British sitcoms generally speaking are often quite short, both in terms of episodes and seasons, tend to explore quite dark and cynical humour and most of the time feature main characters who are unsympathetic and even downright grotesque.
Its really what sets our comedies apart from American comedies. American sitcoms are almost the complete opposite to ours. They are often longer, more up beat, feel good and feature characters who are more relatable, human and all around likable like in Frasier or Scrubs.
I am not saying this makes our sitcoms better than American comedies. I think you need both, as the American sitcoms can provide us with more grounded every day humour, whilst at the same time the cynicism of British comedies can sometimes serve as a brilliant alternative, to the overt sentimentality of most American sitcoms
After watching that bit in The Big Bang Theory, you really need to watch something like The Young Ones before you’re sick into your own scorn!
In this article I am going to run through my favourite, disgusting, nasty characters from British Sitcoms. Now remember these characters are just my favourites so this isn’t meant to speak for other people. These will also not be in any order, as I found I simply couldn’t decide who was my all time favourite.
I will not be including Father Ted as it is an Irish Sitcom. Whilst it was made by Channel 4, as it was all Irish writers, actors and was made and set in Ireland, I consider it to be more of an Irish Sitcom. Bernard Black is also an Irish character but Black Books is more of a British sitcom all around so I feel its fair to include him. Ted however is really an Irish sitcom, financed by the Brits and thus whilst I do consider it to be one of the greatest sitcoms ever made, I will not be looking at any of its characters in this particular list.
Tony Hancock/ Hancocks Half Hour
Tony Hancock’ fictionalized version of himself that he played for close to 10 years is one of Britain’s most enduring comedy characters.
In many ways he is the blue print for so many who came after. He is the classic little ordinary, complete nothing, bog standard guy, who thinks he is so much smarter than everyone else around him. He’ll often go into big rants and prattle on for ages about the most tedious things that he thinks are really important.
Along with the late Sid James who also played a fictionalised version of himself, Hancock also really created the double act on British television in sitcoms. There are shades of Tony and Sid in Rik and Ade, and even later double acts like Noel Fielding and Julian Barrat.
There is a more pompous, deluded one (in this case Tony) who thinks he is a genius, whilst the other (Sid) is able to interact with normal people more often, though ironically at times he is actually the worse friend of the two of them.
He will often betray the other, or manipulate him for his own ends. Both are complete losers ultimately, who fail at everything, and both regularly mistreat each other, but one is slightly less pathetic and more aware of his surroundings, and slightly more two faced than the other.
We see this replicated in different ways in Richie and Eddie and Vince and Howard, as well as many other double acts in classic British sitcoms over the years.
Tony Hancock’s character also served incredibly enough as a precursor to some prominent American sitcoms too. Most episodes of Hancocks half hour would often just revolve around him and Sid doing the most boring, menial tasks, like trying to pass the evening without tv, being stuck in a lift, or even just giving blood!
The type of comedy his character employed was the very opposite of the over the top farcical comedy, which befitted the fact that Hancock was meant to be an unremarkable man, with a normal life, yet he yearned for, and more importantly thought he deserved more.
Many decades later Seinfeld one of the most popular American sitcoms would employ a similar style of having episodes focus on ordinary, mundane, every day things like the three main characters being made to wait at a Chinese restaurant. Seinfeld was often billed as the show about nothing, which was true of Hancocks Half Hour almost 50 years earlier. Seinfeld however I’d say was arguably closer to British sitcoms overall as its main characters were also far more unsympathetic than those you’d normally find in American series.
Its incredible when you look at Hancock’s Half Hour nowadays and see how so many of the jokes about then modern life in the 50’s are still just as applicable today. One episode features Tony’s television not working for the evening, and him being unable to cope, whilst another sees him become obsessed with his nose to the point where he has plastic surgery to try and change it. Nowadays in the 2010’s you could still do episodes revolving around people being too obsessed with their appearances or being too addicted to television and electronic equipment in general such as video games, mobile phones that they couldn’t cope for one evening without them.
The series overall was a true comedy classic and Hancock’s character was a tour de force of fantastic acting from Hancock himself and fabulous material supplied by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, two of the finest comedy writers Britain has ever produced.
Sadly however whilst the series was popular it would be Hancock’s own personal problems and erratic behaviour that would bring about its end.
Hancock was in real life a deeply insecure and paranoid man who suffered from a variety of mental health problems such as depression and alcoholism. He became jealous of Sid James, fearing that he was getting too popular and had him dismissed from the show.
