These cinematic dogs get a pat on the head before being given the boot
When Ealing comedy, the cinematic brand that uniquely embodied 20 years of idiosyncratically “charming” English humour, ran out of steam (surely the best way to describe it) in the late 50s, the British film industry’s grasp on the kind of popular comedy that could work at an international level became alarmingly loose.
Ealing’s unlikely successor, the Carry On series, unashamedly focused its aims much lower, and embraced the kind of cheerfully parochial vulgarity that had for years tickled the British working classes, either as audiences in music halls or as consumers of risqué seaside postcards. But Carry On‘s domestic success made no dent on the international scene, and the series was for its entire duration held in complete contempt by those who saw themselves as the guardians of cinematic taste and decency.
By the ’70s, Carry On itself had begun to tire, and British comedy cinema was again left with an identity crisis. Aside from Monty Python’s occasional forays into filmmaking, the only other comedies were being generated for the exploitation market, but these had nothing like the shelf-life of a Carry On film. Those (remaining) domestic producers of film comedy who did not want to tap into exploitation therefore had to wrack their brains for material that would keep people away from their TV sets. The answer, ironically (Alanis Morisette, take note), came from TV itself.
Depending on your point of view, it was either a healthy pragmatism or a monumental lack of imagination that drove British film producers, in this newly “permissive” era, to the country’s most conservative television culture – the half-hour sitcom – for material. The quality of resulting films suggests the latter, but their initial domestic success was unquestionable. As a result, in the 1970s a peculiar brand of lowbrow comedy – the sitcom spin-off film – was born. And it reigned in British fleapits for more than ten years.
The 1970s are generally regarded in Britain as the golden age of the television sitcom. From the densely scripted Fawlty Towers (BBC 1975 + 1979), Steptoe and Son (BBC 1962-74) and Porridge (BBC 1974-77) to the mass appeal of On the Buses (ITV 1969-73) and Are You Being Served? (BBC 1972-85), the sitcom, inexpensive and traditional, also proved itself to be the consistent ratings pinnacle of light entertainment programming. Having been deterred from exploiting more dangerous material by the consistently overzealous British film censor, it was clear that the average, enterprising low-budget film producer was eyeing sitcom’s TV success with some envy.
At the time, Britain’s domestic film industry, more than ever, needed this huge, conservative TV audience to stay alive. Although the early seventies had seen films like The Devils (1971), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) and Performance (1970) break new ground in the mainstream and give British cinema a fashionably dangerous edge, by 1974 most of the major U.S. studios had closed down their U.K. operations, and crippling taxation (98 percent for the super rich) was driving the big talent out of the country in droves.
Consequently, the sitcom spin-offs that flooded the screen, from On the Buses (1971) to Rising Damp (1980), became bread and butter to homegrown companies such as Hammer and British Lion. And, although critically abhorred, the films were, initially at least, considerable crowd-pleasers – the sitcom spin-off was the only domestic cinematic trend to see the decade through.
Between 1968 and 1980, more than 30 British films were adapted from successful television shows. Not even the Carry On series had matched this concentrated prolificacy. From 1972, Carry On films had begun to peter out, from two a year to one a year, and in 1977 the Carry On backer, Rank, decided to focus on distributing Xerox machines instead of films. The series’ parting shot (before a one-off resurrection in 1992) was the lamentable Carry On Emmanuelle (1978).
Similarly, the defiantly unerotic and peculiarly British exploitation comedies of the time, such as the Confessions series, were all but finished by 1977, after a very short burst of suburban success.
It is with the later Carry Ons, however, that the majority of the sitcom spin-offs of the seventies are most comparable. Childishly smutty, relentlessly single-minded and lavatorially crude, many of them have nonetheless gained an aura of nostalgic affection that cannot be easily explained intellectually. Like endearing but mischievous children, films like On the Buses (1971) and Bless This House (1972), like their TV sources, now seem refreshingly free from worthiness, irony, and political correctness, and do not attempt to work on more than one level. On the other hand, spin-offs such as The Lovers (1972) and Porridge (1979) stand up more convincingly to modern scrutiny.
