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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

42 Comments

  1. daibhid-c
    September 5, 2012 @ 1:07 am

    I've got to admit, I've always been a fan of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, which at its best had a sort of recursive surrealism I enjoyed. (For instance, the hospital sketch, which isn't really a hospital sketch at all; it's a sketch about a hospital sketch.) Although, again, I know Monty Python did much the same thing.

    On another note, am I the only one who, when I first saw a poster declaring Meryl Streep was playing Margaret Thatcher, looked for a "Comic Strip Presents…" logo?

    Reply

  2. peeeeeeet
    September 5, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    BOFL was hit and miss, sure, but so is every British sketch show, especially Python. Mitchell and Webb even did a sketch about that. It's at its best when the wordplay creates a world that is hyper-real to the point of hostility (The police station sketch, the shoe-shop brothels, the barber). Far from being an obvious sell, I think most British people were baffled at the time, let alone a US audience less familiar with that approach.

    (Also, hi Daibhid! ::waves:: RADW was such a very long time ago, wasn't it?)

    Reply

  3. J Mairs
    September 5, 2012 @ 1:57 am

    "And the entire joke is how wrong it is. The basic concept relies on the fact that Hitler is recast from a powerful force of pure evil into being a complete and ridiculous putz."

    I would say it's the other way around.

    The entire premise is an attack on 50s sitcom culture, and the type of shows that think "A Black Guy Moves In Next Door: Hilarity Ensures" is a plot. Hitler isn't being recast as Alf Garnet. Alf Garnet is being recast as Hitler.

    The satire behind the show is an attack on a society that goes off and tells itself that it's fighting a Good War which eradicate Evil – but then comes home to watch "The Black and White Ministral Show" and "Till Death Do Us Part" and doesn't get the joke.

    I'd say that the entire premise is an attack on the idea of Hitler as "a powerful force of pure evil": He was a putz – albeit one in a position of power able to push "Jesus was English" & racist rhetoric onto an entire nation, and then lead

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  4. David
    September 5, 2012 @ 2:14 am

    A Bit of Fry and Laurie is not really quite as safe as you make out – most sketches have lost their teeth since, but that's the same as most comedies (or indeed programmes). They do have numerous angry rants at Thatcher or the government or BBC guidelines and things, added to which Fry was almost dangerously depressed during series 4 and spends much of it looking like he's about to kill everyone. (The title sequence, a mock perfume ad called "Pretension" with the sound of people sobbing and Fry saying "I hate you I hate you and yet… I hate you," gives us a fairly bleak set-up.)

    I would agree that it's not consistently very funny, with a lot of sketches going on too long or being based around Stephen Fry saying a lot whilst Hugh Laurie looks bemused. But the idea that their show notably lacks teeth compared to many other comedy shows around it is, I think, not very well substantiated.

    (Compare to Blackadder in which many critics found the last episode rather jarring, seeing as it was 25 minutes of witless catchphrase comedy followed by a sudden attempt to be serious. I think it just about works, but I've never been a big fan of that final series just because the writing is often very lazy.)

    Never could get a handle on Jeeves and Wooster series, though. I've tried to watch it several times and it just bores the tits off me.

    – As a side note, I've acted in amateur dramatics plays with Hugh Laurie's son – who looks astonishingly like him – and have acted with and directed Laurie's nephew, a very witty chap with a bright future ahead of him, I reckon. Comedic talents and stage charisma seems to run in the family.

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  5. daibhid-c
    September 5, 2012 @ 2:37 am

    I still pop into RADWM occasionally, but I'm starting to conclude that if a Doctor Who forum has almost no reaction to Asylum Of The Daleks, it's time to admit it's dead…

    Reply

  6. John Toon
    September 5, 2012 @ 3:05 am

    Re Heil Honey, I'm pretty sure you mean "Downfall spoofs". Although I'm equally sure there's room in this world for Downtime spoofs.