Whilst Sid James character was a fantastic foil to Hancock, in actual fact Tony’s creation proved to be capable of carrying the show all on his own, and many of the most celebrated episodes came from the period such as the Bowmans and the Blood Donor.
Sadly however Tony Hancock eventually jettisoned Galton and Simpson themselves, and this coupled with his failed attempts to break America and his increasing alcohol problems, eventually led to his career and mental health declining. In 1968 he killed himself at the age of just 44.
Decades on from his tragic death, Hancocks legacy still lives on to the point where in many ways his obnoxious yet lovable parody of himself is really the premiere British Sitcom character.
Bernard Black/Black Books
Created and played by Dylan Moran, this thoroughly unpleasant character was in many ways as much a caricature of Moran’s own personality as Hancock’s was. He wasn’t called Dylan, but basically he was at least an exaggeration of Dylan Moran’s stand up persona, as the grumpy Irish man, who loves drink and fags and hates all aspects of modern life.
The great thing about Bernard was that he was just an asshole through and through. It wasn’t as though society had made him the way he was, he was just a lazy, mean spirited, selfish bastard. I love it when Fran bigs him up to one of his girlfriends, saying that he is a genius and he later says
She thinks I am reclusive genius, and she’s going to be very upset when she finds out I”m a reclusive wanker!
In the last episode of the series they seemingly provide an explanation as to why he is so awful, when we find out that prior to the series his fiance died. However in a brilliant twist it turns out that actually he was just as awful when he was with her, and that in fact his fiance faked her death to escape him.
Despite his loathsome personality Bernard does have two very close and devoted friends, Fran and Manny, though as typical with British sitcoms its more implied that they only hang around with him, not because they like him, but just because they have nowhere else to go.
Still Bernard and Manny have quite a fascinating relationship with each other. In some ways Bernard is abusive to Manny played by Bill Bailey, whilst in others he is actually very laid back and forgiving of him.
He does things like screen his messages, destroy his personal belongings such as his CD player, a photograph of him on holiday (which Manny describes as one of the few times he has ever been happy in his entire life before Bernard rips it in two) and demeans everything he does, even though Manny does all of the work in the shop. He is also physically abusive to Manny too. He burns him, hits him across the face, in one episode he even staples his hand to a pile of books!
He’ll also explode with rage at the most unimportant things, things that no one else would even notice such as when Manny says lets party and Bernard screams in his face “DON’T YOU DARE USE THE WORD PARTY AS A VERB IN THIS SHOP!”
At the same time however Bernard is also incredibly lenient on Manny for things that would annoy most normal people.
In an episode of season 1 Manny’s stupidity results in Bernard being locked out of his own home for an entire night in the freezing cold rain. In the morning when Bernard comes back in and Manny tries to apologise, he shrugs his shoulders and says calmly “Oh forget about it” and that’s that.
In another episode Manny’s stupidity causes, he and Bernard to drink wine that is worth over 700000 pounds and Bernard again instantly forgives Manny.
In the first episode of series 2, Bernard makes a deal with Manny, where provided Manny plays the piano from inside the piano, so that it looks like Bernard is doing it to impress his girlfriend then Manny will get a weeks paid vacation. Manny ultimately slips out of the Piano and heads off to the pub leaving Bernard humiliated.
Now I am on Manny’s side here as Bernard used him and probably wouldn’t have kept his word again, but still you’d have thought that Bernard would have been angry at him for humiliating him in front of his girlfriend (who dumped him as well) but again he isn’t angry with Manny the next day, nor does he punish him.
He’ll scream at Manny for using the word party as a verb, but not for locking him out of his house, getting him in debt to over seven hundred thousand pounds and ruining his relationship with his girlfriend!
Bernard also wavers between seeming like a jealous lover, an abusive parent and a toddler in his relationship with Manny too.
At times he does seem to view Manny as the child he never had, refusing to let him eat sweets in case his hair falls out, chastising him for staying out late and getting him worried sick, planting a baby monitor under his bed and even blurting out “How dare you speak to me that way! My only son”.
Yet at the same time Bernard is completely dependent on Manny to the point where it feels like Bernard is Manny’s child. Manny feeds him, cuts his hair, washes his clothes, looks after his health. In the first episode of series 3 it is shown that without Manny to look after him, Bernard would degenerate completely.
