The 20 funniest radio comedies of all time

From left: Tony Hancock (Hancock's Half Hour), Benedict Cumberbatch (Cabin Pressure), Sally Philips (Clare in the Community) - BBC/Rii Schroer/AP
From left: Tony Hancock (Hancock's Half Hour), Benedict Cumberbatch (Cabin Pressure), Sally Philips (Clare in the Community) - BBC/Rii Schroer/AP

Exciting news for wireless fans: today, the BBC announced that Radio 1 is to start producing new comedy shows for the first time in 10 years.

The new slate begins with Ed and Lauren Get On (in which stand-up comics Ed Night and Lauren Pattison discuss hot-button issues), while other highlights include improv show Battle Acts, and Ray Moss: No Stone Unturned, a private-eye spoof starring award-winning podcaster Ben Partridge. 

But radio comedy itself is nothing new. Before Radio 1's first run of new shows premiere next month, here we count down the 20 greatest scripted radio comedies ever to hit the airwaves:

20. Clare in the Community (Radio 4, 2004-present)

Sally Phillips’s social worker Clare, forever wracked with guilt about being middle-class, white and heterosexual, is a wonderful comic creation who has proved surprisingly enduring – perhaps because David Cameron’s dreams of the Big Society now lies in tatters.

19. Goodness Gracious Me (Radio 4, 1996-98)

Now best remembered for its TV incarnation, this groundbreaking Asian sketch show from Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia has aged incredibly well, its good humouredness often peppered with a biting satire that still feels relevant today.

The cast of Goodness Gracious Me - Credit: BBC
The cast of Goodness Gracious Me Credit: BBC
18: Old Harry’s Game (Radio 4, 1995-2012)

Hell is other people, as Sartre observed. And in this metaphysical sitcom, even the devil (Andy Hamilton) is fed up with people – specifically, with one person: a kindly old philosophy professor (James Grout) who refuses to admit he’s dead. The concept began to sag in later years, but at its best it pirouetted between daft slapstick and genuine pathos.

17. Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show! (Radio 4, 2005-12)

We all love a deluded thespian, and they don’t come much more deluded than Steve Delaney’s magnificently quirky creation who seems oblivious to the many pitfalls of the acting industry. Sadly, the later TV show failed to capture the magic.

Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong - Credit: Rii Schoer
Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong Credit: Rii Schoer
16. Mark Watson Makes the World Substantially Better (Radio 4, 2007-8, 2011)

The first series of this delightfully shambolic stand-up cabaret caught king-of-the-fringe Watson at the height of his powers, as he expounded on his plans to rid the world of the seven deadly sins. It was an early launchpad for future Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner Tim Key (as the show’s poet-in-residence) and a pre-Matilda the Musical Tim Minchin, writing “live jingles” on the hoof.

15. Dad’s Army (Radio 4, 1974-75)

It’s best known as one of the greatest TV sitcoms ever made, but those unfamiliar with the audio version will not be disappointed. David Croft and Jimmy Perry’s gift for manipulating a large ensemble of characters and brilliantly delineating each one works spectacularly well on radio.

14. The Shuttleworths (Radio 4, 1993-2010)

Graham Fellows had a top 10 hit in 1978 as Jilted John and then promptly disappeared. So his reinvention as John Shuttleworth, Yamaha keyboard-playing Yorkshireman, felt like a lovely progression of a spotty career. Warm, surreal and very, very funny, the show had an endearing homespun quality as Shuttleworth mused on such mighty subjects as the Austin Ambassador.

Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth - Credit: Getty
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth Credit: Getty
13. Another Case of Milton Jones (Radio 4, 2005-10)

A penchant for zaniness and a plethora of puns means that Jones is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, behind the goofiness there is a cohesive and very clever comedy mind which found the perfect vehicle in this series, which saw our man bestride the globe in a number of expert guises.

12. The Mary Whitehouse Experience (Radio 1, 1989-90)

The series, which spawned a wildly popular TV show, was the closest British comedy ever got to rock and roll. David Baddiel, Hugh Dennis, Rob Newman and Steve Punt were the quartet who brought a mixture of swagger and undergrad humour to a host of recurring characters. Among the most fondly remembered are Baddiel and Newman’s pair of history professors, beginning a conversation of supreme erudition before descending into childish insults (“I saw your mum coming out of the VD clinic.”).

11. Absolute Power (Radio 4, 2000-2004)

John Bird and Stephen Fry were irresistible as two oily PR-men running “a government-media relations consultancy”, in a satire that skewered the behind-the-scenes skulduggery of the Blair years.  It was a spin-off from the less well known (but still worth seeking out) crime caper In the Red, based on Mark Tavener’s novels. It transferred to TV, but much of the bite was lost in translation.

