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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.

The Home Guard volunteers of Dad's Army  image credit BBC

The Home Guard volunteers of Dad’s Army
image credit BBC

 

 

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.

Plebs stars Joel Fry, Tom Rosenthal and Ryan Sampson  image credit Rise Films

Plebs stars Joel Fry, Tom Rosenthal and Ryan Sampson
image credit Rise Films

 

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.

The darkly  funny cast of Hunderby image credit Baby Cow Productions

The darkly funny cast of Hunderby
image credit Baby Cow Productions

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…

 

Tonight NBC observed the forty year run of the comic institution that is Saturday Night Live. They celebrated with a televised reunion that lasted four and a half hours when you factor in the red carpet arrivals. Granted, how often does any show run continuously for decades? I found that true to its reputation, this SNL special had hits and misses. Nonetheless, my husband and I chuckled here and there especially during the Weekend Update segment.

As happens in the course of such a long and self-congratulatory broadcast, my mind and my remote began to wander. It’s Sunday night so we couldn’t miss the Great British Baking Show after all (though I fear our detour to the English countryside and fancy fruity breads may have caused us to miss some of the best bits this anniversary special had to offer.)

Nevertheless, it occurred to me that this breeding ground for distinctly American comic talent which has existed for most of my life has certainly welcomed some Brits into the fold over the years – at least for a guest appearance or two. And being the way I am, I felt it my duty to bring those influences to light.

Here are some of the UK performers who have made their own small but unique mark on this bastion of US comedy.

Oscar award winning British actors. Many respected thespians have served as SNL guest hosts over the years including Jeremy Irons, Colin Firth, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kate Winslet and Dame Helen Mirren.

 

Helen Mirren hosted SNL in April 2011 image credit NBC Universal Television

Helen Mirren hosted SNL in April 2011
image credit NBC Universal Television

 

Two Pythons. Eric Idle and Michael Palin both hosted the show more than once. Palin  notably resorted to bringing his mum on stage during his monologue.

Mother and son on the SNL stage in 1984 image credit NBC Universal Television

A mother and son appearance on SNL in 1984
image credit NBC Universal Television

 

Most of the Beatles. Paul, George and Ringo all appeared at one time or another. Of course, there’s that famous story that Paul and John almost reunited on SNL back in 1976 after the show’s producer Lorne Michaels offered to pay them $3000 for performing three tunes live on air. Alas, a Beatles reunion was not to be. The best Saturday Night Live could manage was a skit featuring a Fab Four tribute band, Hey Dude!

September 2012 SNL sketch featuring a Beatles tribute band. image credit NBC Universal Television

September 2012 SNL sketch featuring a rather confused Beatles tribute band.
image credit NBC Universal Television

 

The ultimate British mash-up. When Martin Freeman hosted Saturday Night Live a few months ago, he did a great job. Like most well-trained British actors, he impressed me with the fact that he never once appeared to be looking at the compulsory cue cards. But the best part of his performance was undoubtedly the pre-recorded segment which married two British classics, The Hobbit and The Office.

 

I don’t believe there’s a live television sketch comedy show in the United Kingdom nor am I convinced they have need of one. I like what the British actors bring to the SNL table when they visit. They might even buck up the permanent cast’s game while they’re there. British readers, how familiar are you the show that is our comic actor training ground and do you think it would be popular there on your side of the pond?

A “Catastrophic” Romance

I can’t let a Valentine’s Day go by without sharing some sort of love related telly wisdom. As I’ve been married now for more of my life than not, I’ve learned that love changes with time, age and perspective. I’m not as swept away by stories of infatuated young lovers nor titillated by unbridled desire. (You got it, I will not be seeing Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend.)

The couple I’m most interested in is one that can laugh together, support one another and basically resist bolting for the door every time the other one does something annoying. Meet Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney), the most endearing accidental pair you’d ever want to meet.

Sharon and Rob facing one catastrophe after another image credit Avalon Television and Channel 4

Sharon and Rob facing one catastrophe after another
image credit Avalon Television and Channel 4

 

A no-strings one week fling between an American advertising exec and an Irish teacher quickly escalates to a full-blown relationship when Sharon discovers she’s pregnant and shares the news with Rob. He immediately agrees to return to London to work things out with the mother of his child and is eager to take an active role in the rearing of his progeny. Sharon, on the other hand, is not so sure she wants this stranger barging into her life, though the realization that this may be her only chance for a baby does carry weight in her decision.

Rob and Sharon stumble through misunderstandings, introductions to hostile family and unpleasant friends and get blindsided by Sharon’s multiple medical conundrums. Through it all they become an authentic couple out of necessity and, I believe, an true fondness for one another.

 

My initial concern about Rob being American quickly melted away within the first episode or two. He is nothing like the stereotypical abrasive Yank even though his douche-bag friend Dave (Daniel Lapaine) surely is.  Rob’s many positive characteristics, those of openness, emotionally availability and height, could be attributed to his nationality I suppose. I’m just pleased to see a positive and well-rounded American character portrayed on British telly.

