Best British sitcoms debated as Phoenix Nights celebrates 20th anniversary
If there's one thing Britain does well, it's TV comedy.
Over the past seven or so decades, we've given the world some of the finest sitcoms ever created.
Right up there among the funniest has to be Phoenix Nights, Peter Kay 's laugh out loud series set in a social club in Bolton.
Kay, who played wheelchair bound owner Brian Potter in the show, wrote it with fellow comics Neil Fitzmaurice and Dave Spikey.
This month marked 20 years since it was first aired on Channel 4, catapulting Kay to superstardom on these shores.
And it got us thinking about where it ranks in the list of the best British sitcoms.
We asked our writers for their picks….
Red Dwarf (chosen by Timothy Farren)
Red Dwarf has to be up there. A classic tale of the underdog and odd couple sitcom that just so happens to be in deep space in the distant future.
With that premise you can go anywhere and do anything and they certainly did.
It feels so British as we're the underdogs. A bit rubbish but doing our best and happy to be involved.
Bottom (chosen by Andrew Jameson)
The Young Ones may get all the cult comedy plaudits but Bottom is, for the first two series at least, a lot tighter and chock full of puerile but brilliantly written gags.
Rik Mayall is downright disgusting as Richie but his utter glee for filth shines through in absolutely everything he does and the world was a better place for it.
The brilliant Ade Edmondson is the perfect foil in Eddie Hitler – and the violence is gold.
Just don't watch the follow-up Guest House Paradiso. Blimey, that was bad.
Hancock's Half Hour (chosen by Garry Bushell)
It's tempting to say Porridge, but Hancock's Half Hour was the greatest British sitcom.
The forerunner of Seinfeld, and by implication Curb Your Enthusiasm, it starred Tony Hancock as a grumbling malcontent at war with the world.
Like Seinfeld, Hancock played a version of himself (in this case, a poorer, grumpier one) who was forever falling out with others, often jobsworths and people in authority.
It was written by Galton & Simpson, who later created that other classic sitcom Steptoe & Son. Both shows were a huge influence on John Sullivan, the creator and writer of Only Fools & Horses.
Hancock was stuck in East Cheam with his conman pal Sid James. Liz Fraser and John Le Mesurier were semi-regulars.
Classic black and white episodes were repeated in the 1980s, including The Blood Donor, The Lift and Twelve Angry Men and to the BBC's surprise they went straight into the Top Ten.
At its height 20million people watched it. Stone me, as Hancock frequently said.
Father Ted (chosen by Andy Gilpin)
A show about three priests living on a secluded island musing about faith and God doesn't sound like a laugh riot.
But in an age of smut and catchphrases Father Ted became a Friday night institution – without smut or catchphrases*
The key to it was beautifully-crafted situations and little seeds planted through the episode that delivered. Every time.
The fondness for the show grew because of the untimely death of Father Ted, Dermot Morgan. It's 25 episodes and no more. It's finite. Almost ethereal.
Just the sort of topic Ted and Dougal would have discussed – before getting stuck in a women's lingerie department or kicking a Bishop up the arse.
And the quality of the jokes means it's still a Friday night institution 22 years since the last episode.
*Feck, you got me. There were some catchphrases…
The Office (chosen by Berny Torre)
The Office for spring-boarding writers Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant to share the "idiot who has blossomed into an imbecile" Karl
Pilkington in their podcast series.
Their mockumentary show was a bolt out of the blue success showcasing Britain's love for pathos and inspiring an American version.
Mancunian "head-like-a-f***ing orange" producer Pilkington was catapulted on to our TV screens and irked Sunday Times reader Wendy Robinson who blasted his "complete waste of air time, showing no wit, intellect or creativity".
Gavin and Stacey (chosen by Mared Parry)
Gavin and Stacey is a British sitcom that everyone needs to watch, if not only for the endless quotable moments.
As a Welsh gal from a small town it was refreshing to see such a different take on the country and its people, mainly down to Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon's incredible portrayals of Ness and Bryn.
It's such a cult British show that somehow turns the mundane lives of two wet blankets who meet online into something so candid and true to the people from Billericay and Barry.
Kudos to Jones and Corden for what they did, and for nailing their Christmas special in 2019 too. People still want more over 12 years on, and that's no small feat.
Fawlty Towers (chosen by Pat Wooding)
Fawlty Towers has to be the best sitcom EVER.
Each character is perfect. From rude, useless, snobby hotel boss Basil to nagging wife Sybil, naughty hired help Polly, who does all the work, and poor, put-upon waiter Manuel.
The situations are built up – farce like – until you squirm with embarrassment.
Don’t mention the snowflakes. If they can’t understand it is comedy, of its time and poking fun AT the racists, they don’t have a sense of humour.
John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth (Polly) wrote the scripts based on a real Torquay hotel.
They quit after 12 episodes while they were winning – unlike other sitcoms which limped on until the last laugh was squeezed out – like Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Extras (chosen by Dean Osborne)
While Only Fools an Horses, Fawlty Towers and Steptoe and Son regularly top polls to decide the greatest British sitcom of all time, my vote goes to a more recent show, Extras.
First aired in July 2005, Extras ran for two series (six episodes each) and ended with a Christmas special in December 2007. It focused on a TV/film support artist called Andy Millman and his struggles to become a 'star'
Written by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais team, it was the follow up to their multi award winning comedy, The Office, and starred both of them, along with Ashley Jensen, in main roles.
Episodes featuring theatre lovey Sir Ian McKellen, sex obsessed Daniel Radcliffe and egotistical Ben Stiller are a joy but the real cringeworthy laughs come from the smaller acting stars.
What's the best British sitcom off all time? Tell us in the comments below
I defy anyone not to cover their eyes during Keith Chegwin's homophobic rant, a naked Les Dennis's plea for love and fellow extra Maggie's attempt to get off with a black actor.
And who knew that Ronnie Corbett and Moira Stewart were the BAFTAs go-to drug dealers or that Sir David Bowie could make up songs about little fat men on the spot?
The Christmas finale will have you laughing and crying in equal measure, when Millman, in amongst the fellow Z listers in the Big Brother house, realises what his desperate quest for stardom has cost him.
If only today's fame hungry simpletons would take note!
The Thick Of It (chosen by Robert Mager)
A startlingly close-to-the-bone sartorial delve into the often mucky world of British politics at the very highest level.
Worth watching alone for foul-mouthed protagonist, spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (played by the wonderful Peter Capaldi) who manages to invent a whole new genre of swearing.
The dialogue in this show is simply untouchable and lasts long in the memory. Armando Iannucci's finest work.
Friday Night Dinner (chosen by Charles Wade-Palmer)
Friday Night Dinner is the best sitcom ever – it has it all – for the first five series at least.
A seemingly ordinary family, slapstick humour and the single most frustrating yet lovable character ever created in Jim.
The show ranks higher than actor Simon Bird's more famous sitcom, simply because I know what I'd be more comfortable watching with my parents.
And getting a laugh across generations in the same room is surely how sitcoms should be measured.
Oh and RIP Wilson, a true four-legged actor for the ages.
- Peter Kay
- Ricky Gervais
- Channel 4
- Gavin and Stacey
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