In what is normally a quiet time for new television series, we have seen a number of new comedies recently. If you’re not watching The Great Outdoors on BBC4 you’re missing a treat, especially as it’s only a three-part series (thankfully, the first two episodes are still available on iPlayer).
We’ve already had the marvellous Rev, which finished on Monday. Last night another BBC4 series, Getting On, started a repeat run on BBC2. Tonight, Roger and Val Have Just Got In and Pete Versus Life start new series, on BBC2 and Channel 4 respectively. And last week, Graham Linehan’s The IT Crowd finished with one of its strongest series yet.
But the IT Crowd is a rarity these days: a sitcom with a laughter track. These days, most British comedies are laughter-free.
I was reminded of how rare the laughter track is when watching a sitcom from the 1990s where the audience laughs are intrusive to the extreme: The Brittas Empire.
Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss’ sitcom, which starred Chris Barrie as the officious, incompetent but well-meaning leisure centre manager Gordon Brittas, enjoyed a seven-year run from January 1991 onwards. I started rewatching it as the partner of one my friends was one of the regulars, and was struck by just how laboured and dated some of the actors’ deliveries are, and just how relentless the laughter track is.
The show also reflects some of the mores of the time. Upon discovering that receptionist Carole (Harriet Thorpe) is heavily pregnant at the end of series 2, he mentions blithely that he will have to sack her. Also, the same character’s post natal depression in series 1 was utilised as a comedic device.
That said, the character of Carole was so broadly played that it helps us be detached from the fact that we’re effectively being asked to laugh at a woman in genuine pain. In future episodes, though, it becomes clear that Brittas’s wife Helen (Pippa Haywood) suffers from mental health issues - she had prescriptions for multiple anti-depressants. Her desire to be free of the medication is played completely straight by Haywood, but her dependence and her illness elicit multiple laughs — and her need to continue medicating is actually used as a punchline for a whole episode.
In 2010, we wouldn’t tolerate such direct laughter at mental illness. Thankfully, very few sitcoms use laughter tracks these days — indeed, when Ricky Gervais’ series Extras created a spoof BBC sitcom, When the Whistle Blows, its studio-bound audience format looked anachronistic. Apart from The IT Crowd, the only ones we could think of in the office were Miranda and (the soon to be defunct) Last of the Summer Wine.
I have to say that if the laughter track were to die out altogether, I wouldn’t miss it at all. Although the addition of a track to the classic 1986 Christmas episode of EastEnders (which, coincidentally, also includes a portrayal of mental illness) does seem curiously more watchable with the addition of canned laughter: