The end of Peep Show: What’s next for British Sitcom?

It may not be the most pressing issue at the moment, but the harsh fact is that Peep Show is kaput, leaving a requiem of great British comedies in its wake.

Admittedly, the long-standing series had run its course, and I think most would agree that the time was right to wrap it up – albeit perhaps a season too late. Either way, the door has been left wide open for the ‘next big thing’ to announce itself on the comedic stage and sweep up the easy pickings.. but from where?

With so many outlets now available, one would expect a plethora of new ideas, battling for viewers’ attention with original and exciting content, but inspiration seems to be lacking.

I feel there are many contributing factors to this, one being the way new shows are critiqued and subsequently lambasted in real-time, creating an almost instant aura of negativity around shows that lack the ability to strike an instant rapport with its audience. Pilots may no longer be an adequate method of forecasting the perceived response of viewers, and with ever-shortening attention spans, writers must make the discourse more exuberant, the scenes more snappy and the conclusions more rewarding. What you end up with is an undaring plot with conspicuous characters who no real substance or back story.

Canned laughter – if used sparingly – can add an extra dimension and compliment a show. This is not the case for this era of British comedies, which instead possess a frustrating commonality, almost insulting to viewers who are being reassured that what is occurring on screen is simply hilarious, and you are a pariah for not joining in. Canned laughter within older sitcoms tend to be more subtle, as if it is the producer’s intention to make you believe that the show was filmed in front of a live audience (incidentally, it is known that the laugh track used in many old shows originated from the live audience recordings of I Love Lucy).

I watch through my fingers and notice that in a post ‘Sachsgate’, post Deayton and post Clarkson universe, such institutions as the BBC have become so embroiled in their own self-censorship that all aspects of racy comedy has been replaced by safer slapstick and/or unfunny one-liners, usually delivered by accomplished stand-up comedians who have tried their hand at situation comedy, such as Lee Mack, Miranda Hart and Tim Vine.

Comedy without controversy is doomed to fail. Ben Elton and Rik Mayall’s ‘The Young Ones’ shares many qualities with Peep Show, not only for identifying with a disassociated youth, but by tangling with sub-cultures, poking fun at political ideas (namely Thatcherism) and putting petty squabbles on a pedestal.

The Young Ones
The Young Ones’ postmodernist take on 1980’s London

It’s easy to create a joke out of a subject matter which already carries ridicule, whether it be Catholocism (Father Ted), Parliamentary behaviour (Yes Minister) or social degradation (Phoenix Nights).

If ideology is one thing, then content writing is another. Some of the best British comedies were hampered by restrictive budgets, which often led to confined sets. Whether it be Del and Rodney’s flat in Only Fools and Horses, or the sepia-toned living room in the Royale Family, the show requires an exquisite pen behind the camera, such as John Sullivan or Caroline Aherne (it is no coincidence that these shows lost their spark once they passed on or quit).

Peep Show
Peep Show ran for over 12 years with a captive audience

My biggest peeve is (both in comedy and drama alike), is the inclusion of modern technology within a plot. It’s lazy, unflattering on screen and above all panders to a demographic who cannot focus attention without a popular branded devise being present. At a recent test screening for a sitcom set to feature on Comedy Central, 4 out of 6 of the storylines heavily featured smartphone technology. In one particular episode, two colleagues struggle to explain the concept of ‘Snapchat’ to their boss.

I’m waiting to be impressed by a new and original British comedy (Matt Berry’s ‘Toast of London’ is the only thing coming close at the moment). Until then, I’m happy to revisit the genius of Barker(s), Cleese, Jason and Atkinson, whose prowess is everlasting, and who somehow remain just as prominent and applicable today – how many current comedy characters will you able to say that about in 30 years time?


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