British radio and TV comedy had dabbled with the big screen before the sixties. Vehicles for radio comedians such as Arthur Askey were fashioned in the thirties and forties, and, later, some radio and television shows led to more or less unconnected features. The Goons, for example, a radio troupe featuring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, appeared in Down Among the Z Men (1951) and Penny Points to Paradise (1952). I Only Arsked (1958) was a truer spin-off in the sense of this article, in that it focused a particular character from the successful ITV series The Army Game (1957-61). But it wasn’t until the late sixties that the film industry in Britain really caught the spin-off bug.
The first spin-off of this era was Till Death Us Do Part (1968). The original BBC television show (1965-75) had yet to be transported to the US, where it met with equal, if not more, success as All in the Family (NBC 1971-77). Focusing on the weekly rantings of working-class bigot Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), Till Death Us Do Part was rarely out of the controversy spotlight in Britain, bearing up to frequent attacks from the “Clean Up TV” campaign for its aggressiveness and bad language. The film version, distributed by British Lion, offered a broader and less censorious forum for the show’s writer, Johnny Speight, to indulge Garnett’s loudmouth politics and bigotry. Speight also used the film as an “opening out” of the confined sitcom, a noble intention given the slack padding of later spin-offs. The film followed Garnett’s life from the ’30s to the ’60s, giving him ample opportunities to rant about major political events as they unfolded. However, much of the astute rawness of the series was lost in the process, and lavatorial humor (literally) crept into the proceedings – Garnett spends a fair portion of the film sitting on the toilet, conversing loudly with his neighbor in the bathroom next door. Perhaps this was a warning of what was to come.
Till Death did not set the box office alight, nor did it set the trend. It took the release of On the Buses (1971) to really launch the British spin-off phenomenon. If Till Death Us Do Part had been filmed for vaguely “artistic” reasons, On the Buses was the opposite side of the coin. The TV series (Americanized, unsuccessfully, as Lotsa Luck [NBC 1973-74]), followed the exploits of a (laughably late middle-aged) bachelor bus driver, Stan (Reg Varney), and his unspeakably crass family. A tasteless and puerile antithesis to the abrasive realism of Till Death, it was, nevertheless, equally as popular in the ratings. This fact did not go unnoticed by Hammer films, which was now under the control of Michael Carreras and was keen to reverse its ailing horror fortunes. A deal was made, and On the Buses was brought to the screen by Hammer in a film that, instead of attempting to broaden and strengthen its TV source, merely inflated and further vulgarized it.
Coarse and anachronistic, the film version of On the Buses sees Stan and his repellant colleague Jack (Bob Grant) scheming to “put a stop” to a liberal company policy that allows the employment of female bus drivers. Although pretty excruciating to sit through today, the film’s cheerful zest was, at the time, quite infectious. It grossed over £1 million in domestic rentals in its first six months of release – an outrageous sum for a low-budget British production at the time. On the Buses soon became the most financially successful 1971 release at the British box office, outgrossing even Diamonds Are Forever. This may say a lot more about British society than it does about the merits of the picture, but the returns could not be argued with. By 1973,On the Buses had generated two theatrical sequels: Mutiny on the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973). Arguments about taste and decency were futile – the sitcom spin-off had arrived.
Over the next nine years, Hammer and companies such as EMI, Associated London, and British Lion dipped continually into the TV pot for ideas. Among their output were sequels to spin-offs (as with On the Buses, the film versions of Steptoe and Son, Up Pompeii and Till Death Us Do Part all generated further theatrical episodes) and a handful of films adapted from popular crime or drama series (The Sweeney , Callan , Man at the Top , Doomwatch ).
