It cannot be denied, 1970s comedy can be a sticky subject. Society’s values have changed, and what was considered funny once may now be frowned upon as unacceptable and even downright offensive. Our perpetual quest for subtlety and nuance has also undoubtedly rendered much of it embarrassingly predictable.
And yet in our desire always to do and say the right thing it seems we may have lost something along the way. Some would say that in the modern age we take ourselves far too seriously, and have lost the ability to laugh.
Here, in (more or less) chronological order, are 60 British comedies from back in the day which many look back upon with fondness, others with unease. I pass no judgment.
1. Steptoe and Son (1962-1974)
Father and son rag-and-bone team ply their trade from a backstreet yard in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, leading to perpetual inter-generational conflict between aspirant and ambitious young Harold and “dirty old man” Albert. Starring Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett. Two successful film adaptations were made in the early seventies.
2. Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975)
Ranting East End bigot Alf Garnett rails forth against immigrants, socialists, Liverpudlians, layabouts, young people in general and his “silly old moo” wife, Else. Written by Johnny Speight, the intention was to cast ridicule upon the central character (and by association his ilk), but many came to identify with him. Warren Mitchell, Dandy Nichols, Una Stubbs and Antony Booth star.
3. All Gas and Gaiters (1966-1971)
An ecclesiastical farce revolving around rivalry and intrigue in the Church of England. An over-officious dean tries to enforce discipline at St. Ogg’s Cathedral, much to the annoyance of everyone else on the team . Written by Pauline Devaney and Edwin Apps, a husband-and-wife partnership who worked under the singular pseudonym of John Wraith when writing the pilot. Stars William Mervyn as the bishop.
4. Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width (1967-1971)
Manny Cohen and Patrick Kelly make for an unlikely couple, being from distinctly different cultural backgrounds (one Jewish and the other Irish), but they go into business together as tailors. Their respective traditions underpin most of the storylines throughout. Many notable guest artists appear throughout the series. Stars John Bluthal and Joe Lynch. A film spin-off was released in 1973.
5. Please Sir! (1968-1972)
The comedic adventures of a class of sixteen-year-olds at Fenn Street Secondary Modern School (most of whom, it has to be said, look conspicuously older), presided over by young teacher Bernard “Privet” Hedges. A film version was released in 1971. Created by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, it stars John Alderton, Deryck Guyler, Noel Howlett, Joan Sanderson, Peter Cleall and David Barry.
6. Father, Dear Father (1968-1973)
Patrick Cargill is divorced novelist Patrick Glover, who sometimes finds it a struggle to raise his two chirpy daughters whilst fending off the unwanted interference of his ex-wife and her new husband. His brother, mother and publisher are also around to complicate things. A spin-off film was released in 1973. Also starring Anne Holloway and Natasha Pyne.
7. Nearest and Dearest (1968-1973)
Feuding brother and sister Nellie and Eli Pledge run a family pickle business in Lancashire. Nellie, played by Hylda Baker, is a past master of the malapropism, whilst Jimmy Jewel as the hard-drinking and womanising Eli provides the perfect foil. Produced by Grenada television for ITV, it was also made into a film. “Has he been? Yes, he’s been”.
8. Dad’s Army (1968-1977)
Running for an impressive eighty episodes and including a feature film, this much-loved sitcom was written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft and features a group of men, mostly of mature age, serving in the Home Guard during the Second World War. Starring Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier, John Laurie, Clive Dunn, Arnold Ridley, Ian Lavender and James Beck (until his untimely death in 1973).
9. The Morecambe and Wise Show (1968-1983)
This classic comedy duo had their own show at the BBC from 1968-77, which then switched channels to ITV and continued until 1983, a year before Eric Morecambe’s death. With hilarious sketches and big name guests, Ernie Wise played the straight man while Eric clowned in what was one of the most successful double acts of all time. Pure comedy gold.