On other occasions Bernard does seem like Manny’s jealous, crazy lover getting angry at the thought of Manny talking to girls, stalking and spying on him when he goes to work for another book shop and even referring to his new boss as Manny’s “fancy man”.
Its a truly twisted relationship and absolutely hilarious. Its made by both the writing and Moran and Bailey’s chemistry. Its a shame that the two of them never got a chance to work together again, though they both did appear in Shaun of the Dead with Bill Bailey apparently having a cameo as a Zombie. I actually don’t know at what point the Bill Bailey Zombie shows up, but I hope its when the Zombies pull Dylan Moran’s character David out through the window and eat him. That would be a brilliant irony.
One positive trait Bernard has is that he is a very talented writer. He is shown to write a highly complex and sophisticated 1000 page novel in the span of a few hours though it turns out to be a bit too complex for 3-5 year old audiences he was intending it for. A special feature on the series 3 DVD titled Bernard’s letter revealed that he actually did try and get his novel published but it was rejected and he didn’t take it so well.
This was actually the last piece of footage Moran has recorded as Bernard to date. Prior to becoming a comedian Moran tried to make it as a poet. A part of me suspects he was drawing on his past experiences of having his work rejected when making this hilarious scene.
Overall Bernard is a truly brilliant creation and though Dylan Moran has gone on to enjoy a successful career since as both an actor and a stand up comedian, he will always be Bernard to those of us who grew up with Black Books.
Victor Meldrew/ One Foot in the Grave
One of Britain’s most beloved tv characters in general, Victor whilst often seen as the archetypal grumpy old man who loves to complain about nothing was actually a more sympathetic individual than most British sitcom characters.
He was often despite his somewhat rough manner, completely right in what he complained about, whether that was stupid Doctors who asked him what he thought his medical condition was, people who littered in the street or his back garden, incompetent BT repair men, or people who were supposed to work on his house but ended up sleeping in his own bed!
Some episodes even portrayed him as a heroic individual, risking his own safety to protect others such as in the season 5 episode “Wisdom of the Witch” where he saves his neighbour Patrick’s life or in the sensational episode “Hearts of Darkness” where Victor whilst alone and lost in the countryside, stumbles upon an old folks home where the staff are violently abusing the patients. Victor liberates them by drugging the staff, encasing their feet in cement and dressing them up as scarecrows outside.
The scene where the patients are abused before Victor sets them free. This is a classic example of how One Foot in the Grave could get very dark even by British Sitcom standards. Remember that this scene is the edited version from the original broadcast where the abuse of the patients was even more graphic.
Whilst Victor unlike say Bernard, was actually a good man at heart. He was still very much a British character in that nothing ever went right for him.
We Brits do loser better than anyone else. Again in American sitcoms, characters like Frasier Crane who lives in a massive, fancy apartment, with a stunning view, dates a long line of beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated women, and has a high paying job that he loves, along with a close circle of friends and family; is considered a loser.
Victor however is someone who gets let go from his already low paying job after 30 years of service to be replaced by a box, finds out that everyone at work hates him when nobody cares that he is fired, his house also burns down, he is buried alive, he is regularly physically assaulted and grievously injured, (including being beaten by a man in the street he gets angry at for littering, and getting his foot encased in cement and then his toes broken when his friend tries to free it with a chisel.)
The character is eventually in the final episode of the series killed in a hit and run accident. Whilst some fans were naturally upset at this, ultimately to me it seemed like the only real ending that would have made sense, given that it was obvious that the entire universe hated Victor Meldrew from the start.
Such was the characters popularity that after he was killed off floral tributes were laid down at the scene of his death by fans from all over the country.
To this day Victor Meldrew remains a true British comedy icon. People still apparently come up to Richard Wilson and say Victors famous catchphrase “I don’t believe it”. This was of course parodied in Wilson’s hilarious guest appearance on Father Ted, when Ted stupidly thinking that he’d just love it if someone came up to him and said his catchphrase, ends up getting beaten up by Wilson.
Victor was a brilliant character. He was someone who at a first glance seemed like your typical horrible British sitcom character, but as time went on you saw he was actually the most reasonable person in the show who had to put up with the most appalling circumstances.
Richard Wilson was excellent in the role and whilst he has incredibly enough managed to avoid being typecast (watch him as Gaius in Merlin the character could not be more different to Victor.) The character of Victor will stay with him for the rest of his life as it is one of Britain’s best comedy characters.
