Addicted to laughter

I have gone for long periods in my life without even owning a television, let alone watching one, but lately I have become something of a television addict.

Fortunately, my addiction is not to television itself but only to three particular programmes or, to use the generic term, sit-coms. All are old, one of them old enough to have been made in black-and-white for television screens that were square. In date order, starting with the oldest, they are Steptoe and Son, Sykes and Sorry.

My addiction has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with comedy and its archetypes.

Steptoe and Son is the kind of comedy that borders on tragedy, like Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Puck speaks for the audience when he says, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Harold, the son, suffers like a character in a Greek tragedy, fated forever to live with his father in a house filled with the relics of the rag-and-bone trade, his dreams of sophistication never to be realised. Even the old horse that pulls the cart is named after a hero of classical legend, Hercules. When we laugh at them, as the young man who is mistaken for the eponymous government inspector in Gogol’s play tells the audience, we laugh at ourselves.

Sykes owes more to Theatre of the Absurd than to Realism. Eric and Hattie, brother and sister, live together like Albert and Harold, father and son, but the comedy is all about things going wrong in a way that is not real but surreal. Mistakes and misadventures, things spiralling out of control, not just real life and its inherent tragicomic outcomes. Moments of pathos are rare in Sykes. Moments of quiet triumph on the part of Hattie when she has restored some order into their lives, more common.

There are three people sharing a home in Sorry, mother, father and middle-aged son. This is above all a comedy of character, the stay-at-home, diminutive, apologetic mother’s boy, Timothy, at the centre of every episode, mother and father, Mr and Mrs Lumsden, ever-present in their different roles, fellow and nemesis respectively. Dialogue, repartee, catch-phrases and other forms of verbal humour contribute a great deal to the comedy of character in Sorry, as they do in pantomime. The Lumsden family are cartoon characters, drawn not from life, but from Punch and Judy, which has its own origins in folk tales and commedia dell’arte. The mother is the scheming step-mother, the father her hapless husband. Timothy is Cinderella.

The writers (Galton & Simpson, Eric Sykes, Davidson & Vincent) and the actors (Wilfrid Brambell, Harry H.Corbett, Eric Sykes, Hattie Jacques, Ronnie Corbett, Barbara Lott, William Moore) are addictive too. So much so that I don’t really wish to recover. Tobacco substitutes can help people to give up smoking, alcohol-free wine can help with problem drinking, but I have yet to find on television anything to tempt me away from Steptoe and Son, Sykes and Sorry.

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