When I say “historical” in relation to television programming, what comes to mind? Drama, right? Human rights campaigns, wars, ancient civilizations; these are serious subjects which must be treated with solemnity and reverence.
Apparently not in the UK where history has been the backdrop for many a comedic series. Look at the WWII era alone- It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, ‘Allo ‘Allo and Dad’s Army. All three of these series are consistently named at the top of British sitcom polls.
Blackadder famously visited the Middle Ages, Elizabethan and Regency periods as well as WWI. Monty Python often set their sketches and films in olden times to very humorous effect. And while technically considered a children’s program, the BAFTA-winning Horrible Histories is full of fun and “100% accu-rat” facts.
Not that historical settings have never been employed with American comedies. In the 60’s and 70’s, there were a number of WWII sitcoms on network television from McHale’s Navy and Operation Petticoat to the classic POW camp series Hogan’s Heroes. Though to be fair, these shows might have been considered more nostalgic than historic since the war had ended only 20-30 years earlier.
In what seems like an entertainment anomaly now, we even had a very silly Civil War era sitcom, F Troop set during the most painful and divisive period in our history. Watching it today would probably be rather cringe-inducing particularly the cartoonish portrayals of Native Americans in characters such as Chief Wild Eagle and his sidekick Crazy Cat.
That being said, the aforementioned programs were from a different era in American TV history, 40 to 50 years ago to be exact. The point is that the Brits are still setting sitcoms in historical contexts and being rather entertaining the process.
In fact in the past three or four years several such comedies have been produced in the UK. Plebs is a prime example of this trend. Three young men (or more specifically two young men and their slave) are trying to make it in the big city of 27 BC era Rome. Despite the classical setting, viewers are meant to understand that boys will be boys no matter the time period they find themselves in.
Move forward 1800 years or so and we find ourselves in the English coastal village of Hunderby. This is a dark and sexually fueled period sitcom about Helene (Alexandra Roach) who is saved from a shipwreck as she attempts to escape her horribly shameful and unfortunate past. The young woman catches the eye of several men in the village including Edmund (Alex McQueen) a widowed vicar and Dr. Foggerty (Rufus Jones) who is burdened with a invalid wife.
This award winning series is available in the US on Hulu and it has recently been reported that Hunderby will return for a two-part special later in the year.
Set in WWI England, 2011’s Chickens is a sitcom about three young men who stay home. Cecil (Simon Bird) has flat feet, George (Joe Thomas) is a conscientious objector and Bert (Jonny Sweet) is a clueless womanizer who keeps forgetting there’s a war going on. Ostracized by the women of the village, the trio must band together to weather the abuse and hardship of their situation.
The one and only series of Chickens is available to stream on Hulu.
One of my favorite shows at the moment is a sitcom that would never get made in the US. Putting the slightly quirky title aside, Up the Women is a series that follows a group of hapless suffragette wannabes led by the very earnest but ineffectual Margaret (Jessica Hynes).
If you want to find this one, I’ve had to resort to YouTube since series 2 is currently airing on BBC2.
The question is, for those of you who care, why do historical sitcoms get commissioned and find an audience in the UK and not in the States? In part, I believe the British are much more aware of history and their place in it. British audiences are raised on costume dramas so why couldn’t programs set in the past be funny as well? Though attitudes are changing in the US, corsets, togas and ridiculously manicured facial hair used to be code for the hoity toity types of shows you could only find on Masterpiece Theater.
Let’s just hope that if Hollywood TV execs finally do pick up on the historical sitcom, they don’t go back this far again…