10. Up Pompeii! (1969-1970)
Starring Frankie Howerd and set in Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius, this short-lived comedy show constantly involved risqué gags and double entendres, sometimes delivered by Howerd as an aside to the studio audience seemingly out of earshot of the rest of the cast in what came to be appreciated as a clever and unique format. Bawdy humour which quite defined its time.
11. The Dustbinmen (1969-1970)
The oddly-named crew of dustcart Thunderbird 3 (with such memorable monikers as Cheese and Egg, Heavy Breathing and Bloody Delilah) insult each other and everybody else who gets in their way as they set about their business working for the council’s cleansing department. Starring Graham Haberfield, Trevor Bannister, Bryan Pringle, Tim Wylton and John Barrett.
12. On the Buses (1969-1973)
A popular sitcom set around the life of bus driver Stan Butler, both at home with his family and at the depot with his artful clippie Jack Harper and his nemesis, Inspector Blake. The family is somewhat dysfunctional, not least the frosty relationship between frumpy sister Olive and her perpetually unhappy husband Arthur. With Reg Varney, Bob Grant, Doris Hare, Michael Robbins, Anna Karen and Stephen Lewis.
13. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
A unique, sometimes surreal series of comedy sketches by the world famous Monty Python team of John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam. Sometimes the gags err towards the intellectual, with references to philosophers, as well as to sundry literary figures and their works. As well as achieving cult status as a TV series the team wrote and performed several successful films and stage shows.
14. The Liver Birds (1969-1979)
Two young single women share a flat in Liverpool, dressing in the finest 1970s fashions whilst sometimes looking for romance as well as reflecting upon everyday issues and concerns such as work, money and parents. Pauline Collins and Polly James star in the first series, with Collins replaced by Nerys Hughes thereafter. Was sometimes compared to The Likely Lads, which was set in Newcastle.
15. For the Love of Ada (1970-1971)
Romance blossoms after Cockney widow Ada Cresswell (Irene Handl) meets Yorkshireman Walter Bingley (Wilfred Pickles), the grave digger who buried her husband. Where else to move into once they have married but the cemetery lodge? Also stars Barbara Mitchell and Jack Smethurst. A film version was released in 1972, which included a guest appearance by Arthur English.
16. The Goodies (1970-1982)
Zany slapstick show featuring sketches and situation comedy by trio Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor and especially famous for the spoof “adverts” which were shown during the programme. Will long be fondly remembered for such iconic episodes as The Goodies and the Beanstalk and Kitten Kong. The Goodies also released several successful hit records, including The Funky Gibbon and The Inbetweenies.
17. Doctor at Large (1971)
Based on a collection of books by Richard Gordon and following its predecessor Doctor in the House, this series about the antics of a group of young, newly-qualified doctors (most notably the enthusiastic pursuit of young women) began and ended in 1971, spanning a total of 29 episodes. It was shown on London Weekend Television. Starring Barry Evans, George Layton, Ernest Clark, Richard O’Sullivan and Geoffrey Davies.
18. The Fenn Street Gang (1971-1973)
A spin-off from Please Sir! in which many of the characters formerly seen in the classroom make their way into adulthood and the world of work. Their old teacher Mr. “Privet” Hedges (John Alderton) guest appears in three early episodes as he ventures to see how his former pupils are getting along. Featuring Peter Cleall, David Barry, Carol Hawkins, Peter Denyer and Liz Gebhardt.
19. And Mother Makes Three (1971-1973)
Made for ITV by Thames Television. Widowed mother Sally Harrison works as a vet’s assistant whilst living with her children and her Aunt Flo, who does what she can to help Sally raise them. Unfortunately it is sometimes easier said than done. Starring Wendy Craig, with David Parfitt, Robin Davies and Valerie Lush. Made for ITV by Thames Television, like many comedies of its time this was co-written by Carla Lane.
