The best British sitcoms of all time (in my very humble opinion)
British comedy is arguably the best in the world. No one does sarcasm and dry humour like us Brits and if you’re not careful it can very easily go over your head.
A love of Britcoms has been engrained in me since I was a small child. A curious toddler looking through his parents' video cabinet and seeking out things to watch, they were — invariably — sitcoms.
There I was, laughing incomprehensibly at these shows even though, at the time, I probably didn’t understand a word they were saying. This was written in the stars for sure.
However, I was quite disappointed to discover that a 2019 poll by the Radio Times ranking the Top 20 British sitcoms of all time had excluded many of my favourites and included several which, though, I equally enjoyed, I didn’t believe deserved a place on such a prestigious list.
And now, more than 20 years later and with countless sitcoms watched and enjoyed, these are my top ten British sitcoms of all time.
10. Blackadder (BBC, 1983–1989)
Blackadder, these days, is regarded as a cult classic. But I didn’t come to appreciate this sitcom gem until I was much older.
The highlights, of course, are Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Fourth set in the Elizabethan era and First World War, respectively.
Rowan Atkinson is absolutely tremendous as Blackadder, his sharp wit and perfect enunciation as he spits out witty after witty insult at everyone around him, gormless Baldrick especially.
All the supporting characters are fantastic and I have a particular soft spot for Stephen Fry’s bellowing and completely deranged General Melchett.
However, the genius that decided to name Tim McInnery’s snivelling character Captain Darling needs a knighthood solely for that. It never fails to make me chuckle when Melchett addresses McInnery’s character, ending sentences with “Darling”. Oh, the double entendres it generates are timeless.
But let’s thank our lucky stars for one thing: that Rowan Atkinson didn’t stick with the very Bean-esque persona of the first Blackadder otherwise I doubt the show would be regarded in such high acclaim as it is now.
9. Keeping Up Appearances (BBC, 1990–1995)
This was one of the first sitcoms I ever saw, so it’s the first of several sitcoms that are ranked partly for their nostalgic appeal.
This, to me, is one of Roy Clarke’s better sitcoms. I was never a fan of Last of the Summer Wine (it always gave me that depressing Sunday evening feeling, alongside Songs of Praise and The Antiques Roadshow, that melancholically tolled an imminent return to school), but Keeping Up Appearances had enough of an edge to it that makes me chuckle whilst toeing the boundary of family-friendly viewing.
Patricia Routledge and Clive Swift were the perfect combo as insufferable social-climbing snob Hyacinth and long-suffering, hen-pecked husband Richard. The skill required for someone to portray a character you love to hate, who in real life is an accomplished singer, but for the programme deliberately sings badly, is astounding and deserves tremendous praise for that alone.
The series has some very memorable episodes, including the famous QE2 Christmas special and surely it takes the record with the highest number of memorable catchphrases and visual gags that crop up in virtually every episode. Is it any wonder it’s been declared the BBC’s most internationally exported series?:
- “It’s Bouquet”,
- “The Bouquet residence, lady of the house speaking”,
- Elisabeth spilling coffee every time the phone rings,
- Onslow’s backfiring car
- Onslow’s dog startling Hyacinth into the hedge.
There are simply loads, but it adds to the show’s character and why it gets a place on this list for me.
8. Mrs. Brown’s Boys (BBC, 2011-present)
I’m sure I will be burned at the stake for even uttering the word best in the same sentence as Mrs Brown’s Boys, but I’m willing to become a martyr if it comes to it.
Bias does again explain part of the reason why I enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys so much because I have Irish grandparents and a big Irish family. But I also think Irish comedy is even more outrageous than British comedy and it suits my sense of humour perfectly.
Mrs Brown is just so outrageous and rude that I can’t help guffawing at her ridiculous stunts. It doesn’t mean I have a stunted sense of humour or none at all as many detractors online seem to declare, it’s just a lot more versatile than theirs.
The original three series and first few Christmas specials were fantastic (the nativity one especially), but when they decided to recast Rory (a huge mistake), the series started a downhill decline and that, I think, is where it should have ended.
7. Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981–2003)
Good grief, I’m really not doing myself any favours here, am I? The sheer blasphemy of putting a comedy classic this far down the list is justification enough for bringing back the death penalty. But please, if you will, hear me out.
Now, I’ve never been a massive fan of the Trotters and I do prefer the later series with Uncle Albert and Cassandra and Raquel over the earlier series with Grandad but it’s still a stone-cold comedy classic.
