A glance at the BBC’s list of the nation’s favourite sitcoms demonstrates that Channel 4 has struggled to produce a genuinely enduring comedy. There are a number of fine Channel 4 shows on this list, but only one – the excellent ‘Father Ted’ – came close to cracking the top 10 (and it did come very close, which almost makes me feel bad for not voting).
A lot of bad shows have managed high placings in the top 100. Is ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ really better than ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’? Is ‘The Brittas Empire’ better than ‘Spaced’? And anything is better than queasy crass-fests like ‘On the Buses’ and ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, yet these are placed higher than 4’s forgotten classic ‘Nightingales’.
Accepting the fact that this is a BBC poll and BBC series are likely to emerge on top, the likely reason for this is level of exposure. 4’s sitcoms tend to swallow up more development time and the creative talent is usually juggling other commitments, often resulting in lengthy gaps between seasons and – when they finish – a small package of episodes. Whilst top ten shows like ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’ can run on a lengthy loop, the repeat value of those with only two or three short seasons is often limited.
And so to ‘Black Books’, which was placed at number 58 and has just commenced its third season. The show debuted in 2000: when this season finishes, the episode total will be 18. Not a great deal in four years. Brit sitcom purists will tell you that short, well-spaced runs mean higher quality and (if said comedy pundit is particularly dull) will point out that only 12 episodes of ‘Fawlty Towers’ were made. A lot of people seem obsessed with this magic number, like it’s an automatic mark of greatness.
Even if the quality does remain more consistent over a shorter run, more episodes means a greater presence, which in turn makes the show more a part of people’s lives and, eventually, a part of the cultural landscape. For this, the odd weak episode is not a huge price to pay. And the more episodes you have, the more often you get repeated: many good 4 sitcoms are never seen again because the channel prefers to fill schedule gaps with long-running US shows like ‘Cheers’ and ‘Friends’.
‘Father Ted’ has bucked this trend (it helps that, when the first season was a success, ten episodes were commissioned for the second season rather than six). It’s been repeated several times and is currently running just after ‘Black Books’: hopefully when ‘Black Books’ finishes, it will be similarly well remembered.
It’s actually a pretty trad sitcom, mostly taking place on a single set and relying on strong interactions between characters who often don’t like each other much. Hence, there’s nothing that should be too off-putting to a mainstream audience except perhaps the light air of larger-than-life surrealism and the raging misanthropy of lead character Bernard Black (Dylan Moran).
Although the gaps between series have been long, it has managed to achieve that much vaunted consistency of quality – on the evidence of its first episode, series three is a match for the first two. The only real failing of the series opener was a relatively subdued Bernard, but the other two regulars (Tamsin Grieg and Bill Bailey) share Moran’s ability to make good material great, and with a guest appearance from Simon Pegg (playing against type as an uptight corporate bookstore manager) you really can’t complain.
So, despite everything I said before, I’m not going to. I’m just glad ‘Black Books’ is back on, even if it has taken ages.