A User’s Guide to the Great British Sitcom Movie - Part One
by Matthew Coniam
The origins of the late-sixties/ seventies/ early-eighties sitcom movie can be located in the British cinema of the late 1950s, and specifically in the British cinema’s response to the threat of television. Throughout the fifties increasing mass-ownership of TV sets had become a pressing problem, and Hollywood, which had begun by mocking its pintsized rival, had come to see it as a serious menace. (The 1955 Ealing film The Love Lottery is a late, and unusually British, example of this mockery.)
Far outstripping the British industry in resources, Hollywood’s response to the problem was to throw money at it, in order to provide sensations that television could not offer. The switch over from black and white to colour (previously saved for fantasy and special occasions) is attributable to this, as are various other fifties gimmicks, some of which survived (widescreen) and some of which did not (3-D). The proliferation of Cinemascope epics with their lavish battle scenes and location filming were conceived to lure audiences out of their homes and back into cinemas, and the same anxiety underpins such fifties moments as the pre-title sequence of Martin and Lewis’s Hollywood or Bust (1956) saluting “the American movie fan” and the decision to precede The Girl Can’t Help It (1957) with actor Tom Ewell’s announcement that the film is shot in widescreen and “gorgeous, life-like colour by DeLuxe”. The scene in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) in which Jack Lemmon’s efforts to watch Grand Hotel on TV are frustrated by the proliferation of crude sponsors’ announcements exorcises the same neuroses on the part of its makers.
But Britain could not afford to suddenly start making Ben Hur, so for its survival it hit on exactly the opposite tactic. Instead of giving TV audiences something they cannot experience at home, why not give them the very things they like experiencing at home, only bigger? It was sleeping with the enemy, but it worked.
Though smaller companies like Hammer made outright adaptations of TV and radio hits (and with their version of the BBC’s The Quatermass Experiment scored a massive hit which set them on the path to horror success) the initial idea was usually to take a popular radio or TV comic and give them a big screen vehicle, often with a standardised plot that allowed precious little room to display any of the distinctive comic style that had made them popular in the first place.
Again, this was nothing new. In earlier decades, British cinema had plundered the music hall and variety stages for stars, achieving notable successes with George Formby and Will Hay, but finding it more difficult to find a place for emasculated versions of Max Miller and Frank Randle. But in those days, films were bringing theatre performers to huge new audiences, and probably the majority of fans who flocked to Let George Do It! or Oh! Mr Porter had never seen their stars on stage.
This time, however, it was different. Huge audiences watched Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill and Charlie Drake on television, and thus knew that what they were getting in The Runaway Bus (1955), Who Done It? (1956) and Sands of the Desert (1960) wasn’t the same thing at all. Indeed, even when the films were genuinely good, audiences voted with their feet if the format deviated too far from that with which they were comfortable and familiar. Tony Hancock’s two star vehicles for instance, The Rebel (1960) and The Punch & Judy Man (1962) are both far better than most critics will allow; the former in particular is able to take its place among his very best work. But while audience antipathy has been exaggerated in both cases, it is true that they were uncomfortable with the star’s attempts to broaden his range, particularly in the case of the oddly gloomy second film.
On the hunt for box-office champs to replace the increasingly restless Norman Wisdom, Rank had three cracks at making movie stars of Morecambe & Wise. The public was unconvinced and posterity has recorded the experiment as disastrous, but in fact all three films are harmlessly enjoyable, and the first two in particular (1965’s The Intelligence Men and 1966’s That Riviera Touch) now seem genuinely cherishable. The problem, it seems, was simply that people did not and do not like Morecambe & Wise without the added response of a studio audience. Truly, television had taken over.
Oddly, when the fad for sitcom movies died out in the eighties, this older formula was briefly revived (shortly before it was decided that a British film industry of any kind had all been a terrible mistake). Three oddities resulted: Smith and Jones’s ambitious Morons From Outer Space (1984), Kenny Everett’s sporadically hilarious Bloodbath at the House of Death (1983) and Cannon & Ball’s Will Hay remake The Boys In Blue (1983). Audience response to all three was decidedly lukewarm and seemingly for the usual reasons: because all three, especially the latter, were made without sufficient enthusiasm to give appropriate material to their stars. (Though according to a questionnaire in the 1983 Cannon & Ball Annual, to make a feature film was Tommy Cannon’s foremost ambition. Bobby Ball’s, still unrealised to the best of my knowledge, was to open a children’s adventure playground.)
