Raising Laughter: How the Sitcom Kept Britain Smiling in the ‘70s by Robert Sellers

Review by Annabel

I watched an awful lot of telly in the 1970s, my formative teenage years. It was thus inevitable that between the early evening slots occupied by Top of the Pops, Tomorrow’s World and their ilk and 9pm when even then TV got serious with Play for Today, other dramas and documentaries, I saw a huge number of sitcoms which tended to fill the couple of hours in between on weekday evenings.

Raising Laughter is a comprehensive survey of all the sitcoms shown in the 1970s, following a chronological path through the decade. In his introduction, Sellers describes how we all needed cheering up in this decade of industrial dispute, and those sitcoms (for the most part) allowed the whole family to watch together and have a laugh.

But what is a ‘sitcom’? Sellers defines it as, ‘In essence, they present much-loved characters in cosily familiar settings week-in, week-out.’  In the 1970s they were differentiated from comedy series by mostly being recorded in front of a studio audience, whether the actors liked it or not! I’d argue that a series has more of a story arc too perhaps?

We turn our attention to 1970, and the first great sitcom of the era was the return, yes, return, of Galton and Simpson’s wonderful Steptoe and Son to BBC1, but now broadcast in colour.

‘We were very worried about it,’ confesses Ray [Galton], ‘because we thought it might take away the greyness and bleakness of it all.’

They needn’t have worried, it reached viewing figures of 28.5 million. I remember a brief encounter with Wilfred Brambell in the artist’s bar backstage at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. He’d been appearing in a play in the theatre, I was playing in the Croydon Schools Orchestra in the concert hall – but by then being eighteen, was allowed in for a drink – he was exceedingly dapper and polite, the antithesis of his on-screen character.

One thing that frequently happened in the 1970s was that successful sitcoms would spawn movies, which tended to do well in the cinema. And there were two Steptoe and Son ones, the second setting the bar for quality in film adaptations according to Sellers. There was also a theatre show too, but not all were as successful.

Moving on, we have our first encounter with David Nobbs, who would go on to give us the immortal catchphrase of CJ in the Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin… ‘I didn’t get where I am today….’ followed by a suitably pompous phrase. Nobbs’ first sitcom was a failure – set in a lighthouse – it lasted just six episodes; thank goodness he came back with many far better ones.

1971 brought us Bless This House on ITV. A great vehicle for Sid James as a ‘suburban family man’. It was produced and directed by William G Stewart, a former Butlins redcoat, whom you’re most likely to remember as the host of the quiz show Fifteen to One from the late 1980s onwards. It’s one of the comedies from the early seventies I remember most clearly, alongside Please Sir (1970) which made a star of John Alderton as a ‘young teacher at a tough school’.

Another comedy classic, which absolutely mastered the art of pre-watershed innuendo, was Are You Being Served?, created by David Croft (of Dad’s Army fame) and Jeremy Lloyd this time rather than David Perry; the show was based on Lloyd’s experience working in a department store. John Inman as the camp salesman, Mr Humphries, in the gentlemen’s department became a huge star, with the catchphrase ‘I’m Free’. Like many successful British sitcoms, Are You Being Served? was taken to the United States for possible adaptation and Croft and Lloyd were brought over to help with the casting:

Croft remembers one young actor, then a huge success at LA’s Comedy Store, coming in to read for Mr Humphries. His name was Robin Williams. While Croft thought Williams was very funny, his personality was so over the top that he convinced himself that the comic would sabotage the whole production. ‘I turned him down and thus prevented myself from becoming a millionaire.’  It didn’t matter anyway; the pilot was not picked up for a series.

One of the last new sitcoms of the 1970s was Terry and June, essentially a reboot of Happy Ever After which had run for six series earlier in the decade. Terry Scott and June Whitfield were given a new surname, and relocated to Purley, my home, so naturally I still watched it at first when home from university. This comforting slice of suburban family life was still entertaining, but I stopped watching when I started working – it would go on for eight years! Family life is perhaps the real stuff of sitcoms and would remain a staple into the future – Only Fools and Horses in the 1980s and Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s, immediately come to mind, and BBC3 continues to innovate (although some of its output makes me feel old now!).

I could have mentioned many more favourite 1970s sitcoms, from Porridge to Rising Damp, Butterflies and The Good Life to Citizen Smith via Fawlty Towers; this comprehensive book mentions them all, plus many you’ll have forgotten. Sellers includes quotes and interviews from many of the writers and producers, telling the stories behind the shows’ development, casting, filming, and the public reaction to them.

Some of the sitcoms would now be considered too controversial, indeed many such as Til Death Us Do Part (although intended to satirise at the time) and Love Thy Neighbour wouldn’t be made these days or would be recast / characters changed. Sellers and those interviewed do discuss these points from a dual perspective, now and back then, if only in brief as space permits.

A small monochrome photo section with some publicity shots from some of the biggest shows, including Frankie Howard as Lurcio in Up Pompeii giving the camera a ‘V’ sign with a grin, is accompanied by notes, bibliography, and a good index. The chronological nature of the book, and the author’s aim to include every single sitcom in it, does occasionally make for a bitty read, but I was rightly entertained throughout and, on many occasions, paused to find clips on YouTube to remember what I was reading about.

Was the 1970s the golden age of British sitcom? In terms of quantity, yes, there have never been as many sitcoms on our small screens. Where quality is concerned, it goes from the instantly forgettable to the immortal. ‘Twas ever thus, but the catchphrases live on: ‘Don’t panic’, ‘Stupid boy’, ‘You dirty old man’, ‘Miss Jones’, and my favourite ‘Pretentious, moi?’ [fade]

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Annabel is co-founder and an editor of Shiny and thinks that the 2020s so far is lacking in mainstream British sitcoms, but stands to be corrected. Do comment!

Robert Sellers, Raising Laughter, (The History Press , 2021). 978-0750996587, 288pp., hardback.

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Comments

  1. One of the funniest is Mrs. Brown’s Boys. But as I live in Canada, we receive very few of the new British sitcoms here, at least until they’ve been on the air for over a decade in the UK. And by that time the Brits are surprised to hear that we’re watching their old shows.

    1. Sorry I have to disagree – I really don’t like Mrs Brown’s Boys at all! You either love it or hate it. Thankfully it’s only 10 years old so beyond the scope of this book (Annabel)

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