Moments like Albert’s reaction to Rodney taking another girl out and Rodney’s sarcastic remarks have stuck in my brain eternally.
“Okay, let’s get a dog. Let’s get a doberman. Let the sod rip my limbs off and drink my blood, but I don’t care as long as you’re happy.” — Rodney Trotter, 1991
6. Not Going Out (BBC, 2006-present)
A very good friend of mine — also a bit of a comedy connoisseur — recommended I watch Not Going Out in 2012. Well, at the time, the 5th series had just finished airing so what did I do? I went out and bought the boxset at HMV and naturally I was hooked. So much wordplay and ingenious one-liners one after the other, who could resist?
Taking its inspiration from American sitcoms such as Friends — which you’ll be sad to hear doesn’t appeal to me at all — the show features a terrific cast list: Sally Bretton as Lucy is more than a match for quick-witted Lee, Tim Vine and Katy Wix are fantastic as the effeminate Tim (Lucy’s brother) and ditzy Daisy.
Geoffrey Whitehead is on top form as Lucy’s stern father Geoffrey — who doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to making his disapproval known of Lee and his feckless father Frank, played hilariously by the late Bobby Ball.
The series longevity has seen several of the cast depart, but the later series cast are equally as strong with Hugh Dennis and Abigail Cruttenden joining as level-headed pushover Toby and his ice queen wife Anna who often find themselves slap bang in Lee and Lucy’s ridiculous shenanigans.
Admittedly, the show peaked at the end of the 7th series when, spoilers, the two main protagonists finally get together and tie the knot. But it’s proven admirably versatile ever since.
Clocking up 12 series (with a 13th already commissioned) and close to 100 episodes, and — after 16 years — is the current longest-running sitcom on British TV. Not bad for a show that the BBC pig-headedly cancelled after it’s 3rd series, but was brought back from the brink after viewer uproar and strong DVD sales.
But it just shows what something can become when it isn’t — so often — halted in its prime.
5. Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4, 2011–2020)
Like Not Going Out, I was a latecomer to the Goodman household, only discovering the series after its 4th series had aired.
Before watching it, I had genuinely believed there were very few modern sitcoms that could match the Britcom golden era of the 1970s and 1990s; in the sense that I could laugh out loud time and time again. Not Going Out was one example and this proved to be the other.
Set around the premise of a Jewish household with two brothers coming home every Friday for a traditional Jewish meal (Shabbat) wherein chaos ensues, it doesn’t sound like the conventional ingredients for a great sitcom, but never judge a book by its cover. My sense of humour is the more ridiculous the better and this really fit the bill.
Particular credit given to the later Paul Ritter who played eccentric dad Martin Goodman and Mark Heap who played peculiar neighbour Jim Bell. Their characters really made the show for me. Immortalising the phrases “Shit on it!” and “Shalom” in my vernacular forevermore. The way that Heap manages to make Jim appear so weird and socially awkward and flinching at the sight of his dog never fails to make me laugh and definitely has a place in my comedy character hall of fame.
Also, praise should be given to guest characters: particularly Harry Landis as Mr Morris, the clinically insane boyfriend and later fiance of Jackie’s mother Nellie.
Watching it for the first time, it’s one of those shows that makes you wonder what hard drugs the writer was smoking whilst writing this, but the world would certainly be a much bleaker place without it.
4. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995–1998)
This wonderful Irish sitcom was another one I was exposed to, albeit inappropriately, at an early age, but I just couldn’t get enough of it.
The bizarre and borderline demented humour of Father Ted immortalised its place in comedy rankings irreparably. Although it’s probably what you’d expect from incarcerating three idiosyncratic priests on an island with a tea-obsessed housekeeper who won’t take no for an answer and a congregation that seems as eccentric as the clergy.
Sounds like a fever dream, right? But it really does work. Having Father Ted — played wonderfully by the much-missed Dermot Morgan — as the relatively sane protagonist in all this just makes it all the funnier.
By committing the relatively minor crime of embezzlement (remember, that money was just resting in his account), he’s found himself imprisoned on a desolate island with an alcoholic, perverted priest and another who can often forget his own name.
What greater punishment could he ask for?
Father Ted rightly deserves a place near the top of any comedy ranking. It’s just fantastically ridiculous and hilarious, it’s immortalised so many phrases into the cultural lexicon: “Down with this sort of thing! Careful now.”, “Small, Far Away” and not forgetting “arse biscuits!” But most importantly, it shows the world what the Irish can really do on the comedy stage, and it’s impressive.