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  7. peeeeeeet
    September 5, 2012 @ 3:32 am

    I'm willing to bet without looking that Yads posted a series of arbitrary statements and questions about the episode and called it a review…

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  8. David Anderson
    September 5, 2012 @ 3:52 am

    In some ways, Blackadder IV was the safest of the three (later) series. Disapproving of the First World War is quite close to disapproving of burning witches in terms of safe criticism of our culture's past. I did Wilfrid Owen at school at the stage at which my sister did the Crucible.
    The second and third series are much more savage in their attacks on the Heritage Park version of UK history.

    Reply

  9. William Whyte
    September 5, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    Youtube wars!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2gviQB4A3c — spoon bending
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AH9_KhvtFYM — tobacconist
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RompcYI_fMk — madness

    None of these are exactly groundbreaking, though the tobacconist sketch is both energetically angry and pleasantly meta at the end. But they're all extremely good.

    I agree with those who say that the writing in Blackadder got lazy towards the end — it relied too much on extended and somewhat laboured humorous metaphors, and catchphrases. But that last episode is still powerful, perhaps the most powerful moment in British TV comedy until "Don't make me redundant."

    Divorce is a bitch. Sorry to hear about it.

    Reply

  10. William Whyte
    September 5, 2012 @ 4:24 am

    BTW, the first series of ABOFL was much better than subsequent ones (unlike many other shows where the performers took some time to find their feet) so if you watched an episode from the later series that explains why you weren't so impressed. The first series was must-watch.

    Reply

  11. John Callaghan
    September 5, 2012 @ 5:38 am

    The Comic Strip were on to a winner when they got both Alexei Sayle and Alexei Sayle. Their on-screen chemistry was electric. 😉

    Sorry, couldn't resist!

    Reply

  12. Steve Hogan
    September 5, 2012 @ 5:41 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply

  13. Steve Hogan
    September 5, 2012 @ 5:43 am

    Glad to see this section of the culture getting addressed, although I'm mystified as to why you think "The Young Ones" is obscure. Stateside it used to run on MTV all the time and it's probably almost as well known among Generation X-ers as Blackadder. It also helps mark a generational shift from the Baby Boomer sensibility of Monty Python in favor of a more pronounced punk/new wave aesthetic.

    Also worth checking out is "Filthy Rich & Catflap" which features most of the same cast but is more anarchic and political. It is more obscure, but you can find all the episodes on Youtube. There's at least Six Degree of Doctor Who Separation in the fact that it depicts a Rupert Murdoch parody with Blake's 7 stormtroopers as his goon squad.

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  14. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 5, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    I don't think it's obscure – I just think I'd failed to have heard about it.

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  15. jane
    September 5, 2012 @ 6:35 am

    No Back and Forth? Romans!

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  16. Iain Coleman
    September 5, 2012 @ 6:38 am

    An astute bet:

    "Who could have thought is bur Moffat!

    Parliment ofthe Daleks!! Humans disguise.

    Most of all Human convereted!!

    No wonder the Daleks wanted the Doctor's help, destroy him
    and the Asylum.

    A ship crashs and survivors are minimal.

    So what if insane Daleks gets out. Destory the Doctor
    and his compantions.

    Insane Daleks are mostly unarmed.

    Ad ofr Coleman, if only she could stay intact. Well
    I look forward to Christmads.

    By the Way Daleks destroying the Doctor? I doubt it

    and saving the Marriage rocks!!!"

    I wonder if Phil will do an entry about radw in the course of his New Adventures journey. Not only was it a major focus of Who fandom at that time, it was also the place from whence several of the NA authors sprang.

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  17. Ununnilium
    September 5, 2012 @ 7:10 am

    I think you're underselling a bit the obvious problem with Heil Honey I'm Home, namely that there's a difference between making fun of Hitler and making fun of the Holocaust, and the show does not realize that. (Of course, you are also on point with your other criticisms.)