Initially, the films were as lively as anything else that was being produced. Dad’s Army (1971) retained some of the spark of its original series (BBC 1968-77), and saw its ensemble cast on good form; The Lovers (1972) was as good as any contemporary sex comedy; and Please, Sir (1971) was one of the earliest spin-offs to focus on a comic situation (a school vacation) that was well beyond the scope of a 25-minute TV episode.
But the problems of “opening out” a videotaped, studio-based sitcom were also immediately apparent. The school trip in Please, Sir set a precedent for all spin-offs that followed. The premise of sending the characters on holiday, it later seemed, was enough to justify an entire film, regardless of script. Consequently, Steptoe and Son went to Spain; the staff of Grace Brothers (in Are You Being Served? ) took a package trip to the “Costa Plonka”; and George and Mildred (1980) celebrated their anniversary with a romantic weekend away.
Dad’s Army (1971) reflected a number of other problems that were to dog the genre. The original series, perhaps the most fondly remembered sitcom in British TV history, featured the adventures of a small-town branch of the “Home Guard” – a disparate group of men, too old to join the Army proper, who are “doing their bit” to defend the country from potential German attack during World War II. Episodes largely revolved around the interplay of the aging volunteers as they gathered in an old church hall to discuss drill and maneuvers. To justify the cinematic version of the show, the filmmakers attempted to broaden its scope, routinely utilizing outdoor locations and bringing in characters only referred to in the series. But this achieved little except to destroy the cozy surrealism of the television format.
But the trend continued apace. Before long, companies were funding film versions of sitcoms that one might generously describe as pedestrian (Love Thy Neighbour ; Father Dear Father ), as well as those that have since sunk into complete obscurity (Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width ; That’s Your Funeral ; For the Love of Ada ).
By the mid-seventies, spin-offs seemed to be content to coast along on sub-Carry On sexual innuendo, unwashed cameos by fading variety stars and perfunctory plot entanglements. Man About the House (1974), Hammer’s final foray into the genre, sadly wasted an opportunity to flesh out the characters of a decent, fairly daring sitcom (ITV 1973-76; US version – Three’s Company, 1977-81) and the aforementioned Are You Being Served? (1977) was a truly desperate attempt to stretch a mildly amusing half-hour into 90 grueling minutes.
Two later films did stand out from their contemporaries. The Likely Lads (1976) and Porridge (1979), both written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, attempted to avoid the obvious pitfalls of the sitcom spin-off by actually developing and furthering the original material. Of the two, The Likely Lads is the more flawed film, centering as it does around a rather inane caravan episode, not unlike the lethargic escapades of a later Carry On or the obligatory trips of other spin-offs. But The Likely Lads kept the essence of the original series (BBC 1964-66 and 1973-74), which followed Bob (Rodney Bewes) and Terry (James Bolam), two young working-class lads from the industrial north east, as they grew from adolescence to maturity. Focusing on sexual escapades, boozing, factory work and the draw of marriage and class conformity, the series had been the sitcom counterpoint to the groundbreaking British movie Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). The Likely Lads film, to its credit, drew on and expanded the tragicomic sense of loss and change that dominated the series’ later episodes.
Porridge is a better movie, perhaps because La Frenais and Clement themselves took over the producer and director roles respectively. It even gained a U.S. release under the title Doing Time. The great strength of the original, prison-set TV series (BBC 1974-77 [a US interpretation, On the Rocks lasted one season from 1975]) was the abundance of well-drawn characters, many of whom could be showcased in the more leisurely pace of a feature. In Porridge, the two “hero” convicts, Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) and Godber (Richard Beckinsale), unwittingly find themselves part of an elaborate escape plan, and have to break back into prison in order to serve the remainder of their time quietly. On film, the prison setting looks far more harsh and brutal than the cozier, studio-set TV series, but the warmth of the characterizations still comes through and the film evinces a sense of realism lacking in other sitcom spin-offs.