This couple is  a realistic example of mature-ish adults making the best of an unexpected and sometimes totally crap series of events. It rings true as a relationship entered into by grownups who are aware they must make practical, responsible choices. I can relate to that. I also like that they really fancy one another too.

Catastrophe is being called one of the best comedies of 2015. It’s a bit early in the year to go bandying that type of praise about; however, I do care about what happens to this trans-Atlantic couple and hope things go as well as can be expected for them. Not happily ever after but happily enough. That’s the type of love that lasts in my experience.

Here’s wishing you a Happy Enough Valentine’s Day!

The battle is officially over for Foyle’s War. After eight (or nine) series depending on how you count them, twenty-eight episodes and over twelve years, the popular WWII era police mystery has called it quits. The final trio of episodes were broadcast in the UK last month and starting tomorrow, the streaming subscription service Acorn TV will be bringing the Foyle finale to the US with a new installment, one each for the next three weeks. In fact the Acorn people were kind enough to send me screeners of the series so that I may tell you what I think. I felt so important.

Before I share my opinion, however, I should back up and explain my previous experience with Mr. Foyle (Michael Kitchen) and his colleagues. Up to this point I had seen parts of episodes on Masterpiece Mystery but had never really sat down to intentionally watch it. It seemed a show enjoyed by history buffs, senior citizens and men. At least that’s what I extrapolated from my experience at my library where Foyle’s War is a staple with the subset of the population referenced above.  My husband, for example, is a fan and fulfills two out the three stated categories.

When Acorn advertised their exclusive online broadcast of series nine/set eight and asked for some help spreading the word, I figured I should at least attempt to get a feel for the show before I weighed in on the ending. I got through the first two series before the screeners arrived and found that I did indeed find the show interesting, entertaining, and even educational. I wondered if this period crime drama’s sudden appeal had anything to do with my approaching 50th birthday, but I didn’t dwell on that idea for long.

I liked the chemistry between DCS Foyle and his spirited young driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks). I applauded the kindness and good sense that drove Foyle to pluck Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) from a military hospital bed and bring him to Hastings to be his Detective Sergeant. I appreciated that Foyle was frustrated with his job and that he felt he should be doing more important work for the war effort.

The Unstoppable Crime Fighting Trio of Foyle, Sam and DS Milner image credit ITV

The Unstoppable Crime Fighting Trio of Foyle, Sam and DS Milner
image credit ITV

 

As with any long running show, I also enjoyed seeing performances by up-and-coming actors. The first two series alone featured James McAvoy, Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, Emily Blunt and Laurence Fox, all paying their dues in episodic TV guest roles.

Now let’s skip ahead to the last three episodes, ‘High Castle’, ‘Trespass’ and ‘Elise’ which all take place in 1946. By this time Foyle has finally left the police force and moved to London where he is working for the security services of MI-5 in the years immediately following the war. Sam is now the wife of Labour MP Adam Wainwright (Daniel Weyman) but still works for her old boss at Thames House. Despite her loyalty to both men, she has some decisions to make about her future. As you probably know, DS Milner has moved on and we only hear from Foyle that his son Andrew is doing well. Sadly, he doesn’t show up for the end for old times’ sake.

The stories all center around the state of Britain after the war, namely its slow recovery and the growing dissatisfaction of Londoners with the condition of the country. The villains now are just as likely to be the Russians as the Nazis. The Cold War is heating up and Foyle’s job is to investigate black market racketeers, hate crimes and businessmen who profited from the war. Herein lies one of the major problems for me. Slow burning Cold War espionage bores me. No one is who they appear to be and people like former Special Operations Executive Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) are pulling strings we can’t see. I guess I prefer Foyle’s old career better, solving civilian murders during a time of war.

Foyle's new focus is the Cold War image credit ITV

Foyle’s new focus is the Cold War
image credit ITV

 

The other issue I had with this series was that Foyle seemed like a supporting character in his own story. He has a lot of people to answer to at MI-5, the Home Office and all the other departments that want to interfere in his investigations. When he was “just a police officer” he had more freedom to conduct his inquiries. Sure he got in trouble at times, but you always knew behind that calm, almost unreadable demeanor he was working out the answers that would prove himself right and clear his name. In the halls of the security services, Christopher Foyle’s brilliance has faded a bit.

Watch for yourself and see what you think.

 

I will go back  and watch the series I’ve missed. Perhaps the middle sections will make Foyle’s transition from police detective to MI-5 intelligence officer less jarring. Maybe I’ll pick up on the more nuanced aspects of his new calling. Or maybe I still won’t be convinced and wonder why they didn’t stop making the show at the point that Foyle’s war (WWII) actually ended.

An Anglophile Turns 50

I’m not ashamed to say it. I turned the big 5-0 today. And since aging is an inevitable fact of life, I say you might as well embrace it. Otherwise you end up sitting in the dark, gently rocking back and forth and wondering where the good old days went.

