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Classic British TV Comedies: Great Shows from Across the Pond

British TV has always been a little bit different from its American counterpart. For starters, British TV censors seemed to let shows get away with a great deal more than the tighter U.S. regulations. British humor is also quite different, with more dry witticisms and a bit of slapstick goofiness thrown in for good measure.

The shows that are most distinctly British are the comedies. Unique comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus paved the way for many American shows and bridged the gap across the pond pretty well. Even today, classic British TV comedies are some of the funniest stuff on the small screen. From the silliness of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean to the high-fashion follies of Absolutely Fabulous, we take a look at some of the greats.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus

monty-python cast Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.

For many, watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a rite of passage. The British surrealist comedy troupe’s humor is sometimes patchy, but its impact on comedy can still be felt today. While the show only lasted five years, it launched the comedy careers of its six creators: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.

At its heart, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was silly, but it was silly in a very smart way. That’s not to say that all of their sketches were about something or had some hidden meaning. Rather, they were a reaction to the bleak political, economic, and social environment of the times. Often, art made out of hardship is the kind that tends to be the stickiest and most influential. For comedy, Britain’s darker years in the early to mid-’70s was the fertile ground needed to grow the absurdist genius behind Monty Python.

Today, close to 50 years since the show’s premiere, many of those sketches are just as funny and silly and outrageous as they were when they first aired. Some suffer terribly from the trials of age, but many still hold up as perfect nuggets of comedy gold.

Their legacy is easy to see. Sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and Key & Peele wouldn’t be what they are if not for the Pythons. Creators of shows like The Simpsons, South Park, and Canada’s Kids in the Hall all cite Monty Python as influences. But that’s enough of that. Get on with it.

All four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus are available to stream on Seeso. [Colette Smith]

Fawlty Towers

fawlty-towers John Cleese

Located somewhere in Torquay but without the view of the Sydney Opera House, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically, stands the hotel Fawlty Towers. Run by Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his overbearing and bossy wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), the hotel lurches from one near-disaster to the next. Helping the married couple run the place are the put-upon maid Polly (Connie Booth) and Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) who has some trouble understanding English.

Basil Fawlty is a hotel manager who appears to be irritated by even the presence of guests in his hotel. Ever mindful of climbing the social ladder, Basil attempts to turn his hotel into an establishment that will attract a better class of guest. His efforts are constantly frustrated by his own arrogance, ineptness, and short temper. Much of the humor in Fawlty Towers relies on miscommunication and coincidence as plots interweave in unexpected ways until the episode’s conclusion. Basil constantly engages his guests in verbal sparring matches. Many of the guests are designed as comic foils to Basil, displaying personality traits that he cannot stand.

Fawlty Towers ran for a grand total of 12 episodes split between two six-episode seasons. John Cleese and Connie Booth wrote and starred in the show. The couple were married at the time of the first season but divorced by the time of the second. Cleese based the show on his experiences at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay while staying there with the Monty Python cast. The hotel manager, Donald Sinclair, served as the basis for Basil Fawlty, and Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after the rest of the cast finished filming to research the character. Cleese later described Sinclair as the “rudest man [Cleese had] ever come across in [his] life.”

All 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers are available on Seeso.

[Mike Delaney]

Mr. Bean

mr-bean-teddy-bear

Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean is a seminal show in British TV. Atkinson is a master of physical comedy and satire, and even his other works like Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line are standout comedies from the UK. The movies, animated series and commercials featuring Mr. Bean are all fine, but nothing compares to the original program that started it all.

Mr. Bean originally ran 15 episodes from 1990 to 1995. My first introduction to the show was thanks to British programming on PBS in the early ’90s. The Curse of Mr. Bean is the third episode of the series and one of my all-time favorite moments in sketch comedy. The scene at the diving pool along with the lunch in the park bit and horror movie are all hilariously done.

The genius of Mr. Bean owes a lot to Monty Python and the art of mime performance. Rowan Atkinson is incredibly intelligent, but Bean is a simple character who approaches normal life in an unorthodox way. The bumbling, goofy façade works to make the character universally approachable, but nothing beats how Mr. Bean deals with the everyday. The show is a classic.