    And man – I've heard of a lot of these shows without seeing them, and it's good to get a description of them that doesn't assume you automatically realize why they'd be funny.

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  18. Ununnilium
    September 5, 2012 @ 7:13 am

    Wow yeah. When I saw the trailer of her as a Heroic Leader Figure Who Triumphed In Spite Of All Those People Who Said She Could Not… yeah.

    Reply

  19. Tommy
    September 5, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    I'm a bit surprised you didn't highlight how the Blackadder Christmas Special has something of a Doctor Who feel, or how the audio story Jubilee feels almost like a Doctor Who story getting the Comic Strip Presents….Strike! or GLC treatment.

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  20. BerserkRL
    September 5, 2012 @ 7:50 am

    Adventures in psychoörthography!

    Reply

  21. BerserkRL
    September 5, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    The spoon bender seems to be channeling Anne Elk.

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  22. BerserkRL
    September 5, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    The tobacconist was my favourite.

    Reply

  23. David Anderson
    September 5, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    An obvious omission is Hale and Pace. On the other hand, apart from the Doctor Who meets comedy sketch angle we're not missing much by omitting them. I remember them being ubiquitous at the time and they'll be worth a mention again when Neverwhere comes up; still, much of what Phil says about A Bit of Fry and Laurie applies.

    Reply

  24. Josh Marsfelder
    September 5, 2012 @ 10:11 am

    A bit surprised there's no mention of either Whose Line is it Anyway?, which featured an all-star cast of established and up-and-coming British comics (including Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard) and helped catapult TV improv to the mainstream or Keeping Up Appearances, which skewers the very Heritage Park History and British Imperial nostalgia you've been so apt at critiquing here so far. Both shows became big breakouts in the US too, with Keeping Up Appearances becoming a PBS staple and Whose Line…? of course getting a blockbuster ABC remake.

    Keeping Up Appearances even had a huge amount of cast bleed-over with Doctor Who, especially in the 1980s, with Clive Swift showing up in both "Revelation of the Daleks" and "Voyage of the Damned", Judy Cornwell getting an amusing turn in "Paradise Towers", Geoffrey Hughes appearing as an alias of the Valeyard in the last part of "Trial of a Time Lord" and Patricia Routledge even being tapped to play Helen A in "The Happiness Patrol".

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  25. Bob Dillon
    September 5, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    I love to see a Diaeresis used!

    Reply

  26. Jack Graham
    September 5, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    I think you've somehow overlooked a lot of really quite acerbic stuff in A Bit of Fry & Laurie. Interestingly, you raise the issue of what you call "Heritage Themepark" Britain… and there's a really quite acidic monologue from Fry at the end of Series 1 in which he foretells, in pseudo-patriotic reverence, the Thatcherite future of "family heritage fun parks" packed full of the nightmares of plastic, disposable, consumerist, neoliberal Britain. Then there's the 'privatised police' sketch, the mock telethon appeal on behalf of BT majority shareholders who need the money to support their Bentleys and cocaine habits, the sale of Britain to Honda, etc, etc.

    Reply

  27. Spacewarp
    September 5, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

    @Phil
    I'm guessing this means you haven't seen The Young Ones? If so, that does surprise me, and for your own education you really ought to (hint: it's on USENET).

    It certainly isn't the greatest TV you'll ever see, or the funniest, but as a document of the exact moment when comedy on British Television totally changed, it's priceless.

    Reply

  28. elvwood
    September 6, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    If you do decide to try just one episode my recommendation would be Flood, the last episode of the first series.

    Reply

  29. daibhid-c
    September 6, 2012 @ 2:01 am

    Another good angry sketch: when an MP supposedly responsible for broadcasting deregulation (which led, of course, to Heil Honey I'm Home) goes to a restaurant…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T2zUEiVQU4

    Reply

  30. Steve Hogan
    September 6, 2012 @ 3:28 am

    Sorry Phil, I more meant that it's weird that it's escaped your radar. You have a pretty impressive knowledge of British TV that most American video Anglophiles (Including me) have never heard of. "The Young Ones" was actually big enough here that it eventually got a DVD release stateside. In the day it was popular enough that MTV also used to broadcast "The Comic Strip Presents" as a tie in. (Not to oversell "The Young Ones" though. As Spacewarp mentioned, it's not all that sophisticated. It's fun but mostly responsible for upping the grossout factor in British comedy.)