Despite this, the following year saw the abrupt end of sitcom spin-off. The two final films of this era were Rising Damp (1980) and George and Mildred (1980). Rising Damp took the safe option and simply reworked scenes that had already established the series (ITV 1974-78) as a classic, weaving them loosely into a feature narrative. Because of this, a lot of it works.
George and Mildred, however, is one of the worst films ever made in Britain. The source series (ITV 1976-79) – tired marriage, lazy good-for-nothing husband, frustrated wife – was itself no milestone of TV comedy, but the film version is so strikingly bad, it seems to have been assembled with a genuine contempt for its audience. It is the archetypal example of why a sitcom should never be made into a film. Visually, it is an insult to the entire history of set design, blocking, cinematography, sound recording, editing, and mise-en-scene. Still, that’s not unusual for the genre; it’s not even unusual for small British films in general. But with fewer decent lines and less imagination than in half of a below-average 25-minute episode, George and Mildred is nothing less than an ordeal to endure.
More significantly, these two final films were imbued with a sense of morbidity. The late Richard Beckinsale was conspicuous by his absence from Rising Damp. A regular in the TV series, his death in 1979 (at 31) was an untimely tragedy that dealt a sharp blow to British comedy. Any attempt to revive Rising Damp without him somehow seemed in poor taste. Worse, George and Mildred was released just weeks after the death of one of its eponymous stars, Yootha Joyce. The double tragedy of these two early deaths not only added an unintentional tone of melancholy to the films, but also seemed portentous of the fate of the genre itself.
However, by this time the spin-off had played itself out and was not generating the kind of pocket-money profit the early seventies had seen. By 1980, Hammer and British Lion were all but defunct as filmmaking operations; EMI was limping along with some ill-advised U.S. co-productions. Even Lord Grade’s ITC, which was responsible for Porridge, Rising Damp, and George and Mildred, was about to go down with the catastrophic Raise the Titanic (1981).
Further, the home video boom was closing cinemas up and down the country. 1981 saw UK feature film production at an all-time low of 24 films, compared to 96 in 1971. Similarly, admissions had dropped by roughly half in the same period.
So the critics took a relaxing breath. The future looked to be sparse but worthy, intense and artistic. The puerile sitcom spin-off, for years the scourge of sensible, middlebrow opinion, was dead. But few critics cared or even noticed that, without it, British popular cinema – lowbrow, cheerful, and broad in appeal – had finally died as well.
The Spin-Off Returns
When the sitcom spin-off made a tentative return with Bean in 1996, the suits had clearly done their homework. Bean was symptomatic of how British cinema had changed and how it had had to change to survive in the blockbuster era. Consequently, Bean was Americanized and – therefore – globalized. It still reworked the shaky TV situations, but set them in California. And it was a worldwide smash.
Two further British spin-offs have been made since – Guest House Paradiso (1999; from the BBC show Bottom) and Kevin and Perry Go Large (2000; from comedian Harry Enfield’s BBC sketch show). Guest House Paradiso – parochial, vulgar, unambitious – flopped. Kevin and Perry had a trendy Ibiza setting and a Europudding soundtrack – it was a moderate success. Clearly, if the reinvented British sitcom spin-off is to sustain itself as a successful genre, it seems that localized laughs are out of the question. Perhaps the producers will make more of an effort to translate them into proper “films” this time around, but it’s yet another nail in the coffin of the small, popular British movie. Every success like Bean, and, for that matter, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, is grist to the publicity mill that says British cinema is on the up, but it also represents that we have McDonald’s where greasy cafés or pubs used to be. Sure, Bean was a better-made film than 90 percent of the ’70s spin-offs, but it was another white flag as far as our national identity is concerned. Now and in the future, in Britain at least, popular cinema means American cinema.
So, look out for the big-screen version of Red Dwarf, guest-starring Matt Le Blanc and Patricia Arquette, and the feature-length Absolutely Fabulous, set in New York and Paris, coming soon to a sanitized, flat-pack multiplex near you.