Move over Mrs Brown: comedians prefer Alan Partridge and Fawlty Towers

Gold TV has polled the professionals about their favourite comedy. But even the funniest of the funny can’t easily be reduced to scenes and one-liners

Surveys of Britain’s favourite comedy – and indeed, Britain’s favourite anything – are 10 a penny; the more so in our click-bait era. The Radio Times ran one last August, which found Mrs Brown’s Boys to be the nation’s best-loved sitcom of the century so far. Now here comes another from the TV channel Gold, in which “comics reveal their favourite British TV comedy moments and characters” of all time. What’s new is that this is a poll of professional comedians, and so more insightful, we assume, than those vox-pop efforts elsewhere. And so it is, to the degree that the sophisticate’s bete noire Mrs Brown’s Boys doesn’t get a sniff of glory. But beyond that, not so much.

The headline winners here are firmly from the drawer marked “usual suspects”, as Fawlty Towers is named best sitcom, and Alan Partridge the favourite male comic character. “Don’t mention the war!” features in the top three best-loved scenes, a category that includes – look away now, Stewart LeeDel Boy falling through the bar in Only Fools and Horses. The best one-liners in UK sitcom history are “Don’t tell him, Pike” from Dad’s Army and “A pint? Why that’s very nearly an armful!” from The Blood Donor episode of Hancock’s Half Hour. (Given how closely these results mirror conventional wisdom since the days of shillings and pence, we probably didn’t need professional comedians to tell us that.)

There are some distinctions between Gold’s survey and public polls on the same subject. The sitcom Top 10 finds room for Peep Show but not Dad’s Army, The Thick of It but not Mrs Brown’s Boys. The great Rik Mayall features prominently, and Alan Partridge apparently looms larger for comics than for the public. In that respect, it’s a slightly edgier list. Interestingly, Joanna Lumley, not primarily a comic actor, comes out on top for best female comedy performance (in Ab Fab). But one looks in vain for surprise entries, or to be introduced by this crack squad of comedy experts to some overlooked gem of a scene, some beautifully honed one-liner that’s escaped the nation’s notice. Instead, at No 9, we get this from The Vicar of Dibley: “You were expecting a bloke: beard, Bible and bad breath. Instead you’ve got a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom.” I doubt that was in the Top 10 funniest lines in that episode of The Vicar of Dibley, far less the entire history of UK sitcoms.

Should we blame the surveyed comics? Who knows? It’d be interesting to see the full list of all 100 contributors, but only a handful (including David Baddiel, Jenny Eclair, Reece Shearsmith and Alexei Sayle) are named on the press release. How diverse were they in terms of age, gender and ethnicity? But the blandifying effect of polls like these is beyond the influence of any contributor, as I’m reminded every Edinburgh fringe, when the TV channel Dave’s annual competition for best joke throws up another selection of so-what? one-liners.

Partly that’s because selection by a panel of experts is a homogenising process that excludes rogue candidates and is susceptible to group-think. (It’s striking how the best characters, scenes and one-liners here are drawn from the same small pool of comedies – as if no bad sitcom ever generated a very funny line.) But mainly it’s because comedy looks much less funny when reduced to its component parts, particularly when those parts are then given hallowed, “best of all time” status. (Which is the kind of idiocy Lee mocked with his Del Boy sketch.) Most of the one-liners listed aren’t funny out of context, or indeed recognisable as one-liners. Several of the best-ever scenes aren’t even comedic – Tim and Dawn in The Office finally getting it together, No 2 in the poll, being an obvious example.

Watch Tim and Dawn get it on in The Office

The irresistible conclusion is that the survey’s respondents lacked inspiration, and fell back on officially sanctioned “classic moments” or randomly selected quite-good bits from shows they loved. Fair enough; the things we love about sitcoms (as the high placing of that Tim and Dawn moments implies) aren’t easily reducible to one-liners and scenes; and great one-liners and scenes aren’t always what leap to mind when we think of them. Gold’s poll will raise some smiles and happy memories, and spark debates about what they got right and wrong. But if you’re looking for the inside track on sitcom, for insights into how professional and popular tastes in comedy differ, it’s a little less fruitful.

Favourite scenes from British TV comedy

Here are the comics’ top picks from the Gold survey.

1. Alan Partridge meets a superfan who has a room dedicated to Alan Partridge – I’m Alan Partridge

2. Tim and Dawn finally get together – The Office

3. Basil Fawlty argues with the Germans, stressing, “Don’t mention the war!” – Fawlty Towers

4. “Don’t tell him, Pike” scene with German prisoners – Dad’s Army

5. Del Boy falling through the bar – Only Fools and Horses

6. Father Ted and the terrified priests stray into the lingerie department – Father Ted

7. Mrs Richards complaining about her room to Basil Fawlty – Fawlty Towers

8. The entrance of Lord Flashheart in Blackadder II – Blackadder

9. Del Boy and Rodney running as Batman and Robin – Only Fools and Horses

10. David Brent begging for his job as he gets fired – The OfficeThree to see

Dane Baptiste
Dane Baptiste is heading to Leicester this week. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Leicester comedy festival preview gala
Madcap Irishman Jason Byrne headlines a one-nighter previewing the country’s second-biggest comedy festival, which kicks off proper on 8 February. This night’s lineup includes Jamali Maddix and the excellent Dane Baptiste.
• 6 January at De Montfort Hall, Leicester. Box office: 0116-233 3111.

Frank Skinner
A second Soho run for Frank Skinner’s wholly improvised offering The Man With No Show, in which the Black Country man dusts down the extempore comedy skills he honed with ex-wingman David Baddiel 20 years ago.
• Until 14 January at Soho theatre, London, until 14 January. Box office: 020-7478 0100.

Mr Swallow: Houdini
One of my fave raves on last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Nick Mohammed’s spoof musical tracing the life of the renowned escapologist. You get comedy, songs, feats of derring-do – and Mohammed and his team are terrific at all of them.
• From 10 January until 18 February, Soho theatre, London. Box office: 020-7478 0100.


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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