All 15 Mr. Bean episodes are available to watch on Hulu.

[Andrew Hawkins]

Father Ted

father-ted cast

Father Ted follows the lives of three Irish priests living together on Craggy Island, a miserable parish off the west coast of Ireland inhabited by eccentric villagers. All three priests have been assigned to the island as a form of punishment. The main character, Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan) is on the island due to financial irregularities, although he claims the money was only resting in his account. The young Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon) is there as a result of the Blackrock Incident that irreparably ruined the lives of several nuns. Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly) is a womanizing, alcoholic priest whose vocabulary is centered around the words “Drink!,” “Feck!,” and “Girls!” Their housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn), is obsessed with making tea and is charged with looking after the lot of them.

Father Ted dreams of both wealth and escape from the island, and the show devotes many storylines to his attempts to attain either. There is also his fierce rivalry with fellow priest Father Dick Byrne of Rugged Island. The forfeit of a bet between the two led to Father Ted having to kick Bishop Len Brennan up the arse. Father Ted also has to deal with Father Dougal’s incessant man-child qualities and controlling Father Jack when he gets upset, or even worse, when he’s sober.

Father Ted lasted for only three seasons and a Christmas special. The day after filming the final episode, Dermot Morgan died of a heart attack. It is generally believed that Morgan’s death prevented any further seasons from being made. However, the show’s creators have denied this and claim that they planned for the third season to be the last. Morgan’s death did mean a change to the final episode. As originally filmed, the episode would have ended with Father Ted contemplating suicide. Producers changed this to a montage of clips from previous episodes.

All three seasons of Father Ted are available on Hulu.

[Mike Delaney]

Absolutely Fabulous

absolutely-fabulous Edina and Patsy

The brainchild of star Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous was a BBC sitcom about two aging women trying desperately to stay hip. PR agent Edina and her best friend, magazine editor Patsy, act as if they are spoiled teens despite being past their prime. The first few seasons ran during the 90s, but Saunders revived the series in the early aughts. Over the years, Edina and Patsy continued to behave badly and drink copious amounts of booze. Edina’s daughter, Saffron, bore the brunt of her mother’s cruelest remarks. She served as the show’s voice of reason. Unfortunately, she is usually drowned out by her mother and Patsy’s antics.

The show was brilliant for its depiction of women behaving just as badly as their male TV counterparts. They swore, they drank, and they slept around. One memorable scene showed Patsy doing a line of coke off a toilet seat with Saffron’s fiance just before the wedding. Despite the rest of society having no idea what to do with them, Patsy and Edina’s friendship was unshakeable. Nothing could come between them, not even the last designer blouse on a sale rack.

AbFab spawned several specials and a movie. Every iteration thrives on the fact that its protagonists are utterly hopeless and completely oblivious. They’re bonkers, full of themselves, and absolutely fabulous.

All six seasons of Absolutely Fabulous are available on Hulu.

[Danielle Ryan]

Red Dwarf

red-dwarf cast

Imagine waking up three million years into the future and realizing you’re the last human in existence.

Red Dwarf has one heck of an intense premise. Thankfully, the gravity of the main character’s situation is broken up by solid and often times brilliant comedy. For a show that’s been airing off and on for nearly 30 years, Red Dwarf is a solid contender for best TV science fiction comedy ever.

Red Dwarf has a hardcore fan base of viewers who love the show for its plot, stories, and characters. The series has seen ups and downs in regards to production quality and screenwriting, but when Red Dwarf is at its best, the program is excellent. It’s like Star Trek meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with some occasional sci-fi horror thrown in to boot.

Dave Lister is a great and iconic character in the sci-fi comedy genre. Red Dwarf may be niche and not nearly as popular or accessible as it should be, but that doesn’t make the show any less interesting or unique. The adventures and mishaps the crew aboard the Red Dwarf face ranges from fun and harmless to dangerous and scary, all while being grounded by an excellent cast. It’s funny, smart and totally worth checking out and following.

Ten of Red Dwarf‘s 11 seasons are available on Amazon Video.

[Andrew Hawkins]


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