From TV's crown jewels to racist nightmares: can the 1970s sitcom be saved?

Mervyn Hayes, Windsor Davies and Don Estelle in It Ain't Half Hot Mum, 1977 - Lichfield Archive
Mervyn Hayes, Windsor Davies and Don Estelle in It Ain't Half Hot Mum, 1977 - Lichfield Archive

Here’s a dispatch from the culture wars. BBC bosses are preventing you from watching a 1970s situation comedy starring three of the decade’s best-loved comic virtuosi: Spike Milligan, the cultural revolutionary who founded the Goons; John Bird, the cherubic master satirist; and Frank Carson, the cackling comic who brought the working men’s club to Saturday prime time. Thanks to a decision by the corporation, The Melting Pot, in which Milligan and Bird play two illegal immigrants from Pakistan, and Carson their beret-wearing Irish Republican landlord, cannot be screened. It will remain locked in the archive forever. If you feel moved to write in and complain, don’t bother. The decision was made in 1976. And it was the right one.

The 1970s sitcom plays a strange role in contemporary culture. It produced works that are unassailably canonical. Dad’s Army remains a fixture of the BBC Two schedule. On Britbox and the Freeview channels, Rising Damp streams endlessly, The Good Life is eternal and Porridge is never off the menu. Fawlty Towers remains so well-loved that it was repeated last year as a lockdown morale-booster. These comedies have become our comfort blankets. Depressed by the onslaught of Covid-19? Watch Manuel’s rogue rat peeping out from the biscuit tin. Worried by the painful business of contemporary life? Watch Margo Leadbetter in her yellow plastic Mackintosh, taking a tumble in the mud of Surbiton.

But the 1970s sitcom is also a repository of our nightmares. Love Thy Neighbour, in which Jack Smethurst plays a factory worker horrified that the new couple next door (Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper) are from the Caribbean, has become as common a shorthand for British racism as the Rivers of Blood speech. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s comedy about a British Army concert party in India between V-E Day and V-J Day, fulfils a similar function. We remember the white actor Michael Bates in brownface, shrieking and nodding under a turban, and Windsor Davies’s sergeant major bemoaning his command of “a load of poofs” – and we know we’re seeing something that a modern audience would find hard to distinguish from The Black and White Minstrel Show.

But perhaps both these responses – adoration and recoil – would bear some interrogation. A comprehensive new account of the 1970s sitcom may give us the materials. Robert Sellers’s Raising Laughter takes the decade month by month, examining the shows that remain cultural landmarks, and unearthing stuff that you suspect he might be making up. Leslie Philips as a randy anthropologist in The Culture Vultures? Benny Hill’s stooge Bob Todd as a lavatory attendant in In for a Penny, scripted by the producer of Upstairs Downstairs? Charley’s Grants, a satire on the Arts Council starring Hattie Jacques and written by N F Simpson, the playwright often regarded as the English Ionesco?

Mapped in such detail, a familiar landscape begins to look alien. We learn of ideological disputes between the leads of Last of the Summer Wine so intense that they led to a threat of recasting. Of how Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais nearly abandoned Porridge after a horrifying research trip to the basement of HMP Brixton. Of how the Ministry of Defence happily furnished the tank with which Citizen Smith made a revolutionary assault on Parliament.

Ronnie Barker and Fulton Mackay in Porridge - BBC
Ronnie Barker and Fulton Mackay in Porridge - BBC

If we could watch these again with new eyes, what would we see? Perhaps the old favourites would comfort us less, and the horror shows would reveal their ambiguities. We might notice that It Ain’t Half Hot Mum portrayed the British Empire as a doomed enterprise staffed by bullies and buffoons, and that Michael Bates was the only Urdu speaker on television beyond the presenters of Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan, the Sunday morning show for Asian viewers. We might decide that, underneath its crude racial insults, Love Thy Neighbour is a story about a bumptious white trade unionist who is continually reduced to spluttering rage by a young, good-looking black Tory. We might be surprised that the fairly lowbrow medical farce of Doctor in the House can accommodate a gag about confusing Danny La Rue with Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the 1968 student revolutions.

We’d also register what has changed. That five decades on, the officious Inspector Blakey now looks like the hero of On the Buses – a lone public servant battling a pair of uniformed perverts and their hideous families. That in The Good Life, Tom’s dream of self-sufficiently is only possible because he has paid off his mortgage before his 40th birthday – a concept that now seems like science fiction. Or that Wendy Craig’s Ria in Butterflies, belittled by her husband and sons, now reads like a character who should be slamming the door on her abusers, but can’t quite convert her rage into action.