Just to put this milestone in telly perspective, 50 years ago saw the the debut of Till Death Us Do Part, Jackanory and The Magic Roundabout.

The Magic Roundabout is as old as me.  image credit BBC

The Magic Roundabout is as old as me.
image credit BBC

 

British celebrities who will or have already joined me in the quinquagenarian club this year include James Nesbitt, Alan Cumming, Joely Richardson, Julia Ormond, Steve Coogan and Anna Chancellor.

And though the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Tom Jones all appeared at the top of the charts in 1965, Ken Dodd, a more than slightly odd-looking chap I’ve never heard of, had the #1 single in the UK that year.

 

When approaching such an emotionally charged age, I’ve decided the best way forward is to look for good role models. I’ve settled on a balanced mix, I think, the first being a no-nonsense career woman who faces each challenge head on.

Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lanchashire) of Happy Valley image credit BBC and Red Production Co

Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lanchashire) of Happy Valley
image credit BBC and Red Production Co

 

My second example of what 50 can be is the young-at-heart care home worker, Derek.

 

Yes, this year I resolve to be a  50 year old bad ass man-child. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Thanks for the laughs, Miranda image credit BBC

Thanks for the laughs, Miranda
image credit BBC

I just got done watching the final two episodes of Miranda on YouTube thanks to some account whose name I’ve forgotten and can’t look up again because the videos have already been taken down. Honestly I just found the second part this morning. The early bird gets to see the illegal upload and all that.

Anyhow as you may recall,  a little less than a year ago we left Miranda in a surprising quandary…

 

Then the news came out this past autumn that show creator Miranda Hart had decided to bring her sitcom to an end. A two part finale at Christmas time would tie up loose ends and give the cast and viewers a chance to say goodbye properly.

I had recently re-watched series three around this time and noticed that Miranda was starting to show some wear. Tilly with her ridiculous posh-speak was now virtually undecipherable which I realize was intentional, but annoying all the same.  I didn’t care for Miranda’s new boyfriend much. Understandably, this was never a realistic comedy, but the jokes were beginning to feel forced and some characters were quickly becoming embarrassing caricatures. Sadly I had to agree, albeit heavy-heartedly, that Miranda was right to call it a day.

Despite my slight qualms about the direction of the show, I was still looking forward to seeing what was on the horizon for our favorite joke shop owner. I won’t give too much away about the finales since I’m sure many of my American readers don’t have a VPN or weren’t fortunate enough to find the infinitesimal YouTube window. And I’m certainly not revealing who Miranda chose as a fiance. I will only say she finally ends up with a surname. Did you realize she never had one?

I will divulge that the specials featured mini-flashback montages of Mirandian antics from episodes past. Characters we hadn’t seen in a while, including Stevie’s gigantic coffee cup, made cameo appearances. There were Miranda’s ubiquitous looks to camera (but not too many). And of course there was a inspired MC Hammer song and dance number.

If I have one complaint it’s that Ms. Hart had too much going on. I’m sure it was no easy task to pack in all the references, catchphrases, notable gags and a storyline into two half hour segments.  While not the most tightly written of episodes, these final shows were quite obviously Miranda Hart’s love letter to her fans. It’s as if she wanted to call back to all the classic moments while simultaneously communicating a message very near and dear to her. Be yourself first, love yourself first, even if it means being on your own.

I’ll admit I shed a few tears at the end, both joyful and melancholy. Miranda isn’t groundbreaking telly perhaps but Ms. Hart was never going to leave her unique heroine and her loyal audience in the lurch and give us anything other than a happy ending.

The sad part is the void that Miranda will leave. Who will take up the torch for non-traditional beauties everywhere? Who will make us smile when we see ourselves in her awkward yet very real predicaments. (Yes, I too got called “sir” at a fast food drive-thru once and I’m not even particularly tall.)

 

 

Paper hats? Check. Organic Twiglets? Check! Homemade “wine”? Check. Just add a chorus of Auld Lang Syne and you should be ready for a cracking British New Year’s Party. Here’s hoping your guests don’t surreptitiously move your clock ahead and sneak off to a better party next door.

 

 

Thanks to everyone who read, commented on or shared posts from my blog this year. It is a privilege to have so many of you participate in my obsessive passion for Great Britain. I hereby identify you as my enablers.

2014 was a year of quality telly with great dramas like Happy Valley, The Missing, Line of Duty and Our Girl. Notable comedies for me were Moone Boy, Rev. and Detectorists. I discovered the guilty pleasure of Gogglebox. I watched the live feed of the Scottish Referendum results and we got a Scottish Doctor. The Germans, however, won the World Cup (sorry). We said goodbye to Miranda, Derek, Alfie Wickers and the Brockman family. We said rest in peace to Roger Lloyd Pack, Bob Hoskins, Rik Mayall and Lord Richard Attenborough among others.

At this time please let me wish you and yours a prosperous New Year. Fingers crossed 2015 will be an even better year for telly as well!

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