    It may be a generational thing as I alluded to. Like how I somewhat disagreed with the thrust of your Star Wars post. As a ten year old kid I can attest that the main appeal was nothing to do with John Campbell and everything to do with the generous visual and auditory spectacle of tons of robots, aliens and spaceships at a time when your were lucky to even get one of each in movies of the day. This would be less obvious to someone who had grown up in the wake of countless knockoffs and a Hollywood that has embraced said same.

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  31. BerserkRL
    September 6, 2012 @ 11:33 am

    I love it when software lets me use one.

    Reply

  32. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 6, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    No, I have seen it now – I looked at an episode after it was mentioned as something I should cover. But yes, it's just a little before my time in terms of US airing, and so missed me. I'm as bemused as anyone about it.

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  33. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 6, 2012 @ 11:52 am

    Perhaps I simply picked a crappy episode.

    Reply

  34. William Whyte
    September 6, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

    Seems like it was a later series one. Pick one of the first series ones to get a better sense of the impression they made.

    Reply

  35. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 6, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    It was series 3, episode 4, yes.

    Reply

  36. SpaceSquid
    September 7, 2012 @ 8:21 am

    "Chalk, failed largely because it was based entirely on the farce structure and not on the stuff we’re about to talk about"

    The degree to which it recycled Fawlty Towers didn't really help much, either. I dimly remember one plot lifted pretty much verbatim, but very little of Chalk has stayed in my head (other than Nicola Walker, of course).

    Reply

  37. Matthew Blanchette
    September 7, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    Yes, I was going to mention that… 😀

    Reply

  38. Matthew Blanchette
    September 7, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    Ooh, invasion of the hot Italians… 😉

    Reply

  39. Herm Holland
    September 12, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    I have to admit now, that reading this post I only got as far as reading the parts about Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Jeeves & Wooster. The rest of the shows you talked about I'm not that familiar with (if at all). On top of that I've got a fair bit of interest in these 3 shows anyway.

    And there's a major part of your point that I disagree with about all of these, in a fairly big way, but it all relies on perspective.

    This is being written from an American's perspective thus, somewhat stereotypically, it is assumed that the design for these shows hinges on its integration potential in America. The idea that a major factor in the development of any of these shows was how easy Americans could consume them is quite ludicrous, especially given the time they were created.
    You give the impression that these shows, and their impact on British culture, is definable only by its relevance to America, and that is categorically not the case.

    Blackadder, a show formed out of a group of people going "hey, let's try and do a comedy show like this", and then almost being cancelled (forcing the changes that made the show as successful as it became) is a direct reflection of the cynicism, sarcasm, and self-deprecating nature of british culture that hit right on the nose the feeling of being the only normal person surrounded by idiots (especially those who seem to be inexplicably running the country despite their complete inability to do so).
    The only real reference to American culture (other than direct, scripted references to Americans) was Flashheart who, frankly, was a not-so-subtle spoof of the the ridiculously ostentatious attitude of most American shows/films at the time (ie: there has to be explosions, a dramatic entrance, some womanizing, and a pointless amount of shouting). If anything, Blackadder was making fun of American TV, not trying to be integrated into it.

    Then, when it comes to 'A Bit of Fry and Laurie', it is clear that the point in it was more to just be making a sketch show, with Fry & Laurie rejoining forces (being Cambridge Footlights veterans together) and it seems more tailored to fit in to the in-between, afternoon/evening slots of broadcasting which the serials/soaps have left empty. It's not so much designed for the export factor, but designed to be easily palatable for the sort of audience who would have been watching at the aforementioned times.