20. Bless This House (1971-1976)
Stationery salesman Sid Abbott (Sid James) and his wife Jean struggle to cope with the ways of their right-on children, arty dropout Mike and his pretty younger sister Sally. A film version was released in 1972. The series was brought to an abrupt halt in 1976 when James died suddenly whilst performing on stage at the Sunderland Empire. Also starring Diana Coupland, Robin Stewart and Sally Geeson. Made for ITV by Thames Televsion.
21. The Two Ronnies (1971-1987)
Namely Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker. A comedy sketch series shown on BBC1, two of the all-time biggest names in British comedy came together for this iconic and fondly-remembered show. The list of occasional writers reads like a Who’s Who? of British comedy – including John Sullivan, Barry Cryer, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Spike Milligan to name but a few. Who will ever forget the famous “Four Candles” sketch?
22. My Wife Next Door (1972)
Divorcees George and Suzie Basset (John Alderton and Hannah Gordon) both look forward to their new lives away from one another, only to discover when they move to the country that they have purchased adjacent houses. What could possibly go wrong over thirteen episodes? Won a British Academy Television Award for Best Situation Comedy in 1973.
23. Doctor in Charge (1972-1973)
A continuation of Doctor at Large, with a similar cast other than for the introduction of Robin Nedwell as Dr. Duncan Waring, and there was no Barry Evans. The longest of the Doctor series, it ran for a total of 43 episodes and was regularly amongst the top ten most watched programmes on ITV. Screenwriters included Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden of The Goodies fame.
24. Romany Jones (1972-1975)
Arthur Mullard and Queenie Watts play Wally and Lily Briggs, a mature workshy couple living on a caravan site. The show, made by London Weekend Television for ITV. was originally mooted as a vehicle for co-star James Beck, of Dad’s Army fame, who sadly died unexpectedly in 1973. Interestingly Mullard and Watts later reprised their roles for an appearance in the film Holiday on the Buses.
25. Love Thy Neighbour (1972-1976)
Okay, nobody would even think about making a programme like this today. A sitcom about racial conflict largely brought about by a prejudiced white man against his black neighbour, whilst their more sensible wives get along famously. A well-intentioned attempt to parody racism – whether it works or not depends largely on where one stands to begin with. Stars Jack Smethurst, Kate Williams, Randolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper.
26. Sykes (1972-1979)
BBC1 sitcom written and starred in by comedy legend Eric Sykes, alongside Hattie Jacques who plays his twin. Living in East Acton, Jacques plays the patient and long-suffering foil to her immature, accident-prone brother. Many episodes were colour remakes of earlier versions recorded in the 1960s. Also features Deryck Guyler, Charles Fulbright-Brown and Joan Sims.
27. Are You Being Served? (1972-1985)
The adventures of a team of retail sales assistants from the clothing department at the fictional Grace Brothers store. Farce, innuendo and double entendres predominate. With John Inman, Trevor Bannister, Mollie Sugden, Wendy Richard, Nicholas Smith, Frank Thornton, Arthur Brough, Harold Bennett and Arthur English. “Are you free? I’m free”.
28. Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973-1974)
A colour sequel to the 1960s hit comedy series The Likely Lads, the programme charts the adventures of two friends from Newcastle, Bob and Terry, both working-class – Terry proudly so but Bob aspiring to climb the social ladder. As with the original it stars Rodney Bewes and James Bolam, but in this version the humour is more nuanced and more filming takes place on location. Also with Brigit Forsyth and Sheila Fearn.
29. Billy Liar (1973-1974)
A TV sitcom adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name by Keith Waterhouse. Jeff Rawle plays the lead role as fantasist Billy Fisher who lives with his parents and grandmother. Some big names in the world of comedy make guest appearances in this very popular show, including Kathy Staff, Roy Kinnear, Windsor Davies and Molly Sugden.
