“Best of the Britcoms” turns 20!

Yes indeed, this week marks exactly twenty years since publishing my first book, Best of the Britcoms, the first real accomplishment of my gloriously mediocre writing career.

I’ve told the story many times of how the book came about: having become a delirious fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus upon finding it by accident on PBS in 1975, I enjoyed the flood of British sitcoms that soon came to PBS–first Fawlty Towers, and then dozens of other comedies that have come and gone from American TV screens in the decades since. I began videotaping all of them, most of which became the 3-hour prime time schedule on WLIW (Long Island, NY) every Friday night for years.

I taped them for fear that they might be suddenly yanked off the air without notice, leaving me with no means to continue watching them on a regular basis. Over 300 hours of Britcoms later, all recorded and numbered on videocassettes that encroached on my living space, I decided that there must be something constructive that I could do with all of this British comedy. I appreciated how creative, even daring, many of those programs were, especially compared with most American sitcoms of the same time period. I was also certain that there were other fans out there across the country who loved Britcoms as much as I did, but who, in those pre-Internet years, hadn’t any real way of learning more about them.

One night in 1995, while munching on a snack with my future wife Karen at our favorite diner, I hit upon the idea of writing a book, much like a viewer’s companion, of the Britcoms that were being shown in the U.S.–not just the well-known series, but the more obscure gems as well. I decided I would devote a chapter to each program, packed with as much information as I could find (if only every meal I had at that diner produced the same inspiration). I assigned myself the task of spreading the word, and the information, about British sitcoms, via the book.

I then realized that the first thing I needed to do was begin contacting people at the BBC and other U.K. broadcasters and production companies (the vast majority of the Britcoms to air on PBS were BBC productions). I had never even placed an overseas phone call before, but I somehow found the main number of “the Beeb” in London, and kept asking for whoever might be able and/or willing to help me.

I found the head of the BBC Press & Publicity Department, Jenny Secombe, who happened to be the daughter of legendary comedian Harry Secombe, co-star of the classic and influential 1950s radio series The Goon Show with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. I wondered if I had been one of the few people requesting to speak to her about something other than her father.  I sent her a fax (remember those?) to explain the goal of my book.  Jenny was the first person to say, basically, “Yes, we’ll help you.” I was ecstatic.

From that point on, I began contacting agents who represented the sitcom writers , directors, and producers, and just about all of them gladly arranged for me to interview their clients by phone. Before I knew it, I was speaking to people who were unknown in the U.S., but who were celebrities to me, having seen their names on the credits of my favorite Britcoms for years. Interviewing the actors was a thrill as well, after watching them perform and making me laugh week after week. I was thrilled, and genuinely surprised, by the level of cooperation I received. After all, I was just some unknown American attempting to write his first book, but everyone I interviewed–including those “big shots” of British television–was polite, talkative, and encouraging.

Richard Briers and his co-star on “The Good Life,” Felicity Kendal.

The late Richard Briers, who had a long and celebrated career on television, and is probably most associated with the late-1970s Britcom The Good Life (known in the U.S. as Good Neighbors) was one of the stars I spoke with, and he was also kind enough to agree to write the

foreword for the book. He sent me a little note after I sent him a copy of the book after its publication.

The person who was perhaps most helpful to me during my research was a girl named Eva de Romarate, who was working as an assistant at the BBC Press & Publicity Office. Despite her own busy workload, Eva never failed to obtain materials, phone numbers, and countless miscellaneous bits of information for me. We e-mailed constantly, and she even sent bulky packages of promotional materials via snail mail. Once, when a package I had been expecting from her was weeks overdue, I sadly concluded that it was lost

somewhere in the world. Eva then gathered duplicates of what I had asked for, and sent them all to me again. Not long after receiving it, the original package arrived. I was mortified.  But she took it in stride. When Karen and I visited London as part of our honeymoon in 1997, we met with Eva for a while to chat at her favorite pub.

Then came the chore of finding a literary agent to represent me in my quest for a publisher. I didn’t find one until August of 1998. At the same time, I contacted PBS affiliates across the country that had already been airing Britcoms regularly. My strategy was to interest them in the book, and have them respond with letters agreeing that it could be used as a gift item for their periodic on-air fundraisers. Enough letters would, hopefully, convince some publisher that this would be a winning proposition.

To my amazement (and giddiness), it worked. The letters came. My agent found Taylor Trade Publishing in Dallas, which became my publisher.

Once I got the interviews, photos, and everything else organized the way I wanted, there followed months of checking and proofreading galleys, and planning a promotional strategy with Taylor’s publicist. Finally, on the last week of August, 1999, I received the e-mail, “We’ve got books!”

A number of press interviews and reviews (including an A+ from Entertainment Weekly) followed. It felt good, I have to admit.

Ten years later, I decided it was time to revise and make additions to the book, so I added seven more chapters, and updated most of the others.  The revised edition of Best

of the Britcoms arrived in early 2010 (but, unfortunately, without most of the original photos, as the BBC prices for licensing photos had skyrocketed in that intervening decade).

So goes the (long) story of my first steps into the world of pop culture “expertise.” And there’s a brand new book on the way, so stay tuned!

Little-known Britcoms Worth Seeking Out

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my fondness for British sitcoms. The genre inspired me to write Best of the Britcoms, which was originally published in 1999. Several years later, I updated portions of the text and added seven new chapters, covering programs I had discovered since the original edition hit the bookstore shelves. The revised edition was published in 2010.