Victor Meldrew was the older gentleman’s badass and a true working class hero.
Rick and Vyvyan/ The Young Ones
Rick and Vyvyan were played by Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson who are definitely my favourite comedy double act. No one can make me laugh as much as these two. I just have to look at Rik’s face and the mad expressions he often pulls and its enough to crack me up.
Rick and Vyv marked the first time their double act was brought to a mainstream audience. On stage they had played similar characters in the double acts 20th Century Coyote and the Dangerous Brothers. Two sad, perverted, physically and mentally repulsive losers who beat the shit out of each other in cartoonish, over the top ways, like slamming each others heads in fridges, bashing each other over the head with frying pans, cricket bats, sawing each others limbs off, setting each other on fire etc. Of the two of them Rik’s characters would usually be the one who got beaten up more often.
You can see how the characters of Rick and Vyv followed this template, but ultimately they became so much more than just merely an extension of Rik and Ade’s earlier act.
Rick, played by Mayall was a fantastic critique on left wing posers. People who claim to be Marxists, communists, yet have no idea what they are taking about. They won’t have even read Das Kapital (this is shown in one episode where Rick has fallen asleep in the middle of reading it.)
They’ll still nevertheless claim to be angry radicals, simply so that they can look edgy, cool and smarter than all of their friends, but at their core they are politically clueless and won’t have anything to say about real social inequalities at all.
They will also often claim to be from a working class impoverished background, and they will talk about everyone else’s privilege, whilst ironically coming from an upper middle class family.
People like Rick will also have sold out by the time they are in their 30’s. They will have probably joined an ultra right wing political party, or be head of a huge company their parents got them into and be obscenely wealthy. Or they may have used their status as an angry “radical” to become an edgy writer for a major paper, where again they won’t actually provide any kind of useful commentary on social inequalities, other than write a self aggrandising, self congratulatory article about how hard it was for them growing up, despite their wealthy background to become the fabulous person they are today. They will also probably end up owning about 2 houses whilst still claiming to be socialists.
We see this with Rick so clearly the way, he not only has no idea about anything he talks about, but also how all of his beliefs are completely hollow and contradictory to how he actually acts.
He claims that he yearns for a world where all men will love each other like brothers and where everyone is treated with respect. Despite this he always engages in violent, petty squabbles with Vyvyan, and he regularly bullies and demeans Neil and his beliefs.
He claims to be a feminist and constantly picks the others up for their supposedly sexist attitudes. Yet he always looks at porno magazines and in one episode he gropes a young woman played by Jennifer Saunders and looks down her top whilst she is asleep.
He also despite claiming to be a working class Marxist who hates Thatcher, is actually from a rich conservative background and in the last episode of the series says “That’s one thing I’ll say for Thatcher she certainly put the country back on its feet”
He also despite claiming to be an Anarchist (to the extent where he writes a massive A on his jacket) at the first sign of danger always demands that they phone the police and threatens to write to his MP or any other figure of authority.
Finally despite claiming to be a vegetarian, he also kills small animals regularly, often to show how edgy he is.
The character of Rick was described by Ben Elton one of the shows creators as “the typical try hard wanna be lefty found on University Campus’s at that time” but really there have always been people like Rick.
To this day Rick remains a by word for any clueless, obnoxious, know nothing know it all pseudo leftie. Take a look at this joke about Russell Brand in Private Eye just a few years ago.
To be fair to Russell I do think he talks a lot of sense about some things, like Scottish Independence and addiction but still I must admit I did laugh at this, and it does go to show you how well known the character of Rick still is decades on.
If anything I’d say Rick is sadly more relevant as a parody today, than he was in the 80’s. There are far more people like him on the left than there should be.
Take a look at Jonathan McIntosh or Full McIntosh as he is nicknamed who famously produces Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Video Games series. McIntosh claims that superhero movies as well as video games lead to violence in our culture and sexism too, as the superheroes like Batman and Captain America resolve their problems with violence instead of reason.
By the way many studies carried out have shown that there is no link between violence in forms of entertainment and violence in real life (especially video games), but he still holds them at least partly to blame for the violence in our society. He calls the violent methods superheroes use to solve their problems, toxic masculinity, and wants more superhero films and comic books and forms of entertainment in general to feature less violence and fighting, and see our heroes sort out their problems with peaceful means.
Here are some of his tweets if you don’t believe me.