So what happened in between Morecambe & Wise contentedly marching in step with an all dolly bird army at the end of The Magnificent Two (1967) and Bobby Ball trying to get a herd of cows through a traffic jam at the beginning of The Boys In Blue? What alternative formula did British film-makers hit upon to keep audiences out of their homes and in the cinemas?
Looking back, it all seems so ludicrously simple. Why bother trying to reinvent TV comics for the cinema and, as often as not, fail? Why not take a hit sitcom, bag the cast and writer, make a feature film version and give them what they know? This, with Hammer yet again at the forefront (along with British Lion and later Cinema Arts International), is just what they did.
A frame of mind informs all of these pictures, rendering them as discrete a unit as the films of German Expressionism or the French New Wave, the only difference being that these are lowbrow movies for mass audiences, not part of any artistic or cultural movement. Yet watching them, there is an aura; a sense of being invited into a club or initiated into some secret cult: a sense exaggerated by the critical ignominy in which most of the films themselves have always languished. They are time capsules, product of a film-making ethic more Steptoe and Son than Hollywood. Sitcom movies, and the whole world of seventies British low comedy of which they are part, have nothing to do with the exportable face of British cinema; with David Lean or Ealing or James Bond. These were the bastard children of British film, and they made it look ridiculously easy. Stanley Long’s Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976) may not loom as large in film history as those of Travis Bickle, but in Britain at least they took more money. And because the film was made on a budget of about a fiver, that meant a very comfortable Christmas for Mr and Mrs Long.
Of course it had to end, and sure enough, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives entered Downing Street bringing hope where there was despair, harmony where there was discord, salt where there was vinegar and Laurel where there was Hardy, one of the first things they did was to cut the Eady Levy, a tariff which had ploughed a fixed percentage of all film profits directly back into production. Next morning the lowbrow mavericks woke to discover that their industry could no longer support itself, and within a year only Derek Jarman’s interminable home videos remained to remind us that there was ever any such thing as an independent British cinema.
Sitcom films are among the most truly British movies ever made. By which I refer not to the exclusive, Sunday-best Britishness of Ian Fleming and The Avengers but that unguarded, unromantic England-in-its-overalls that (to quote Philip Larkin’s Lines On A Young Lady’s Photograph Album) shows “dull days as dull, and will not censor blemishes”.
The filmmaking is best described as functional. Viewers of George & Mildred (1980), for example, will not fail to notice that the exterior of the restaurant in which the characters celebrate their anniversary is plainly a modest suburban bungalow with a string of fairy lights on the roof. They will also note the oddity that none of the characters in the early sequences feel obliged to comment on the howling wind sending their ties and hair in all directions as they converse in their front gardens. No American film would be made in such weather - this one doesn’t even acknowledge it.
So how did it all work? The first problem was how to stretch thirty-minute sits into a ninety-minute com. Half-hour sitcoms are not half an hour by accident: it’s about the right length. The usual solution was to graft a heavy-handed and unrealistic plot onto the familiar characters and settings. So George & Mildred begins with ten minutes or so of typical material, before sending its heroes off on a honeymoon to ‘The London Hotel” (stopping off en-route at “The Candlelight Restaurant”) where a hitman makes several failed attempts to kill them after George is mistaken for a gangster.
This plays especially strangely in comedies where the central situation is essential to the point of the programme. For instance, Man About The House was a mildly risque series about a heterosexual man sharing a flat with two girls. Come fresh to the 1974 film, however, and you will be baffled at how little is made of this in its story of a crooked property developer and his attempts to knock down their house.
Sitcom films are always funnier when one imagines never having seen the original programme. How strange that a film called Are You Being Served? (1977), in which all the characters work at the same department store, should opt not to base the film in said store, but to send them all on holiday to the Costa Plonka (for which read: a few ramshackle sets at Pinewood).
The sense of strain is even more evident in the endlessly enjoyable Bless This House (1973), a mild generation gap sitcom which relied almost entirely on the presence of Sid James in the lead. Faced with the task of making a film out of all of this, screenwriter David Freeman opted to push the clock back to the silent era and base the film almost solely around slapstick episodes. So we have uncontrollable hosepipes, people stepping in wallpaper paste, a farting, falling-to-pieces car like clowns have, wet cement calamities and an exploding shed. There’s even a pie fight.
To be continued…
This article originally appeared in Kettering 1