John Bird and Stephen Fry in Absolute Power - Credit: BBC
John Bird and Stephen Fry in Absolute Power Credit: BBC
10. Blue Jam (Radio 1, 1997-1999)

The dark, very twisted genius of Brass Eye creator Chris Morris was given full licence in this "ambient comedy", a disturbing mix of satire, music and sketches. Among the recurring characters were a pair of lovers who made increasingly bizarre demands of each other (“I want you to s--- your leg off.”). The format was later developed for Channel 4.

9. Ed Reardon’s Week (Radio 4, 2005-present)

A frustrated writer whose big moment occurred in 1981 when he scripted an episode of Tenko is the centre of this brilliantly structured sitcom. The Berkhamsted-based scribe's relentless need to keep buggering on, relationship with his preternaturally wise cat Elgar and strange charisma when it comes to the ladies give it a wide appeal – and a very human heart.

8. Flight of the Conchords (Radio 2, 2004)

A precursor to the HBO series that saw New Zealand's fourth-most-popular folk duo attempting to break America, the radio show has Brett and Jermaine struggling to make it in Britain. If anything it's even funner than the TV version, with much more of Rhys Derby's hapless manager Murray (his phone calls with Neil Finn, the very patient lead singer of Crowded House, are a recurring highlight), bone-dry narration from Rob Brydon, and even a cameo from reclusive comedy odd-bod Daniel Kitson as the UK's "king of novelty" Dan and the Panda.

Desert Island Discs: the 40 greatest guests
Desert Island Discs: the 40 greatest guests
7. Saturday Night Fry (Radio 4, 1988)

Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Phyllida Law, Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman – how’s that for a cast? This wickedly inventive sketch show sent up bland Radio 4 staples such as the Afternoon Play with savage wit, and a self-aware edge; Law played herself, bitterly resentful towards her real-life daughter Thompson. The “very third” episode was a mockumentary about the show’s history, while in another instalment the cast locked Fry outside the studio while they rewrote his scripts. Chris Morris is reportedly a huge fan.

6. Cabin Pressure (Radio 4, 2008-14)

The longevity of John Finnemore’s sublime comedy is, no doubt, partly due to the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, but this sitcom about a tiny airline company's eccentric cabin crew was, in truth, a magnificent ensemble. Take your pick from Roger Allam’s smoothie ex-smuggler, Finnemore’s slow-witted polar bear enthusiast, Cumberbatch’s prissy jobsworth and Stephanie Cole’s commanding but beleaguered company head.

Cabin Pressure: (from left) John Finnemore, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, Benedict Cumberbatch
Cabin Pressure: (from left) John Finnemore, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, Benedict Cumberbatch
5. Round the Horne (Light Programme/Radio 2, 1965-68)

The crack team of Marty Feldman and Barry Took gave us this sublime and ever-so-slightly risqué sketch show which featured the versatile vocal talents of Kenneth Horne, Betty Marsden, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams. It introduced the gay slang of polari to the nation (Bona!), while a generation of schoolboys tittered along to Rambling Syd Rumpo’s innuendo (“Green grows the grunge on my lady’s posset”).

4. The Goon Show (Home Service/Light Programme, 1951-1960)

Spike Milligan drove himself through a string of nervous breakdowns churning out Goon Show scripts, but his fevered imagination gave us one of the greatest influences on modern (and post-modern) comedy, at once daringly avant-garde and deeply silly – and impossible to explain. Monty Python looks tame by comparison.

3. Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (Radio 4, 1992)

No, this wasn't the mighty Partridge's debut – that honour will always belong to Radio 4's spoof news show On the Hour, broadcast the previous year – but it was here that one of comedy's all-time-great characters first let his desperate, Little England, magnificently insecure psyche roar.

2. Hancock’s Half Hour (Home Service, 1954-1959)

The sublime peregrinations of a tortured genius formed the backbone of radio comedy for Fifties listeners. Hancock broke new ground with its sitcom format, and also perfectly captured the humdrum existence of the post-war suburban man – rainy Sundays, interminable queues at the bus stop and the petty bureaucracy of local councils. There was also more than a dash of surreal humour, which is said to have influenced Harold Pinter.

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Radio 4, 1978-80, 2004-05, 2018)

Before the books, film, TV series and novelty towel, Hitchhiker’s was a radio sitcom – and the best one ever made. It starred Simon Jones (soon to reprise the role in a new series) as Arthur Dent, the mild-mannered Englishman who wakes up to find the Earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Writer Douglas Adams pushed the medium to its limits, conjuring otherworldly landscapes no Hollywood movie could ever match (with help from the pioneering BBC Radiophonic Workshop). It had a killer theme tune, to boot. Endlessly quotable, often profound, Hitchhiker's was a sui generis masterpiece. You’d have to be a Vogon not to love it.

The first series, Ed and Lauren Get On, will be available to download from February 5, and air on Radio 1 every Wednesday between 3 and 5am from February 7.

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