3. The Royle Family (BBC, 1998–2000; 2006–2012)
When The Royle Family slipped quietly onto our screens in 1998, it changed the sitcom genre forever. Up until this point, the TV sitcom was becoming a tiresome tradition of bad jokes and crucially a live studio audience. The Royle Family, thanks to Caroline Aherne’s determination to be authentic, tore up the rulebook and altered the genre irrevocably, paving the way for subsequent successes such as The Office.
This is part of the reason why it ranks so highly for me. It might not look out of place now in the sitcom landscape but back in the late nineties, it was a phenomenon.
Admittedly, the show doesn’t seem very appealing on the outside, it has to be watched to be appreciated.
As a youngster, I couldn’t take to it, it was too slow and boring for me, compared to the likes of Fawlty Towers. But once the specials started airing from 2006 onwards, I started to appreciate the humour and went back to watch the original series and I fell in love. I still look back with fondness as I excitedly awaited a Royle Family special on Christmas Day and it became a tradition for several years.
The show has a fairly unique position in that it has impacted my speech and mannerisms quite substantially. There are many elements I have emulated from Ricky Tomlinson’s character Jim Royle. From the phrases “My arse!” and “Get that will ya, Barb” being indexed into my lexicon, to the subtle shakes of the head in disapproval at things people say to me and around me.
This has to be one of the funniest shows I have ever watched and I will take it to the grave with me. It’s just a shame we lost Caroline so young…
2. Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975–1979)
Ahh, would it really be a sitcom list without this absolute gem on the list? Alas, I’m not going to buck the trend either on this occasion.
Like several other sitcoms on this list, including the top entry, Fawlty Towers was an influence on me from an early age. My dad has VHS cassettes of the entire series (like most households in the UK did, I assume) and I being the curious and rather idiosyncratic toddler that I was, worked out how to use the VCR. The rest, as they say, is history.
What else is there to say about this wonderful sitcom that hasn’t already been said? Fawlty Towers deserves its place at the top of each and every sitcom list. Although, criminally, it only came 5th in the BBC’s poll back in 2004 (beaten by the likes of The Vicar of Dibley, would you believe!).
Each episode is intricately written and the laughs never get stale. Even ‘The Germans’ episode — which you would expect to have aged very badly since — still stands as the show’s very best episode. It’s a testament to the show’s exemplary writing that many people mistake the fire drill sequence for being in a separate episode when it’s all contained within one 30 minute saga.
I also credit Basil Fawlty for being an influence on my sarcastic intonation. Here me speak to you in full sarcastic flow and the marks of Fawlty would be unmistakable. He’s that much of a comedy icon and I regret nothing.
1. One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990–2000)
And the winner…one you might not have been expecting.
One Foot in the Grave was one of my favourite sitcoms as a child growing up. It was one of the first sitcoms I ever saw and laughed at, despite not being able to understand half of what was being said at the time. Hence, I think back on it very fondly.
The inexplicable scenarios Victor Meldrew managed to find himself in, either by his own doing or the misfortunes inflicted on him by a higher power were absolutely bizarre. Whether finding a Citroen 2CV in his skip after ranting about fly-tippers, enduring a day in the country from hell or spending a bank holiday stranded on the motorway, the situation was always hilariously embellished by Victor’s ranting and raving while his wife Margaret tried to keep everything together.
The show was so popular at one point that Victor’s name entered the cultural lexicon in reference to grumpy old men. Although, personally, I think this is an unfair generalisation. Victor may have been grumpy, granted, but he was trying to stand up for what was right, to uphold moral decency (when young yobs and tearaways wanted to decimate it) and maintain a world that was respectful and decent. But life always dragged him down, hence his ironic name.
David Renwick, the series writer, had a wonderful way of thinking up these outlandish scenarios. A particular highlight of mine was Victor reading out the readers' views and agony aunt columns in the newspaper, with one contributor complaining about his garage’s failure to find a body in the boot of a car when performing an MOT. Simple but ridiculous.
Renwick also had a tendency to brood on the macabre. Be it animals dying in horrendous circumstances (frozen cat, tortoise incinerated) or old people being abused by care home staff. But it was always done respectfully.
I suspect this may be part of the reason why One Foot is, disappointingly, rarely acknowledged in polls like this, because it’s not a laugh-a-minute sitcom like many others are (although it comes quite close). But I contest this and believe One Foot in the Grave deserves a place on the list.