There have been still more terrific sitcoms to cross the Atlantic since then, so I’d like to offer a new list of favorites that I’ve discovered since that revised edition (plus one or two that I found just before it went to print). Unfortunately, the flow of high-quality Britcoms on PBS and cable networks has slowed to a trickle in recent years, so I’d advise seeking out these shows on YouTube, Netflix, or any number of other sources–not to mention a good ol’ DVD box set. You may not even need to purchase it–check your local library, which just might have several series on disc waiting for you.

l. to r. : Dougal, Ted, Mrs. Doyle, Father Jack (who can walk, but is usually too inebriated to do so, and prefers being pushed around in a wheelchair).

Father Ted (1995-1998)- A daringly irreverent sitcom by American standards (it was literally “banned in Boston” by the local PBS station, due to protests by Catholic groups), Father Ted features a trio of Irish priests: Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), his cheerfully imbecilic young colleague Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and the elderly, perpetually inebriated, foul-mouthed Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). They have been exiled to remote Craggy Island, but where they have a knack for indulging in various schemes that can be decidedly less than holy, and which tend to result in the priests inadvertently humiliating themselves in front of their parishoners.

Dougal and Ted rehearse their awful song, “My Lovely Horse,” for entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

They also have an accident-prone housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn) whose personal mission in life is to serve tea to the residents and their visitors at every opportunity, even after their repeated refusals. The series boasts surreal blackout gags, ludicrous dialogue, and an anything-goes comic sensibility that treats many sacred institutions as fair game. But the comedy here is too absurd to cause real offense to anyone with a sense of humor.

The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006)- A brilliantly inventive combination of sitcom and talk show, each episode opens in the suburban home of the (fictional) wealthy Indian immigrant Kumar family. The parents have had a full-size TV studio built in their backyard to accommodate adult son Sanjeev’s desire to host his own talk show. In a typical episode, a real-life

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, Sanjeev, and feisty grandmother Ummi.

British or American celebrity enters the front door of the house, meets the family, and chats for a while before being whisked into the adjoining studio, where an audience of 300 awaits the talk show to begin (guests have included Minnie Driver, Chevy Chase, Donny Osmond, Twiggy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Boy George).

With guest Tom Jones.

The episode continues with Sanjeev interviewing the guest as the Kumar family sits on the studio sofa, peppering the guest with off-the-wall questions, while occasionally tossing casual insults at Sanjeev. This show is a hoot!

Outnumbered (2007-2014)- This series, a sort of Modern Family before Modern Family, follows the day-to-day life of an average married couple, Pete and Sue Brockman (Hugh Dennis, Claire Skinner) and their young children. It is a single-camera, fly-on-the-wall comedy of amazing realism, due mostly to the fact that the child actors were encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, rather than follow the script word for word. The three kids, Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Ben (Daniel Roche), and Karen (scene-stealer Ramona Marquez), range in ages 6-12 as the series opens, and keep their chronically exhausted parents forever on their toes with an onslaught of embarrassing or hard-to-answer questions, and frequent refusals to eat their dinner. Their rapport with each other is so natural, you’d swear that you’re eavesdropping on a real (and very funny) family.

This sequential series of cast photos (left to right) shows how the children grew into young adults in the seven years between the series first season and its last. There was sometimes a gap of two years in between seasons (punctuated by Christmas specials), and some fans of the show were shocked, and not especially pleased, to see the precocious kids all grown up in the later seasons.

The IT Crowd (2006-2010)- Just as The Big Bang Theory in the U.S. made science geeks lovable, The IT Crowd did so in the U.K. But the members of this tech support team, whose office is relegated to the basement of a large London corporate headquarters, spend as little time troubleshooting computer problems as possible.

Katherine Parkinson, Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd.

Roy (Chris O’Dowd) answers most phone inquiries with his standard reply, “Did you try turning the computer on and off again?” in hopes of dismissing confused office workers. Moss (Richard Ayoade) has a twisted sense of logic that can be interpreted as either brilliance or stupidity (usually stupidity).  Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is their boss, but spends more time trying to avert or solve crises among them and the rest of the employees, as well as dealing with the company’s insane CEO.

Moss somehow fails to notice an office fire.

And when they do try to solve problems, things always go from bad to worse, proving that they’re not nearly as brilliant as their job description implies. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, again gives us characters who manage to get themselves deeper and deeper into absurd situations–both at work and elsewhere–that never end well.

Miranda (2009-2013)- Comedian Miranda Hart plays a more socially and physically awkward version of herself in this daffy sitcom, which she created and co-wrote. She runs a gift shop cluttered with novelty items

l. to r.: Sarah Hadland, Patricia Hodge, Miranda Hart, Tom Ellis.

that amuse her to no end, even if most of her customers leave empty-handed. Her best friend/employee, Stevie (Sarah Hadland), is a petite blonde who shares the same warped, childlike wavelength as Miranda, and, despite their frequent spats, the two remain loyal to each other above all else.

Mother is not known for her subtlety.

Miranda’s meddlesome mother (Patricia Hodge) is forever trying to find her a potential husband, even though Miranda has a hopeless crush on Gary (Tom Ellis), the owner of the restaurant next door. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romantic relationship. In each Miranda episode, Hart breaks the “fourth wall” (a topic of one of my earlier blogs) to speak directly to us, nearly as much as she speaks to the other characters within the scene.  And, best of all, her propensity for taking pratfalls and indulging in other bits of physical comedy–including untold instances in which she embarrasses herself in public at the worst possible moment– keep the show energetic and hilariously funny.

So, do yourself a favor and look for these programs. You won’t be disappointed.

Until next week…