The theme that dominates the BBC’s Lost Sitcoms season is class. Something that rarely figures realistically in modern television comedy. In a recent Radio Times interview the author Caitlin Moran, creator of the Channel Four series Raised By Wolves, lamented the lack of working class characters on television. When these characters were evident they were defined by their bleak lives on Benefits Street. ‘But you didn’t get to hear them talking about their ideas on philosophy or politics’, she said. Yet this sums up how the working classes have often been portrayed, when they weren’t cast as Andy Capp characters or cartoon cockneys (Danny Dyer’s Mick Carter on Eastenders straddles the two, but manages to bring authenticity and humour to the mix). Television has never understood that the working class has increasingly become a broad church. It has not solely been the preserve of trade unionists and council house tenants for some time. What remains is a tribe united by its experiences, views and concerns. Much of which does not sit well with the orthodox ‘liberal' vision of programme makers. Particularly when it comes to race, faith and immigration. The reaction to the Brexit result alone is a primary example. Perhaps you don’t hear these attitudes mocked in comedy programmes because news reports and documentaries have that covered.
This particular portrayal of the working class was apparent even in the high season of 'swinging London' and the mythical social revolution that was the 1960s. The era when BBC director general Hugh Carlton-Greene wanted the small screen to reflect the real lives of the viewer. Steptoe & Son, Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home were among the iconic programmes commissioned during his tenure. The ciné-vérité style ofBBC drama focussed on the plight of the working class - homelessness, unemployment - but too frequently grafted the characters onto the issues rather than the reverse. Essentially they were stooges for the politics of the film makers. These dramas were largely based in the north, while the comedy tended to be set in the south. That’s the case with the programmes remade as Lost Sitcoms, where original ‘lost’ scripts have been filmed with a new cast. Notably, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe & Son. In these scripts the parochial world of the characters and their prejudices are mocked, yet the genius of the writing and the portrayals bring poignancy and empathy too.
Some years ago I interviewed the writer Johhny Speight, author of Till Death Us Do Part. He told me that he didn’t create the bigoted folk-devil Alf Garnett, he simply 'grassed him up’. Speight was reflecting the views that existed. But no matter how ridiculous the Garnett character appeared, he highlighted many fears and experiences that chimed with those that lived in the east end setting of the series and beyond. Many of which resonate today.
What made the Garnett character a departure to all that had gone before was attitude; what Harold Steptoe had - which made him the butt of the joke - was aspiration. This week the remake of Steptoe & Son is televised. The remake brings nothing to the original, but presents it as a period piece. ‘Why do you want to go to Austria?’, Steptoe’s father asks his son. ‘What’s wrong with Bognor?’. But the young Steptoe does offer a clue to a working class characterthat was on the wane in a London landscape that is rarely recognised these days. Rather like the east end of West Ham fan Alf Garnett.
Whilesitcoms began to focus on single men in bachelor pads, and modern single girls sharing flats (The Liver Birds, Take Three Girls), Harold Steptoe was landlocked within the poverty and grime of a rag and bone yard. With every cosmetic attempt he made to 'better himself' - speaking French, reading books, wearing cravats - he was undermined by the filthy, uncouth father. (A figure that belonged more to the era of Dickens than that of The Beatles).
The aspiration of the working classes, like their views, has often been the subject of mockery in television comedy, from Abigail’s Party to Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney and beyond. The punchline invariably arrives via a tangle of bad taste, malapropisms and Franglais. Some series managed to rise above this. In the Essex parents in Gavin & Stacey you see a modern take on the urban working class that made the voyage out to the suburbs. In The Royle Family, played out in real time, and in the absence of real plot or punchline, Jim Royle was a modern Alf Garnett, at least in spirit, as railed against all that passed on the television screen. Yet you couldn’t help thinking that he would have had views on the subjects that preoccupied Alf Garnett - but the sensitive mood of the time made him impossible to express them. And so he became something close to loveable, seated in front of the small screen watching programmes that rarely featured anyone that though, sounded or looked him.