David Renwick kept the show going for as long as he could muster and, very admirably, had the courage to kill Victor off — quite unprecedented in a sitcom — before the show became stale. Hence, it will always be a classic like Fawlty Towers because it never got old before its time.
Surprisingly, however, Victor’s catchphrase “I don’t believe it!” came top of Britain’s favourite catchphrase poll a few years ago, which is a mild consolation that, even if the show doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, Victor does live on in the hearts and souls of Brits nationwide.
This last was hard enough to compile without mentioning a few notable exemptions that would have made it on the list if it was longer.
In Sickness and In Health (BBC, 1985–1992)
The comeback series for TV’s most notorious bigot Alf Garnett who, surprise, surprise, is not held in very high regard these days.
Whilst I have since watched and appreciated Till Death Us Do Part, In Sickness and In Health was my first foray into the Garnett household and I loved it. From the offset, Alf reminded me of Victor Meldrew but not less amenable. He was selfish, heartless and xenophobic towards anyone he didn’t consider “English”.
His wife’s home help Winston aka “Marigold” bore the brunt of his prejudice but he was well prepared for him and Alf was always held to account and made to look the fool, that’s what made him so hilarious to watch. You were always laughing at him, not with him. It’s certainly a sitcom I will continue to watch and enjoy for years to come, despite what the detractors say.
Green Wing (Channel 4, 2004–2007)
I discovered Green Wing after Friday Night Dinner. But, boy, I wasn’t disappointed.
Featuring the comedic talents of Mark Heap and Tasmin Grieg (later to co-star together in Friday Night Dinner), as well as Michelle Gomez (playing a more insane, albeit less sinister character to her forthcoming alter-ego Missy in Doctor Who) and Stephen Mangen, to name but a few.
Green Wing, in a few words, is like watching the cast of Casualty and Holby City on mind-bending drugs. If they’re not doing random dances and aerobic moves in the corridor, then the doctors are busting out of cupboards in their underwear whistling a tune on a tin whistle. It’s like nuttiness I’ve never seen before in my life…and I loved it.
If you love insane comedy that doesn’t cross the boundary of darkness like The League of Gentlemen, then I’d highly recommend Green Wing. Trust me, you’ll be laughing for a week.
ChuckleVision (CBBC, 1987–2009)
Now, this may be a bit of a cheat, because yes it’s a children’s show, but ChuckleVision was still a situation comedy and I loved it very much growing up.
ChuckleVision achieved extraordinary longevity and behind Last of the Summer Wine is the second-longest-running sitcom in TV history. What a feat!
Seriously, for a show that started off studio-based with short interludes from a magician and a storyteller in the late 1980s, the show evolved into a sitcom and prevailed until the BBC ultimately had enough and pulled the plug over 20 years later.
If you didn’t know already, the show follows Paul and Barry Chuckle, two real-life brothers (their real surname Elliott) as they more often than not try and pursue a new job every week (having inevitably been sacked from the last one the week before) They often encountered poor unwitting people who fell foul to their clumsiness and haphazard behaviour, most frequently their boss No Slacking (played inimitably by the Chuckles’ older brother Jimmy Patton). And the cycle starts again…
It sounds infantile for sure but the show was very impressive on the gags front. The show’s most prolific writer John Sayle was a dab hand at delivering witty dialogue that could have you unexpectedly burst out laughing and it stands up well, even as a young adult.
“I won’t stand for this!” “I’ll get you a chair!”
“I’ve got the Duke of Edinburgh Awards.” “Well, you’d better give him them back, he might be looking for them.”
“I’ve never met anyone like you. You’re next to an idiot.” “Well, I didn’t like to say anything.”
Over an impressive 22 years, 21 series and 292 episodes, the show explored every scenario in the book. And the secret? Just plain, clean comedy fun.
It might not be the most exciting comedy out there, but it’s timeless and will endure for years to come on the great YouTube cloud in the sky. Or at least, that catchy theme tune will. After three… Chu-chu-chucklevision…
So, that’s my top ten. I don’t expect anyone to agree, that’s what makes us human.
Although, just to be on the safe side, I have upgraded the security of my house in anticipation of angry mobs for having the temerity to include one certain sitcom on this list, but hopefully the majority of readers will be able to forgive and forget.
At the end of the day, I love British comedy. I have since a child; it’s in my blood. This country has produced some of the best comedy in the world and I hope it will continue to do so in the years to come.
I look forward to the next golden era of comedy; fingers crossed it’s just around the corner.