30. Man About the House (1973-1976)
Trainee chef Robin Tripp finds himself in the fortunate position of flat sharing with two attractive women, Chrissy and Jo. Chrissy tells stuffy landlord George that Robin is gay in order to assuage his disapproval of their sharing arrangement. George’s wife Mildred is unconvinced, and does little to conceal her attraction to Robin – if only to wind up George. Stars Richard O’Sullivan, Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett, with Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce.
31. Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em (1973-1977)
One-man disaster area Frank Spencer (Michael Crawford) stumbles from one calamity to another throughout this hilarious series, whilst his ever-patient wife Betty (Michele Dotrice) can only look on with trepidation and foreboding. This series is remembered as much as anything else for Crawford’s stunt work, which he performed himself.
32. Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010)
Featuring the often mischievous exploits of three elderly men, it is inevitable that such a long-running series would see many changes of cast. Set in the small, idyllic Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, the three friends (and others) enjoy the autumns of their lives in what would become the world’s longest running sitcom. Originally starring Bill Owen, Michael Bates and Peter Sallis.
33. Not On Your Nellie (1974-1975)
Hylda Baker stars as northern lass Nellie Pickersgill, who moves to London to look after her sick father’s pub, The Brown Cow. Unfortunately she is teetotal and doesn’t approve of drinking, and so finds it necessary to keep a keen eye on her regulars – as well as her father. Each series features a new buxom barmaid who invariably encounters Nellie’s disapproval.
34. No, Honestly (1974-1975)
John Alderton and Pauline Collins, married in real life, star as Charles Danbee and Claira Burrell as they chart their lives from meeting up and going out together right up until their first wedding anniversary. Presented in a new and interesting format which was considered quite groundbreaking at the time of writing. Lynsey de Paul wrote and sang the theme song.
35. Porridge (1974-1977)
Norman Stanley Fletcher and Lennie Godber are cellmates in H.M.P. Slade, the former an old lag teaching his young protégé the ways of prison life. Much of this involves an ongoing battle of wits with weak-willed prison officer Mr. Barrowclough and his austere, ex-military colleague Mr. Mackay. Starring Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale, also with Brian Wilde and Fulton Mackay.
36. Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt (1974-1978)
Set in Scarsdale, a fictional Yorkshire town, Selwyn Froggitt is a council workman, a bodger of a handyman, and a general local pest. His catchphrase is “Magic!”, often accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture. Bill Maynard both devised and played the lead role in the series. Made by Yorkshire Television for ITV, in its fourth and final season the show’s title was shortened to Selwyn and was set on a holiday camp.
37. Rising Damp (1974-1978)
Seedy landlord Rupert Rigsby rents out run-down bedsits to tenants Alan Moore, Ruth Jones and Philip Smith. His amorous advances to Jones invariably come to nothing, in spite of his best efforts. Instead she finds herself attracted to Smith, who claims to be the son of an African chief. The series was adapted from a 1973 stage play called The Banana Box. Stars Leonard Rossiter, Frances de la Tour, Richard Beckinsale and Don Warrington.
38. Happy Ever After (1974-1979)
Terry and June Fletcher find life is no longer quite so peaceful when Aunt Lucy and her mynah bird come to live with them and their grown-up daughters. Stars Terry Scott and June Whitfield, with Beryl Cooke. In 1979 the series was reworked under the name Terry and June, although both the surname of the couple and the location in which it was set were changed, and Aunt Lucy disappeared off the scene.
39. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-1981)
A sitcom following the adventures of a Royal Artillery concert party based in India, then still controlled by the British, towards the end of World War Two. A song, “Whispering Grass”, performed by Windsor Davies and Don Estelle in character as Sergeant-Major Williams and “Lofty” Sugden respectively, reached the top of the UK singles charts in 1975. Also starring Donald Hewlett, Michael Knowles, George Layton and Melvyn Hayes.