Above all, we might notice how the best-loved of these series derive their comedy from anxieties as dark and existential as those crackling away on the stage of the Royal Court. Harold Steptoe will never escape Oil Drum Lane any more than Vladimir and Estragon will meet Godot. Terry and Bob in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? will always be divided by the social changes resisted by one and embraced by the other. Basil and Sybil will never divorce. Reggie Perrin, having tried feigning suicide, founding a commune and building a business empire based on selling trash to gullible consumers, will never be at ease with himself or society.

Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as Tom and Barbara in The Good Life
Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal as Tom and Barbara in The Good Life

And yet, absolute despair never quite comes. At the end of The Good Life, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey create what looks like defeat for its suburban anti-capitalists. Tom and Barbara return home to find a disembowelled sofa and a swastika daubed on the living room wall. The studio audience falls silent. “The sort of people who do this,” says Penelope Keith’s Margo, “call the police ‘pigs’.” Her husband, Jerry, newly promoted, offers Tom his old job back. Barbara refuses on his behalf. “If there were more people with your spirit in this country,” declares Margo, “we’d still have an empire.” The audience laughs. So do Tom and Barbara. The remark is preposterous, but we understand what is happening. Two couples whose relationship is characterised by mutual incomprehension are stating what they have in common – a shared opposition to violence and nihilism. This is the reason why these old series won’t die: they say so much, so deftly, with a wit that is rarely straightforward.

A pity then, that they have become the ground for thin and ill-tempered arguments about censorship. Last July, for instance, it was reported that the Fawlty Towers episode “The Germans” was being withdrawn, thanks to a scene in which Major Gowen describes the West Indies cricket team with a racial slur not printed in this paper since 1911. The headlines obscured something rather less sensational: the episode was removed – but only for a few days from one platform, UKTV, after which it returned, uncut and prefaced with a brief warning. During that time, the episode remained available on iTunes, Netflix and Britbox. Hardly an Orwellian incident.

Windsor Davies and Melvin Hayes in It Ain't Half Hot Mum
Windsor Davies and Melvin Hayes in It Ain't Half Hot Mum

A bigger question went undiscussed – one generated by our on-demand, archive-fixated age. How should broadcasters manage our new and perhaps rather peculiar demand that the popular culture of five decades ago should remain in circulation as if it were new? If there’s one thing we can say about the original audiences of 1970s sitcoms, it’s that they had no expectation of being in agreement with a joke half a century old.

When the first episode of The Melting Pot was screened in June 1976, Clive James reviewed it for The Observer. It was, he wrote, “the worst thing to happen to race relations since Pharoah went sour on the Israelites”. His critical faculties crumpled on the spot: “objecting to it was like debating against an attack of flatulence: it was a fart accompli”. Not quite. Only the pilot had been shot. Six more episodes went before the cameras that August. They were never transmitted.

The Melting Pot occasionally surfaces, samizdat-fashion, on YouTube. It defies easy description. There are long scenes in which the residents of Frank Carson’s boarding house trade racial insults over breakfast. Burt Kwouk from The Pink Panther plays a Chinese East Ender. John Bluthall sits in his kippah, tapping away at a calculator. Tony Hancock’s old sidekick Bill Kerr shouts abuse in a broad Australian accent. In the final episode, Milligan and Bird’s brownface characters, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, are taken to court by a white supremacist colonel. The judge who sends them down keeps a portrait of Hitler on the wall. The central characters, however, have the final victory. The last scene shows an apoplectic colonel watching a party of well-dressed black Britons on their way to Royal Ascot – and Rembrandt and Van Gogh being knighted by the Queen in the lift in Harrods.

“It is guaranteed to offend everybody,” Milligan explained while the series was in production. Five decades on, that guarantee still holds. The 1970s sitcoms that still command our attention, however, offered a more complex and generous contract to their audiences. Their makers hoped for a repeat or two. Few of them could have predicted that their work would remain so long in the conversation of the culture, to be canonised or damned. Those half hours would become half centuries. That laughter, or the end of laughter, would measure the difference between the present and the past, and show us, through jokes delivered in over-lit studio pubs and prisons and living rooms, what the years have done to our sensibilities, our situations.

Raising Laughter: How the Sitcom Kept Britain Smiling in the ’70s by Robert Sellers (History Press, £20) is out on Sept 1

Can the 1970s sitcom be saved? Do you still enjoy 1970s sitcoms? Tell us in the comments section below