Kings of Comedy: Gentlemans Pistols’ guide to British sitcoms.
Avowed rock atavists Gentlemans Pistols aren’t the sort of chaps to limit their appreciation of British pop culture to the pressed rat and warthog of ’60s/’70s classic rock. Catching up with vocalist/guitarist James Atkinson and drummer Stuart Dobbins after they’ve had a post-festival night battering the ale seemed as good a time as any to tell the Deciblog about their love of British comedy. Hey, the absurdities of British culture—the weather, the bad teeth, the enduring sense of quiet pessimism, the eccentrics, the pent-up rage hiding under the stiff upper lip—have made the place a total bastard to live in at times, but at least through the years we’ve learned to laugh at it.
Carcass’ Jeff Walker and Bill Steer’s contribution to British comedy…
Your new(-ish) guitarist Bill Steer was on Red Dwarf.
JA: “He was! He was in Smeg and the Heads. Red Dwarf is another great show. It was a really great idea and was the sort of idea that could only be pulled off in this country.”
SD: “It’s a very strange idea and it is quite British. That show must have been so difficult; I mean, nothing happens in it! It’s literally three blokes on a spaceship with nothing to do, nowhere to go. Humanity is dead: that’s the whole principle of it. I mean, how do you write a comedy in a world where humanity is dead? It’s quite bleak when you think about it. They made it work though.”
What do you see as the differences between American and British comedy?
James Atkinson: “Well, apart from the obvious, that British comedy is about 90 per cent funnier. Well, being British, you get it more. It’s like when they took the Office to America I didn’t get it at all. I didn’t find any of it funny. American comedy seems a bit more obvious. I think we’re less bothered about making idiots out of ourselves than Americans are, more self-deprecating, I suppose. I love Seinfeld, there are some great American shows; I am a fan of anything that Larry David has been involved in, though I would say his sense of humour is leaning towards the British sense of humour. Seinfeld/Larry David: I don’t think you can get better than that. It appeals to Americans and Brits without compromising for either side. I see him very much as a Leonard Rossiter type of character—always says the wrong thing and always thinks he is right.”
Stuart Dobbins: “That is an excellent question and it’s very different to say. I mean, there’s all different types of comedy; there’s the more populist comedies in America like Two and a Half Men, and the more leftfield comedies like Arrested Development, 30 Rock… But they kind of lack that almost poignancy of British comedy. Even in Only Fools and Horses or Blackadder or Reggie Perrin… even as ridiculous as it can be British comedy, it always has a heart somewhere in there; whether it’s Del Boy having a son or the final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth, there’s a certain emotional depth and a poignancy which I think American comedy lacks a little bit. I can’t think of a show off the top of my head that has that unsweetened sense of reality that British comedy seems to have.”
We find comedy in the most grim, uninspiring places. WWII was a rich mine of comedy.
SD: “These are not subjects you would normally write a comedy show about: Allo, Allo! The Nazi occupation of France is not what immediately springs to mind as ripe with comedic material yet we keep on going to these places.”
We’re very good at setting a man up to be a loveable stooge.
SD: “Absolutely, they’ve got to be loveable at the same time; David Brent’s a great example, even at the end of the Office you could almost have a certain empathy for him even if he was this gross caricature of the office boss. I think there has to be some sort of loveable side to them, no matter how deep it’s buried. The British really like that; the bastard is the guy we like as well.”
Would America get something like Rising Damp, though?
JA: “I think it might just be a bit too drab, so dreary and British. It’s quite a slow-burner, too.”
James Atkinson’s Top Five:
Rising Damp/The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin—“[Leonard] Rossiter is my favourite comic actor.”
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer—“Their early stuff is best.”
Open All Hours—”Ronnie Barker has to be in there.”
Saxondale—”It depends how much you like Steve Coogan. If you like I’m Alan Partridge, the second series of Saxondale is really funny, bits of it had me crying with laughter. I had the first series but it was a bit slow-moving.”
Stuart Dobbins’ Top Five:
Blackadder Goes Forth—“I think that number one, of the best British comedy, in my mind it’s Blackadder. There’s a whole lot of other contenders—obviously, Only Fools and Horses would probably, if you asked the nation, would be the best. But I just think that Blackadder, I just cannot get my head past that closing scene in Blackadder Goes Forth, I just cannot get my head past ending a series with a massacre in such a touching way—that is real comic genius, to make all of that funny. All of the performances in that are just so great, the writing is so crisp. If you had to send something out in a spaceship, like they did with that golden record on Voyager, I’d probably vote for Blackadder. That is British humour; it’s kind of bleak, it’s pretty nasty—the main character’s misanthropic, you like him but you don’t like him. That is borrowed from [Tony] Hancock to Basil Fawlty and so on.”
I’m Alan Partridge—“I could probably quote you most episodes off the top of my head. There are so many amazing moments in that program, and it’s unusual because it’s not your standard sitcom; it started with a spoof talkshow and then put him in this sitcom with a documentary feel to it. I think that Steve Coogan is absolutely brilliant.”
Monty Python’s Flying Circus—“I haven’t seen this in thirteen odd years but when I was just getting a mind of my own, 13 years old, getting into music, into punk, all this kind of stuff, they were showing all the Monty Python films on TV. They repeated all the television shows and it completely blew me away, just the strangeness of it and the endless possibilities of what they could make funny. I mean, talk about British… I am absolutely amazed that the Americans get it because it is so absolutely surreal, it’s so non-linear. I think it’s an example of something that has never happened before and will never happen again.”
The Two Ronnies—“I suppose you could say Morecambe and Wise but the Two Ronnies? Every time it is on the telly I just think it’s so funny, the writing is so funny. People talk about Ronnie Barker’s fascination with the English language, twisting the language round about, like with the “fork handles” scene. And Ronnie Corbett is fantastic; he plays the role he’s supposed to play perfectly; his one-man soliloquies, I mean if someone were to release them on DVD I’d buy them in an instant. I could probably list five Ronnie Barker comedies in my top five, I mean Porridge: we talk about making a comedy in space but in a prison cell?”
Fawlty Towers—“There are so many other ones that are so great. Phoenix Nights, the Office… Now I’m thinking what about Hi-de-Hi, Terry and June: these are great unsung sitcoms. If Atko hasn’t had Fawlty Towers then I’ll have that, because in so many ways it sums up the British sitcom—the anger that lies beneath. And also, there is this truism about it in that they didn’t do that many episodes—that’s very British in itself, we don’t do 13 seasons of something, we do two and then a Christmas special. Only Fools and Horses was the only one that had any longevity.”