There has been a renaissance in British situation comedy in the last decade.
Okay, I suppose you might not think that an accurate statement if you take into consideration some current situation comedies such as My Family - a neurotic dentist (yes, dentist) and his equally neurotic but ultimately completely uninteresting middle-class family. Or that one Adam Faith was in before he snuffed it. Or Harry Enfield's latest I forget what it was called. Obviously, there is a lot of complete rubbish getting commissioned.
Nonetheless, there is a new breed of situation comedy. I wouldn't count some conventional and well written situation comedy here - Coupling, Two Pints of Lager. Rather, those comedies that are genuinely a bit different, weird, off-beat. From the stuff that is unsettling - League of Gentlemen - to the "observational comedy" - The Royle Family - to some things that are both weird and "observational" - Phoenix Nights.
Of course, a lot of comedy has always been based on character observation and some of the best too - Steptoe and Son for instance. Nonetheless, there has been no comedy that I can think of like The Royle Family. This was based solely on people just sitting around being themselves, as you would be in real life - without a great deal of plot, or gags, or visual jokes or ... well, anything we normally think of as comedy.
Of course, The Royle Family was not really like real life -the show was written. Nor was it created by a bunch of luvvies trying really, really hard to be working class, as you find in films by Mike Leigh. That is not to say that everything about "real life" comedy is great. I find The Office unbearably cruel and cringe making, evoking more voyeurism than laughter. The reality TV/real life documentary epidemic on TV shows a worrying trend here.
Early Doors is the latest example of "observational comedy". It is no surprise to find that it is written by The Royle Family's Craig Cash (he who plays Dave). Originally, Caroline Aherne was also involved but dropped out of the project after some kind of luvvy tiff. Early Doors is set in a pub, is a bit like the Likely Lads, a bit like Phoenix Nights, and a bit like the American sit-com Cheers. I suppose it is also a bit like Victoria Wood. Arguably it was Wood's original "observational" humour that gave Caroline Aherne inspiration for characters like Mrs Merton. Whatever, Early Doors is really funny.
You really have to watch the characters develop to get this comedy. Ken's the pub landlord, who starts out as a tight bastard, but actually has a heart of gold. His student (adopted) daughter Melanie is of course going out with a scruffy oik (Liam). Janice is the inevitable single mother. Joe and Duffy are the likely lads. Eddie is the most boring man in the world. And Tommy the most depressed pensioner in the world.
There is a bit of a plot in Early Doors, but it is only very slowly unfurling over the course of its six episodes: what will happen when Melanie tries to find her real dad, stuff like that. It doesn't sound very interesting does it? But it is!
What makes it funny, believe me, is the dialogue: "My mum and dad were married for 30 years. They didn't need Relate to tell them their marriage were a sham. It was obvious." The two bent cops who come round for a large brandy because they need to calm down after doing 120 mph in their new panda car: "A car like that can be lethal in the wrong hands."
Okay, the subtlety of it has probably got a bit lost in the transcription. Best if you watch it and see for yourself.
Reviewer: Rosalind Robson