Stuck in Limbo: The “Purgatorial British Sitcom”

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The British are famous for their deadpan, absurd, and yet unrelentingly bleak comedy. I grew up in England so It’s no surprise that I was exposed to a number of classic comedies including Bottom, Red Dwarf, Peep Show, Father Ted. All pure genius. I’ve loved these shows dearly, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to think about them in their wider context.

Superficially, they seem pretty diverse. From two violent lunatics who share a flat in Hammersmith to the last human left alive, drifting in deep space, the settings and scenarios vary wildly. I want to look a little deeper, though. What is the essential nature that these shows share? What is it that makes them uniquely British? Incidentally, any of the shows I happen to mention, I urge you to watch in the strongest possible terms. Immediately.

The first thing you need for a great British sitcom is a complete and total bastard. Maybe even two or three. From devastatingly insecure paper salesman David Brent (The Office) to alcoholic psychopath Edward “Eddie” Hitler (Bottom), British television is jam-packed with less than savoury individuals. I think this is because, for whatever reason, we Brits aren’t as comfortable with sincerity as say, our cousins across the pond.

That’s obviously a sweeping generalization, but it’s certainly true on some level. We want to see people taken down a peg or two, we don’t care much for happy endings, and we like a bit of good old fashioned violence. None of that works quite so well if the people we see on TV are trying to be “likable”. Perish the thought.

David Brent
The definitive pillock

We do not relate to or empathize with these characters in any meaningful way. We love to hate them, but we certainly don’t identify with them on a personal level. It may sound a touch cruel, but what we really want to see is their comeuppance. All of the catharsis comes from watching these characters get exactly what they deserve.

Peep Show is a good example. Mark and Jeremy (the two protagonists) are both absolute scumbags. They lie, they manipulate others, and spread misery wherever they go. The audience does not laugh with Mark and Jeremy, they laugh at them.

Punishment as a concept runs deep in British TV comedies. To go back to Peep Show for a moment, Mark and Jeremy are each other’s punishment. They bring out the worst in each other, doing nothing with their lives but holding their alleged “friend” back.

Jeremy simply cannot function in the real world, and so relies on Mark for a roof over his head, and Mark is too manipulative and neurotic to make new friends or live with anyone else. They’re stuck with one another and that’s the way its always going to be. To put it simply, they deserve each other.

Peep Show
A love/hate (mostly hate) relationship

Being trapped (seemingly forever) with someone you despise is the basis of almost all of my favourite comedies. I’ve already mentioned Peep Show, but Red Dwarf, Bottom, and Blackadder all feature similar scenarios.

Why though, have I used the word “purgatory”, up there in the title? I used it because that’s exactly what most of these shows feel like. As though the characters are being punished for being such awful people. They are almost always striving for something pathetically shallow, oblivious to how their own glaring faults are making their own lives so much worse. Somewhere along the way, there ought to be a lesson learned. But of course, there never is.

Consider the tragic case of Richard “Richie” Richard (Bottom). Yes, that’s actually his name. All he wants from life is to lose his virginity. As he says himself, “If only I could just get one of them to do it with me. I mean anybody. Just to do it with me. Just once”.

There’s just one small problem. Richie is, however, an arrogant, cruel, small-minded, and thoroughly selfish excuse for a man. No one he meets can stand his company for more than a few minutes. He never quite seems to realise that he is not the only person on Earth who matters. Richie’s outlook is a particularly bleak one. Doomed to a lifetime sharing his flat with the equally repellent Eddie Hitler. He has driven everyone else away, and in doing so created his own personal purgatory.

Eddie and Richie (Bottom)
Eddie and Richie, two of my favourite scumbags

Many others are in exactly the same situation. Rowan Atkinson’s eponymous character, Captain Edmund Blackadder (Blackadder Goes Forth) is also a victim of his own shortcomings. Only ever Entering the military because back in the “old days” the British army fought exclusively against people who were “two feet tall and armed with dry grass”. He openly admits that he’d “had fifteen years of military experience, perfecting the art of ordering a pink gin and saying “Do you do it doggy-doggy?” in Swahili”. Hardly noble pursuits.

In pursuing an easy life of plunder, exotic locales, and easy victories, Captain Blackadder finds himself stuck in a dugout on the western front with only a pair of halfwits for company. Not to mention having his life in the hands of the thoroughly deranged General Melchett (played wonderfully by Stephen Fry).

Other notable examples of a hell of one’s own making include Ted Crilly (Father Ted) who is sent to a remote Irish island for defrauding a charity, and Arnold Rimmer (Red Dwarf) who’s engineering incompetence results in the deaths of the titular mining ship’s entire crew. The only survivor being his bunkmate, who he hates.

Blackadder Goes Forth
Brothers in arms? Hardly

With so many outstanding exemplars, what I have decided to call the “Purgatorial Sitcom” is obviously a winning formula. There seems to be a great appeal in watching a real ponce being taken down a peg or two (especially for the British). The format I’ve described here lends itself to this particularly well. Sharp writing and a keen sense of comedic timing don’t hurt either. The same basic idea is foundational to all these programs. A state of limbo and punishment for past sins. The word purgatory is bang on the money as far as I’m concerned.

As for why this kind of thing is so unmistakably “British”, there are a variety of explanations. Being a generally pretty repressed bunch, we tend to be uncomfortable with sincere, or difficult conversations, and so turn to humour as a way of coping. That could explain why many British sitcoms can be surprisingly dark at times. Britain also has a relatively rigid class structure, a fertile breeding ground for political barbs a healthy dose of satire. It could even be because the weather here makes us all miserable, and so we take out our frustrations in sitcom form.

I hope you enjoyed this essay on complete gits. Who knows if the term “Purgatorial Sitcom” will ever catch on, but it’s an interesting little concept. I feel like it provides a unique perspective on a particular comedic sensibility. If you haven’t already, give some of these shows a go, I reckon you’ll really love them.

Robert Webb

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