40. The Melting Pot (1975)
A slightly iffy concept even for back in the day, featuring comedy legend Spike Milligan in blackface playing Mr. Van Gogh, an illegal Pakistani immigrant. Paddy O’Brien (Frank Carson) is an Irish republican landlord and Eric Lee Fung (Harry Fowler) is a Chinese Cockney spiv. Only the pilot was ever transmitted, which in retrospect is probably for the best.
41. The Good Life (1975-1978)
Tom Good (a plastics designer fully committed to the rat-race before experiencing a midlife crisis) and his wife Barbara set out to become self-sufficient, embracing rural life in the unlikely setting of Surbiton, a South West London suburb, often to the chagrin of snobby but lovable neighbour Margo Leadbetter and her quite wisely obedient husband Jerry. Starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendall, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington.
42. Get Some In! (1975-1978)
Percy Marsh (Tony Selby) is the hard-man corporal whose mission in life would appear to be to make life as miserable as possible for the raw recruits undertaking their National Service with the Royal Air Force. One of them is Jakey Smith (Robert Lindsay), a former Teddy Boy with an attitude. Also stars David Janson, Gerard Ryder and Brian Pettifer.
43. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
A rude, uptight, henpecked hotelier goes to war with the riff-raff who insist upon lowering the tone of his establishment by “expecting to be waited on hand and foot”, armed with an acerbic wit and an extraordinary talent for turning an everyday situation into a crisis. Stars John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Connie Booth and Andrew Sachs.
44. The Cuckoo Waltz (1975-1980)
Newly-weds Chris and Fliss Hawthorne take in a lodger to ease their financial difficulties, with sometimes hilarious complications ensuing. With David Roper, Diane Keen and Lewis Collins. After the third series Collins left, and was replaced by Ian Saynor in the next. Written by Geoffrey Lancashire, and directed and produced by Bill Gilmour.
45. Yus, My Dear (1976)
A sequel to Romany Jones, Wally and Lily Briggs have since left their caravan for a new life in a council house. Perhaps unfairly, The Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy described it at the time as one of the worst British sitcoms ever. Starring Arthur Mullard, Queenie Watts and stand-up comic Mike Reid. Ran for nineteen episodes, spanning two series, in 1976.
46. Yes, Honestly (1976-1977)
A nod, and a sequel, to No, Honestly, this sitcom stars Donal Donnelly and Liza Goddard as Matthew and Lily Pond Browne. Structured along similar lines to its predecessor, it follows the course of the relationship between the two. To begin with this gets off to a slow start, with Matt being interested in nowt but his music. But his life changes when he hires typist Lily who is beautiful, witty and charismatic.
47. George and Mildred (1976-1979)
A spin-off from the hugely popular Man About the House, George and Mildred Roper move on from the apartment which they had occupied throughout that series into an upmarket development in Hampton Wick, much to the displeasure of snobbish neighbour Jeffrey Fourmile (whose sons are named Tristram and Tarquin). Stars Brian Murphy and Yootha Joyce, with Norman Eshley and Sheila Fearn.
48. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-1979)
Increasingly frustrated with the pointlessness of his existence, and in particular with his work as a sales executive, Reginald “Reggie” Perrin (played by Leonard Rossiter) decides to fake his own suicide by leaving his clothes on the beach by the sea. Assuming a fake identify, he is welcomed back by his wife after happily taking on a job on a farm looking after pigs.
49. Ripping Yarns (1976-1979)
Described as “a British television adventure comedy anthology series”, each episode features a different setting and characters, looking at different aspects of UK culture in the format of a parody of pre-Second World War schoolboy literature. Written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin from the Monty Python team, both feature in various roles. In at least one episode John Cleese makes a fleeting appearance too.
50. Open All Hours (1976-1985)
Stuttering skinflint Arkwright and his much put-upon nephew Granville run a small grocer’s shop on the outskirts of Doncaster in Yorkshire. Nurse Gladys Emmanuel divides her life between caring for her elderly mother and spurning Arkwright’s proposals of marriage. Stars Ronnie Barker and David Jason, with Lynda Baron and Kathy Staff.