Now take a look at this scene where Rick similarly gets angry at a Comic Book for having violence in it, and complains about how there should be more stories about love and peace instead of violence.
With people like McIntosh around Rick practically isn’t a joke anymore.
Rick was also a satire on the emerging punk poet scene too. He would often call himself “The People’s Poet” and claimed that kids looked to him for inspiration. In one hilarious moment Rick after finding out how much everyone hates him tries to kill himself with poison pills.
He goes into a big pompous speech about how this place will become a shrine and everyone will gather around for the People’s Poet. Unfortunately it turns out that the poison pills he is stuffing down his throat are actually laxatives!
I think that Rick endured more than many of Mayall’s other colourful characters because he wasn’t just a great slapstick character, but also a clever satire, and as we have seen with people like Full McIntosh around, its no surprise that Rick is more relevant than ever.
Whilst Rick brought the satirical edge to the show, it was Vyvyan that brought the real cartoonish element to the series. Vyv was a violent psychopath who regularly beat up both Neil and Rick and destroyed large sections of house.
He hammered nails into Neil’s head, set fire to Ricks arse, lifted Neil over his head and threw him through the air, hit Rick so hard in the balls with a cricket bat, the bat broke, wired the door bell to a bomb, kicked the television through a window. He even killed several people including characters played by such high profile names as Emma Thompson, Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Paul Merton all of whom he blew to pieces. In one episode he even kicked his own severed head down a railway line.
He literally made his entrance into the series by smashing his way through a wall.
Vyvyan is British comedy’s greatest badass
The Young Ones was obviously not even the first even British comedy to utilize slapstick, but where the slapstick in The Young Ones was different was that it was much more graphic and much more gruesome.
In British comedies like The Goodies, the slaptsick would consist of things like Bill Oddie getting hit over the head with a gold bar, it making a huge clunking sound, and then he not even notice it at first, before falling down.
In The Young Ones however the violence really looked like it actually hurt the main characters. In spite of how over the top it was it did look more realistic. The sound effects were less over the top, the characters bled and screamed.
It was a more gritty extreme form of slapstick and unlike anything before, though it would later go on to inspire similar forms of physical comedy in series like Father Ted and The IT Crowd.
It was the physical comedy that was one of the reasons the Young Ones was such a big hit when it first came out, and thus I’d say Vyvyan who was the one who brought that aspect to the series was just as important to its success as Rick was.
If you asked me to pick a favourite between the two of them I couldn’t do it, as they both brought so much to the series, which is why I am listing them both here.
For many years it was hoped that after the last episode of the young ones that Rik and Ade might return to their characters again at some point. According Nigel Planer who played Neil there were plans for an Old Ones style reunion, but Rik Mayall’s untimely death in 2014 ended those plans.
The two did reprise their roles after the show ended in a charity video alongside Cliff Richard called Living Doll which ends with Vyvyan knocking everyone else out including Sir Cliff himself. Throughout the show Rick was shown to be an obsessive fan of Cliff Richard in a further effort to make him seem uncool. I suppose Cliff Richard was a pretty good sport to go along with this.
Fun fact Ade Edmondson is the only person to perform on stage with Amy Winehouse and Cliff Richard, as he later appeared on stage as part of Amy’s backing band on Jools Holland’s Annual Hootnanny.
Edmund Blackadder/ Blackadder franchise
Okay not just a character but a line of descendants. Still overall apart from the first Blackadder they all have basically the same characterisation as one another, so I am listing them all here.
The first Blackadder was originally a snivelling, weasly, repulsive, slow witted character. The later dashing, somewhat sexy anti heroes are somewhat unusual among Rowan Atkinson’s characters. Atkinson is kind of like Rik Mayall, in that he normally plays repulsive, pathetic cowards. Look at his other most famous creation Mr Bean a bizarre man child who is possibly an alien from outer space. The first Blackadder fits in with those types of characters perfectly.
Its quite funny in a way how both Atkinson and Mayall would get a chance to go against type from their usual repulsive characters in the later Blackadder series, Atkinson as the smooth Lord Edmund Blackadder and Mayall as the sex god Flashheart. In series 1 they are both in their elements as the slimy Prince Edmund and Mad Gerald, played by Mayall in the last episode of the series. I guess they just got tired of always playing the sad git who never got the girl.
