Some decades back, our local PBS station would run several British shows on Friday nights. For many Americans this was their first exposure to classic UK fare and, for me, solidified my love of British humour. (See what I did there?) Here are a few of the shows that grabbed our attention and found their place in America’s heart.
Fawlty Towers – Basil Fawlty is having a bad day. Every day at Fawlty Towers is a bad day for Basil, especially if his “little piranha fish” wife Sybil has anything to do with it. Easily frustrated, Basil’s constantly trying to ‘raise the tone’ of their hotel, set on the so-called ‘English Riviera’ in South-West England.
The brainchild of main character John Cleese, who plays Basil, the show was inspired by a hotelier that ran a hotel where the members of Monty Python were staying at in Torquay, Devon, whom Cleese described as “the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life”. The man’s antics included tossing Eric Idle’s briefcase out a window “in case it contained a bomb” and viewed his guests as a “colossal inconvenience” according to Michael Palin.
Flanked by a Spanish waiter, Manuel, who’s English is spotty at best, a constantly exasperated waitress Polly, and an always amused wife and co-owner, Sybil, Basil’s eccentricities and short fuse cause frequent misunderstanding and the commensurate havoc to go with it.
Farty Towels (yes, you should always pay attention to the sign out front) is some of the best British farcical humor this side of the Flying Circus.
Red Dwarf – Dave Lister is having a day. Every day on the Red Dwarf is just a day and much like any day of the last 3 million years – except Dave is awake. Well, that, and he’s about 3 million light years away from Earth.
Dave isn’t a particularly great example of humanity, but he is the LAST known example of humanity. Formerly the absolute lowest technician on the ship, Lister was in suspended animation as punishment for bringing a pregnant cat on board. During his stasis, a fatal dose of radioactive Cadmium leaked into the ship and killed everyone aboard except Lister and his cat.
3 million years later Holly, the ship’s computer, determined the radiation had declined to a safe level and brought Dave out of stasis. To try and keep Lister sane, the computer resurrects a hologram of Lister’s bunk-mate, Arnold Rimmer, a man so hapless that even losers would avoid him as bad luck, and the person responsible for the leak that flooded the ship.
Add to that the descendants of Lister’s cat (Frankenstein, by the way) had evolved into an incredibly stylish, and incredibly vain, humanoid, and Kryten, an angular-headed and rather prudish service mechanoid they pick up along the way.
Are You Being Served? – Captain Peacock is having a bad day. Every day at the London Flagship location of Grace Brothers Department store is another day of herding cats, also known as the staffs of Men’s and Ladies Furnishings departments.
Positioned on either side of the generous aisle leading from the first floor elevators the series follows the misadventures of, and the skirmishes between, the staff of each department and Captain Peacock , the stuffy senior clerk and Floorwalker, is constantly having to referee battles between the two departments while doing his best to suck up to the out-of-touch and bumbling Floor Manager Mister Rumbold.
On the Ladies side is Miss Slocombe (The wonderful Mollie Sugden), a woman of ‘that certain age’ who affects a posh demeanor – until crossed, when her not-so-posh side erupts. Were her constantly changing hair colors not enough to gain attention, Miss Slocombe is of the type of person that doesn’t so much ‘move’ as she ‘sets sail’. What’s worse, she is forever scandalized by her young clerk, Miss Brahms, a typical young Londoner.
For the Men’s Department, Mister Humphries, played by the incredibly funny and talented John Inman, is a middle-aged man who still lives with his mother. Bringing his extensive background in British pantomime, Inman played Mister Humphries as a stereotypically gay man who throws around biting ripostes and double-entendres with a campy flourish, and often breaks the 4th wall to speak directly to the audience. Wonderfully hilarious, Mister Humphries often is heard saying the show’s signature line “Are you free?”
Speaking of double-entendres… (we were, right?) There is a character we never see, but hear a lot about – Miss Slocombe’s cat. The cat’s name is Tiddles, incidentally, but… well, you’ll just have to watch.
The library has a huge selection of British comedy (and drama!) and these three should give you a great start on it.
~posted by Jay F.