    And Jeeves & Wooster, I genuinely feel like the mark has been well and truly missed by a long shot here.
    You said it yourself,it was an ITV series. What do we get on ITV? Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie adaptations, A Touch of Frost, Downton Abbey.
    In a large way, there are two schools of programming on ITV (of which there are many crossovers); murder mysteries, or period serials.
    Jeeves & Wooster is a demonstration of the familiar comedy stylings of two very recognizable faces of British Comedy, in a setting suited to the sort of programming that ITV is used to; it is a comedy take on the period serial.
    This show is far more a tribute to Wodehouse, which lends itself to typical ITV programming, as opposed to its export-value to America.

    ~

    It's probably hard to see now, what with Hugh Laurie losing his Brit-ness in House, and Stephen Fry being a world-renowned English person, but back when these shows were created their range of foresight was far, far smaller than you might believe. The idea that they were more interested in just getting coverage at all, without the hope that they might make it across the water, is illuminated particularly well in Stephen Fry's second autobiography; The Fry Chronicles (in which he talks about his time in University, the formative years of his career, and the development of these shows).

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  40. Herm Holland
    September 12, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    I'm sorry, this came out a hell of a lot more bitterly, and aggressively, than I intended. But I defend my points.

    It is infuriating, in every respect, that when an American talks about British culture he seems to think that it's all about pandering to America… as if America is the fashionable crowd at high school, and Britain can only gauge its 'coolness' on how well it is accepted by America, and how well it adheres to its standards.

    You only need to look at the disdain directed towards American adaptations of British comedy shows (like The Office, Coupling, Spaced, and so on) to see how much it is the other way around. We do comedy better, America tries to copy it and make it their own, and fails.

    Britain doesn't work to make exportable comedy; America works to claim Britain's comedy for its own.

    Reply

  41. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 12, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    I take your point, at least in the general case, but I think in the specific case you're missing the trees for the forest, so to speak. Yes, I absolutely agree that it's a massive fallacy to treat British television as if it's justified by the export market. In fact, my resistance to that line of thought is why I differ from a lot of people on Doctor Who in the 1980s – I reject the idea that its profitability based on overseas marketing was a reason to keep it in production given the purpose of the BBC.

    But I think your decision to only read the three shows you were familiar with led you astray. The section on Heil Honey I'm Home is instructive regarding the context of the time. All of British television became more overtly commercial in the early 90s. And when you take a turn towards the overtly commercial it's difficult not to notice that there's a very large market in the United States that likes certain kinds of British television. This is a huge change in British television. A decade earlier the idea that Doctor Who should be made because people not in the UK liked it was explicitly rejected as a reason to keep it around. Come the 90s and the opposite logic would have held sway – Doctor Who was a profit center, so it should be exploited as much as possible. But by that time it was off the air and instead we got a decade long wrong turn of trying to flog Doctor Who out to various producers like it was just another sci-fi franchise in need of a reboot.

    I think the revealing fact is your observation that ITV mostly makes murder mysteries and period serials. Why wouldn't they when the two banners under which British material was routinely shown in the US were Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!? Those are the two most export-friendly focuses imaginable.

    Now from an aesthetic standpoint I'll agree with you readily – very little good comes out of Americanizing British comedy. I'd even say that making British comedy for the export market is a poor idea. Occasionally you get lucky, as with Jeeves and Wooster, but that's because Wodehouse is hard to screw up by doing a faithful adaptation. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't what was being done at the time. British television in the 90s was more export focused. "We can sell it in America" was a reason to make something, where it hadn't been before. There's some great stuff in 90s British television, but there's an absolute explosion of quality once the BBC gets its overtly commercial jollies out and starts acting like a public service again in the late 90s/early 00s.

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  42. Katherine Sas
    June 17, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    Re: A sitcom starring Hitler, once again Monty Python are way ahead of the pack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKgHUrKZiXA

    Reply

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