In 2011, something unexpected happened at the UK box office. The two top-grossing films were the final Harry Potter and best picture Oscar-winner The King’s Speech. Beneath them in the charts sat the expected parade of Hollywood blockbusters – Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight, Transformers, Planet of the Apes, Fast and the Furious… but at number three, grossing just a few hundred thousand less than the Oscar winner was The Inbetweeners Movie.
Two of its four leading actors had never appeared in a film before; the other two only tiny roles in unknown indies. The Inbetweeners Movie had a budget of £3.5m and went on to gross £64.8m in the UK. It broke the record for the most successful opening weekend for a comedy film in the UK and stayed at number one for four weeks.
Film industry pundits from overseas might be confused by this. The film took just $36,000 at the US box office. But to understand this success, they would have to understand the fondness the British have always retained for sitcom.
The idea of transferring a 30-minute TV comedy with a circular narrative onto the cinema screen for a triple-length offering with a satisfying three-act-structure is, on paper – and often in practice – a bad one. Not only structurally but also economically, the sitcom is a format that, despite a few notable American examples, rarely translates. Yet, the British film industry has a long history in this arena and the results have always been… interesting.
Although there were fledgling experiments in the late 1950s and early 60s with big screen outings for sitcoms The Army Game with I Only Arsked (1958), Whack-O! with Bottoms Up (1960) and The Larkins with Inn for Trouble (1960), what could be classified the golden age of the cinematic sitcom, with its identifiable genre tropes, spans 1971 to 1980.
This period correlates exactly with a curious moment in British taxation history. 1971 was the year that the Rolling Stones famously decamped to France and the phrase ‘tax exile’ became a badge of anti-establishment honour.
With British film stars being taxed at a rate of up to 98% of their earnings, many set up residence on sunnier shores. This meant that legally they could only now work in the UK for a limited number of days per year, and Hollywood was generally more attractive and lucrative than Pinewood had ever been.
As a result, there was a vacuum. With fewer stars able to appear in British films, production companies such as Hammer and Rank decided instead to elevate the familiar, and cheaper, stars of television.
The format had been set in 1968 with the tagline “Yer never saw Alf like this before! Yer actual Alf Garnett as large as life on the Giant Cinema Screen”, when audiences were able to see a very different take on popular sitcom Till Death Do Us Part.
Gone was the black-and-white living room of the small screen. Offered instead was a film of two bigger stories – the first half showing Alf and his wife Else during the Blitz in 1945 and the second half presenting the contemporary wedding of their daughter.
The film ended on a bittersweet note, with the Garnett family being relocated from the East End of London to an Essex tower block as part of the slum clearance.
Never mind the quality…
Social change becomes a recognisable feature in these films. 1976’s The Likely Lads also contemplates slum clearance and the working-class struggle of conforming to life in the high rises and new suburbs. Race relations are explored, generally in a manner that would horrify the modern viewer, in the film version of Love Thy Neighbour. And On the Buses (1971) takes a stumbling shot at exploring the issue of gender equality, with a plot concerning Stan Butler’s chagrin that women are suddenly allowed to be employed as bus drivers. Eventually he accepts the change – largely due to the physical assets of the new conductor he’s paired with.
Away from the defining anchors of garish studio sets and canned laughter, the tone of the cinematic sitcom often careened accidentally into a form of proto-Mike Leigh contemplation of the malaise that consumed a post-war white, working-class generation. But usually with at least one scene of a man getting locked out of a building sans trousers.
These films have a feel entirely of their own, often with heavy overuse of zany music scoring to suggest where the laughs might fall, resulting in an anxiety-inducing surreality.
Talking of ‘having a feel’, the cinematic sitcom is, in many ways, where innuendo went to die. Away from the heavy restrictions of conservative TV censorship, formally family-friendly characters found themselves smack-bang in the landscape of the British sex comedy in its heyday.
The British sex comedy was another genre entirely peculiar to these isles and on a limited timeframe. A run of cheap films that painfully combined equal measures of soft-core pornography and cheeky-chappy humour, they served an audience of porn fans who liked to maintain a veneer of respectability. The sex comedy was wiped out by the proliferation of the home video recorder.
Although the cinematic sitcom rarely strayed into ever showing actual nudity on screen, the objectification of women was rife and the sight of a middle-aged man making moves on a teenage girl was a common fixture. Even Alf Garnett gets his glasses steamed by a barely-legal, if imaginary, blonde in 1972’s The Alf Garnett Saga. Rampant homophobia and celebrity cameos aside, the film has impressive aesthetic moments and some savvy social commentary.
It also largely manages to avoid playing to an invisible studio audience, making the most of a bigger canvas without desperately moving its protagonist into a fish-out-of-water scenario.
For that is perhaps the classic hallmark of the cinematic sitcom – the transposal of the cast to a foreign location. Be it the cheaper option of a camping or holiday camp trip (The Likely Lads, Please Sir!, Holiday on the Buses) or to the exotic luxury of mainland Europe, usually Spain (Steptoe and Son, Are You Being Served?, Never Mind the Quality Feel the Width).
Perhaps the cleverest use of the fish-out-of water trope, and for my money by far the greatest offering of the genre was the film excursion of Porridge in 1979. Ronnie Barker’s knowing, amiable prison sitcom inverted the narrative of the cinematic sitcom but also of the jail-break movie.
It was a darker, grittier film, with less laughs and the fantastic central conceit of lead character Fletcher trying to break back into prison before he’s noticed missing. Porridge was deemed of a high enough calibre to even secure a release in the US, retitled Doing Time.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister and swiftly changed the tax laws in favour of the high earners, ensuring the return of many of them to their homeland and the bosom of the British film industry. 1980 saw the axe fall on the genre, with George and Mildred and Rising Damp films representing the final hurrah.
It would be 17 years before a British sitcom character would grace the silver screen again. In 1997, Rowan Atkinson took his character Mr Bean to cinema audiences. The story, of course, saw him leaving the UK to be a fish-out-of-water. In this case, in Los Angeles.
The film grossed more than $250m dollars worldwide from a budget of $18m, setting off a mini-renaissance of the genre. Bottom, The League of Gentlemen, Kevin & Perry and Stella Street all made it to the cinema with varying degrees of critical and financial success. In 2012 Armando Iannucci took the characters of his highbrow political satire The Thick of It from Westminster to Washington, for In the Loop, garnering himself an Oscar nomination in process.
The success of The Inbetweeners Movie was a surprise. Although it had a strong TV following, it might have seemed unlikely in the age of Netflix and illegal downloading that people would bother to make it to the multiplex for an extended adventure of some sitcom characters.
But ticket sales were strong. And the audience was treated to an almost perfect example of a classic cinematic sitcom: the characters went on holiday to Ibiza, where they were fish out of water, and the film was markedly more sexed-up than the series.
The only notable differences were that the soundtrack was better and, rather than see a hideous middle-aged man get his end away with a teenage girl, we were treated to a transgressive inversion in which one of the leads, a teenage boy has it away with a hideous middle-aged woman.
The success of the film lead to a sequel (fish-out-of-water in Australia) and yet more cinematic sitcoms. This crop included The Office, I’m Alan Partridge, Bad Education and Absolutely Fabulous all having a roll of the dice. They also all featured the characters going away somewhere, except Alan Partridge who used the film as a chance to finally put Norwich on the filmic map.
Like jellied eels, the knotted handkerchief, queueing and a dewey-eyed devotion to the queen, the great British cinematic sitcom is entirely peculiar to the UK and barely explainable to anyone outside of it.
We are a nation of people who like to see our favourite TV characters go on holiday and we demand to see this holiday not on TV, but in the cinema.