A trio of British comedies

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.

Image of DVD cover for Fawlty Towers complete collection

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. Continue reading “A trio of British comedies”

The Inimitable P.G. Wodehouse

P G Wodehouse was a prolific writer, with nearly all of his stories set among British aristocracy and/or in the proverbial ‘polite society’ of 1920s and 30s Britain. Knowingly or not, he somewhat reflected the naïve obliviousness of a few of his characters in his real life. After moving to France and being captured by the Germans in 1940 he wrote and performed several broadcasts on German radio. Although comical and apolitical, the mere act of broadcasting over German radio during the war was incredibly controversial, and fueled a charge of treason back in Britain. Never quite understanding the ostracism, in 1947 he moved house to the US where he lived until his death at age 93 in 1975.

His characters are wonderfully stereotypical, as Wodehouse himself said, “a real character in one of my books would stick out like a sore thumb.” Even so, they become perfect players in his explorations and send-ups and show his deep understanding of human nature and behavior.

Here are three television adaptations that showcase Wodehouse’s insights into the (well-mannered) human condition. Continue reading “The Inimitable P.G. Wodehouse”

Three Classic British Sketch Comedy Shows

During the same period they were bringing Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster to the small screen, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were sprinkling the British airwaves with their own sketch comedy show A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

photo of Stephan Fry and Hugh Laurie
image credit: BBC

If you ever thought to yourself, as I have, “Is there any such thing as ‘highbrow absurdist humor’?” well, then this show answers that question with a resounding “Well, if you look at it with a slight squint.”

Rife with non-sequiturs and heavy with wordplay, the show satirized British society and politics and often broke the “fourth wall” during a skit. Fans of Jeeves and Wooster will recognize the general shape of the interchanges between a sharp Fry to Laurie’s blithe cluelessness, though in this series Laurie is cast as more of the straight man.

I particularly enjoy the closing bit which always has Laurie seated at a piano and Fry asking “Please, Mister Music, will you play?” as he mixes a cocktail while dancing. (Why, yes, I did learn my dance moves from Stephen Fry, why do you ask?) As I’ve noted before, Hugh Laurie is an accomplished pianist with a bend toward classic American Blues and, as we find out here, can do a really good mouth trumpet. Continue reading “Three Classic British Sketch Comedy Shows”

Leading Ladies of British Comedy

The Vicar of Dibley – Reverend Geraldine Granger is assigned to the small Oxfordshire village of Dibley, its first female vicar following the Church of England’s quite tardy change of heart regarding the ordination of women.

Offering spiritual guidance to the tiny town’s cast of oddballs, the vicar negotiates her way around and through entrenched expectations, power hungry frogs-in-a-small-pond, and just plain cluelessness.

Played by Dawn French, half of the well-known comedy team of French & Saunders, each episode ends with the vicar telling a joke to her not-very-bright assistant Alice, played by Emma Chambers, who in her struggle to get the joke tends to take it literally in ways that are much funnier than the joke itself. Continue reading “Leading Ladies of British Comedy”