In 2011, something unexpected happened at UK box office. The two highest-grossing films were the latest Harry Potter and the Oscar-winning Best Picture The King’s Speech. Beneath them on the charts was the expected parade of Hollywood blockbusters – Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight, Transformers, Planet of the Apes, Fast and the Furious… but at number three, grossing only a few hundred thousand less than the winner of the Oscar was The Film between the two.
Two of its four lead actors had never appeared in film before; the other two only tiny roles in unknown indies. The Inbetweeners film had a budget of £3.5m and grossed £64.8m in the UK. It broke the record for the most successful opening weekend for a comedy film in the UK and stayed at number one for four weeks.
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Overseas film industry pundits might be confused by this. The film only cost $36,000 at the we box office. But to understand this success, they would have to understand the penchant that the British have always kept for the sitcom.
The idea of transferring a 30-minute film TV comedy with a circular narrative on the cinema screen for a three-length offering with a satisfying three-act structure is, on paper – and often in practice – bad. Not only structurally but also economically, the sitcom is a format that, despite some notable American examples, rarely translates. Still, the UK film industry has a long history in this area and the results have always been…interesting.
Although there were nascent experiments in the late 1950s and early 1960s with big-screen releases for The Army Game sitcoms with I Only Arsked (1958), Whack-O! with Bottoms Up (1960) and The Larkins with Inn for Trouble (1960), what could be called the golden age of the cinematic sitcom, with its identifiable genre tropes, spans from 1971 to 1980.
This period corresponds exactly to a curious moment in the history of British taxation. 1971 was the year the Rolling Stones decamped to France and the phrase “fiscal exile” became an anti-establishment badge of honor.
With British film stars taxed on 98% of their earnings, many move to sunnier shores. This meant that legally they could now only work in the UK for a limited number of days per year, and Hollywood was generally more attractive and lucrative than Pinewood had ever been.
As a result, there was a void. With fewer stars able to appear in British films, production companies such as Hammer and Rank decided instead to bring up the familiar, cheaper TV stars.
The format had been defined in 1968 with the slogan “You’ve never seen Alf like this before!” Yer Real Alf Garnett as big as life on the giant movie screen,” when audiences got to see a very different take on the popular sitcom Till Death Do Us Part.
Gone is the black and white living room of the small screen. Instead, a film of two larger stories was offered – the first half showing Alf and his wife Else during the Blitz in 1945, and the second half featuring their daughter’s contemporary marriage.
The film ended on a bittersweet note, with the Garnett family being moved from London’s East End to a tower block in Essex as part of slum clearance.
No matter the quality…
Social change becomes a recognizable feature in these films. 1976’s The Likely Lads also contemplates slum clearance and the struggle of the working class to conform to life in high-rises and new suburbs. Race relations are explored, usually in a way that would horrify the modern viewer, in the film version of Love Thy Neighbour. And On the Buses (1971) attempts to explore the issue of gender equality, with a plot concerning Stan Butler’s heartbreak that women are suddenly allowed to be employed as bus drivers. Eventually, he comes to terms with the change — largely thanks to the physical assets of the new conductor he’s paired with.
Far from the defining anchors of garish studio sets and canned laughs, the tone of the cinematic sitcom often accidentally devolved into a form of proto-Mike Leigh contemplation of the malaise that consumed a white working-class generation of after war. But usually with at least one scene of a man locked out of a building with no pants on.
These films have a feel of their own, often with an overuse of goofy musical scores to suggest where the laughs might fall, resulting in an anxiety-inducing surreality.
Speaking of “feel,” the cinematic sitcom is, in many ways, where the innuendo died. Far from the heavy restrictions of the conservatives TV censorship, formally family-friendly characters found themselves smack dab in the landscape of British sex comedy at its height.
British sex comedy was another genre entirely unique to these islands and for a limited period. A series of inexpensive films that painfully combined equal measures of soft-core pornography and cheeky, gleeful humor, they served an audience of porn fans who liked to retain a veneer of respectability. Sex comedy has been wiped out by the proliferation of the home VCR.
Although the cinematic sitcom rarely strayed to show actual on-screen nudity, the objectification of women was commonplace, and the sight of a middle-aged man making moves on a teenage girl was a common sight. Even Alf Garnett gets his glasses sprayed by a barely legal, albeit imaginary, blonde in 1972’s The Alf Garnett Saga. Rampant homophobia and celebrity cameos aside, the film has some impressive aesthetic moments and informed social commentary.
It also largely manages to avoid performing in front of an unseen studio audience, making the most of a larger canvas without desperately moving its protagonist into a fish-out-of-water scenario.
For that is perhaps the classic feature of the cinematic sitcom – the transposition of the cast to a foreign location. Whether it’s the cheapest option of a camping or holiday camp trip (The Likely Lads, Please Sir!, Holiday on the Buses) or the exotic luxury of mainland Europe, usually Spain (Steptoe and Son, Are You Being Served?, Never Mind the quality feel the width).
Perhaps the smartest use of the fish out of water trope, and for my money by far the greatest offering of the genre, was Porridge’s 1979 cinematic excursion. The lovable, self-aware prison sitcom by Ronnie Barker reversed the narrative of the cinematic sitcom but also the breakout movie.
It was a darker, grittier film, with fewer laughs and the fantastic central conceit of main character Fletcher trying to get back to jail before he was noticed missing. The slurry was found to be of a high enough caliber to even achieve release in the werenamed Doing Time.
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister and quickly changed tax laws in favor of high earners, ensuring the return of many to their homeland and to the British film industry. 1980 saw the ax fall on the genre, with the films of George and Mildred and Rising Damp representing the last hurrah.
It would take 17 years for a British sitcom character to return to the big screen. In 1997, Rowan Atkinson took his character Mr Bean to the movies. History, of course, saw him leave the UK to be a fish out of water. In this case, in Los Angeles.
The film grossed over $250 million worldwide on an $18 million budget, sparking a mini-renaissance in the genre. Downstairs, The League of Gentlemen, Kevin & Perry and Stella Street have all arrived in cinemas with varying degrees of critical and financial success. In 2009, Armando Iannucci took the characters of his nerd political satire The Thick of It from Westminster to Washington, D.C., for In the Loop, earning himself an ongoing Oscar nomination.
The success of The Inbetweeners Movie came as a surprise. Although he had a strong TV Afterwards, it might have seemed unlikely in the age of Netflix and illegal downloading that people would bother heading to the multiplex for an extended fling of certain sitcom characters.
But ticket sales were strong. And audiences were treated to a near-perfect example of a classic cinematic sitcom: The characters went on vacation to Ibiza, where they were fish out of water, and the film was significantly sexier than the show.
The only noticeable differences were that the soundtrack was better and, rather than seeing a hideous middle-aged man getting away with a teenage girl, we were treated to a transgressive inversion in which one of the protagonists, a teenager, did it with a hideous middle-aged woman.
The film’s success spawned a sequel (fish-out-of-water in Australia) and even more cinematic sitcoms. This culture included The Office, I’m Alan Partridge, Bad Education and Absolutely Fabulous which all had a dice roll. They also all featured the characters going somewhere except for Alan Partridge who used the film as a chance to finally put Norwich on the cinematic map.
Like the jellied eels, the tied handkerchief, the queues and a dewy-eyed devotion to the Queen, the great British cinematic sitcom is entirely unique to the UK and barely explainable to anyone else.
We are a nation of people who like to see our favorite TV the characters go on vacation and we demand that this vacation does not happen TVbut in the cinema.
Originally published: January 18, 2022