaking at the broadcaster’s first comedy festival, in Newcastle.

“Everyone in the world likes a laugh, but I think we’re really good at it in this country.”

Sitcoms took 10 of the top 20 places in The One Show’s vote to find the most-loved BBC programmes of the last 100 years, outnumbering dramas by two to one.

It was little surprise that Only Fools and Horses took the top spot, or that classics like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley and Dad’s Army also ranked highly.

Gavin and Stacey castIMAGE SOURCE,PA MEDIA
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The Gavin and Stacey 2019 Christmas special was the most-watched comedy for 17 years

Gavin and Stacey, which first aired 15 years ago this month, was the most recent sitcom on the list.

In contrast, four of the five dramas in the top 20 were born in the last 15 years – Line of Duty, Call the Midwife, Killing Eve and Sherlock (the one older drama being Doctor Who).

Gavin and Stacey is also the only sitcom to have appeared in the annual end-of-year top 10 TV ratings lists over the last eight years, thanks to its 2019 Christmas reunion.

In comparison, at least one sitcom appeared every year from 1983 to 2007 (except 1994) – when shows like Only Fools and Horses, The Vicar of Dibley, One Foot in the Grave, Keeping Up Appearances and Men Behaving Badly popped up in the annual top 10 lists.

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Ghosts is one of the biggest mainstream hits of recent years

Meanwhile, over the last 10 years at the Bafta TV Awards, only two sitcoms made for BBC One or ITV have been nominated for best scripted comedy – Ghosts and Peter Kay’s Car Share.

In the previous decade, 11 BBC One or ITV shows were nominated.

There have been great comedy shows and big hits, though. Fleabag and Mrs Brown’s Boys have arguably been the most talked-about sitcoms of the last decade.

They are polar opposites in most ways, though, with very different audiences. Perhaps it’s no longer possible to amuse all of the people all of the time.

So has the supply of sitcoms that can make the nation laugh dried up?


No, according to Mr Petrie, who says it just takes longer for people to discover and fall in love with a sitcom now, with so much content from which to choose.

Meanwhile, a gripping drama is best watched at the same time as the rest of the country, or world. “With dramas, there’s more of a talk-about-ability of something,” he says.

“Like with Squid Game – everyone was talking about it, and you feel like if you’re not in that conversation, [you’re missing out]. Whereas comedy is more of a drip, drip, drip, and people will come to it.”

He says 11.5 million people have now come to the 2019 first episode of Ghosts, one of the few sitcoms to have broken through with a broad audience in recent years. That would rival the overnight ratings for beloved older shows.

Once viewers do discover a sitcom they like, they revisit it often, whether it’s old or new, Mr Petrie says. “The life of comedy is just much, much longer.”

Jamie Demetriou holding his Bafta AwardIMAGE SOURCE,REUTERS
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Jamie Demetriou won the Bafta for best male comedy performance for Channel 4’s Stath Lets Flats

Ash Atalla, who produced The Office and The IT Crowd and executive produces Stath Lets Flats, says there are some great current sitcoms but comedies have been “left in the rear-view mirror” during the streaming era, while money has been pumped into dramas with more global appeal.

“Comedy’s so country-specific. That’s always been the case,” he says. “Whereas a murder case, a thriller, a dead body floating in a river – none of those feel quintessentially British, or American, or anything.”

So sitcoms have “lost ground” and not evolved in the way dramas and documentaries have done with their streaming dollars, he believes.

“Alongside our beautifully-curated jewels of British comedy, I think we should also be trying to entice the streamers to put bigger bets on UK shows and be a bit more international-facing as well.”

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Greg Davies’ The Cleaner has been recommissioned for a second series

Having a hit show now often means “being at the top of your niche” rather than becoming a “juggernaut” like in previous years, Mr Atalla adds.

“There’s a mind-bending number of shows. You have so much to choose from with all the American stuff. You can find shows that really speak to you so specifically. You kind of go, ‘this has just been made for me’.

“So you can find something really tailored to your tastes, and that will be your hit. It’s not necessarily the hit that the whole family will enjoy. It will be your hit. And that’s a different kind of hit.”

Greg Davies, who has starred in and/or written sitcoms like The Inbetweeners, Cuckoo, Man Down and The Cleaner – which has just been given a second series – agrees “it probably is” harder to establish a show now.

As viewers, “we all get that streaming service snow-blindness of options”, he says. “If you’re writing, you just can’t think about that. You just have to do something that you’re excited by, and not think about all that.”

But he adds: “I think really good quality stuff gets found.”

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Five of the best British sitcoms of the last five years

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Derry Girls will come to an end on Wednesday after three popular series
  • Derry Girls (Channel 4) – the brilliantly offbeat show about teenage friends in Northern Ireland will be mourned when it ends after three series next week
  • Ghosts (BBC One) – an inventive and loveable spin on the haunted house concept is one of the few current comedies to genuinely appeal across all ages
  • Motherland (BBC Two) – the hilarious and relatable stresses and squabbles of school mums won the Bafta for best scripted comedy last Sunday
  • Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) – this Anglo-American show about an endearingly useless US football coach in the English league has scored on both sides of the Atlantic
  • Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4) – Jamie Demetriou won the Bafta for best male comedy performance for playing incompetent London lettings agent Stath
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‘Very willing’ for more Gavin and Stacey

At the BBC Comedy Festival, Mr Petrie announced an extra £10m for the corporation’s comedy shows over the next two years.

He also announced the return of Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education after eight years, and a special from Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones’ Detectorists.

What about more Gavin and Stacey, following its hugely successful 2019 comeback and James Corden’s recent announcement that he is leaving his US talk show?

“When they feel like they’re ready to do another episode, we’ll be here, very willing to make it,” Mr Petrie says enthusiastically.

The cast of Motherland
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Motherland won best scripted comedy at last weekend’s Bafta TV Awards

He also wants to extend the lifespans of current hit shows. “When we’ve got something like Motherland or Ghosts, it’s having the confidence to go, well, let’s just do loads more of that because people keep returning to that.”

Does he think it will ever be possible to find another show as popular as Only Fools and Horses?

“Yeah, I do,” he replies. “It’s just [about] time. It could be Motherland. But nowadays you just have to keep making more of it because it takes longer for something to cut through, because there’s so much stuff.”

The BBC is also looking for new ideas. Sitcoms set around families or workplaces are “what audiences crave”, he says.

“We don’t get pitched very many family sitcoms. So we’re putting a call out to the industry to say, look at the numbers – our audiences really, really want to watch this, so send us more of it.”


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