51. The Rag Trade (1977-1978)
Originally broadcast between 1961 and 1963, this sitcom was revived for ITV in 1977 (despite the fact that it had originally been shown on the BBC) with Miriam Karlin and Peter Jones reprising their earlier parts – the former as a militant shop steward. Lynsey de Paul provides the theme music. Anna Karen appears (as Olive, the role she played in On The Buses – Reg Varney had been in the original!), as well as future Eastenders star Gillian Taylforth.
52. Mind Your Language (1977-1979)
Cast in a London adult education college, a group of foreign students from a variety of different social and cultural backgrounds interact as they attempt to learn the English language. Stars Barry Evans as the mild-mannered English teacher, with a cast which famously includes Françoise Pascal as French au pair Danielle Favre. Mishaps and mispronounciations aplenty.
53. Citizen Smith (1977-1980)
“Wolfie” Smith, revolutionary-cum-layabout and leader of the four-man Tooting Popular Front, clashes consistently with his girlfriend Shirley’s parents – in particular her father, who calls him “Yeti”. The series was created by John Sullivan, who would later go on to write the immensely successful Only Fools and Horses. Starring Robert Lindsay, Cheryl Hall, Peter Vaughan and Hilda Braid.
54. Robin’s Nest (1977-1981)
A spin-off from Man About the House in which chef Robin Tripp has departed his flat-share and moved on, he and girlfriend Vicky take over a Chinese takeaway and convert it into a bistro. Needing some ready cash for his new venture Robin approaches Vicky’s father who, despite him disliking his daughter’s choice of partner, recognises it as a good deal. Starring Richard O’Sullivan, Tessa Wyatt and Tony Britton.
55. A Sharp Intake of Breath (1977-1981)
Peter Barnes and wife Sheila find their attempts to deal with life’s necessities persistently frustrated by petty officialdom. Stars David Jason and Jacqueline Clark, with Richard Wilson and Alun Armstrong providing the petty officialdom under various guises. When writer Ronnie Taylor died after the third series, the fourth was penned by Vince Powell.
56. Going Straight (1978)
Spin-off from Porridge channelling the exploits of Norman Stanley Fletcher following his release from prison. Only six episodes were made before the series was shelved following the premature death of co-star Richard Beckinsale. Also starring Ronnie Barker, Patricia Brake as Lennie’s fiancée and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Flethcer’s son.
57. Butterflies (1978-1983)
Frustrated housewife Ria Parkinson has more on her mind than her stuffy husband’s concerns about their lazy son’s laid back attitude to life. Lots of subtleties and subplots frequently lie behind the main storyline in this clever and sometimes complex sitcom. Wendy Craig, Geoffrey Palmer and Nicholas Lyndhurst star in this Carla Lane series, broadcast on BBC2.
58. Bloomers (1979)
Short-lived sitcom starring Richard Beckinsale, who suddenly and unexpectedly passed away, aged just 31, before the sixth episode could be made. Beckinsale plays small-time flower trader Stan, whose time is divided between contemplating philosophy and wooing lonely housewives. Just how much more would Beckinsale have added to his already impressive catalogue of comedy work had he remained with us?
59. To the Manor Born (1979-1981)
Upper class Audrey fforbes-Hamilton is forced upon the death of her husband to sell her sprawling country estate, Grantleigh Manor, to nouveau riche supermarket owner Richard DeVere and retire to the relative obscurity of a small lodge house on its grounds. Centred on the love-hate relationship between the two, the final episode of the first series became the most watched British TV programme of the ’70s. Stars Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles.
60. Only When I Laugh (1979-1982)
Roy Figgis, Norman Binns and Archie Glover are hospital patients being tended to in hospital by consultant surgeon Richard Wilson. Lots of cross-class and political banter, as well as different attitudes towards their mutual predicament, is what makes this work as a comedy. Starring James Bolam, Christopher Strauli and Peter Bowles.
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