You can see how different the first Blackadder was to his successors. What’s interesting though is that in the unaired pilot that was not part of the series, Prince Edmund is portrayed as being as smart as the later Blackadders, but when it came time for the series Richard Curtis and Atkinson decided to make him an idiot. They felt it would make him more interesting if he were more flawed and a total under dog. It just goes to show you sometimes you get it right on the first attempt.
The first series of Blackadder is certainly not terrible. Atkinson’s performance is still excellent even if the character is not quite right. Also it has a very strong cast which includes Brian Blessed in a typical Brian Blessed performance, a big, shouty, mad guy and it also had many wonderful guest performers too such as Rik Mayall, Frank Finlay and Peter Cook.
Also it has a very interesting premise. It tells of a secret version of history where Henry Tudor lost the war of the Roses and King Richard the 3rd (played by Peter Cook) who was actually a kind, loving king and family man was killed accidently by Edmund Blackadder instead, when he stupidly thought the king was trying to steal his horse and cut his head off.
Henry Tudor went into hiding whilst King Richard the 4th (Edmund’s father) ruled for 14 years, during which time Edmund made many unsuccessful plays for the throne. Eventually however Edmund’s latest attempt resulted in the deaths of himself and his entire family.
After this Henry Tudor returned, seized the throne and rewrote history to completely erase King Richard the 4th and Edmund, and instead portray King Richard the 3rd as a monster and himself as winning the war of the roses.
The series also being one of the largest budgeted BBC sitcoms ever made looked spectacular, and finally the fact that it was a historical sitcom meant that it stood out from its contemporaries which were all set in modern day.
Also Prince Edmund is not so completely removed from his successors as you might think.
He is every bit as witty as they are and insults his enemies in every bit as creative ways as his descendants do. There are also some episodes that hint at a greater intelligence. For instance he is shown to have a great deal of weasel cunning like they do, and the 5th episode of the series involving a Witchfinder shows him to be the only one who views the witch hunts as barbaric, irrational and misguided. This sets the trend for later series that will often depict Blackadder looking at crazy things from the past from a rational modern perspective, and also despising the current trend and just genrally, being the only sane man among those around him.
Still having said all of that whilst the first series does have its charms, ultimately the later series are all much stronger and its really mainly down to how the character of Blackadder himself is portrayed.
From series 2 on Blackadder is portrayed more as a machiavellian, sly, witty, and urbane character. Though he is every bit as cowardly in later series, he is often able to cover it up behind a facade of bravery and bravado.
The later smarter Blackadders simply had more charismatic and engaging personalities because they were two steps ahead of everyone around them. It was also always funny watching them get the better of and humiliate their enemies, such as when Lord Blackadder tricked Melchett into drinking Baldrick’s urine, or when Blackadder the third had the two actors he was frustrated with framed as traitors and taken away to be tortured to death, or the many times Captain Blackadder gets the better of Captain Darling, from torturing him under suspicion of being a spy (even though he knows he is innocent), having Lord Flashheart beat him up, or even tricking him into eating a dead slug!
If I had to name my favourite version of Blackadder then it would have to be the version in the third series. This Blackadder to me was the best simply because he was the most evil. All of the Blackadders are pretty amoral, but this version is an outright villain. He murders dozens of people over the course of the series, by cutting their heads off, stabbing them to death, poisoning them, hanging them, he even has two actors that he doesn’t like tortured to death.
Hilarious example of the inhuman cruelty of the third Blackadder.
Everything about Blackader 3 is vile. Even just the way he treats Baldrick whom he constantly physically abuses. He smashes a jug over his head, threatens to torture him with a pencil and even roasts him over a spit!
One of my favourite moments though, that really just shows what a disgusting human being he truly is, is when Miss Miggens tells Blackadder that she is in love with him and has been for as long as she has known him, and his response in a typically dry, disdainful way is
Miss Miggens if we were the last three people on earth I’d be trying to start a family with Baldrick.
The best thing about Blackadder 3 though is that he wins all the time. Most of the other Blackadders as cunning as they are, their plans often fail due to bad luck, or Baldrick’s stupidity and indeed they all bar the third Blackadder end up dying violent deaths. This Blackadder however is so wiley that he even when things go tits up, he always has a way out. Apart from the first two episodes there is not a single episode where he doesn’t win at the end. At the end of the series he also manages to become king ironically fulfilling the wish of his ancestor the first Blackadder from years ago.
Having said that however whilst the third Blackadder is my favourite I will say that the 4th Blackadder might be the best objectively.
He and his men’s final moment alone is probably one of the most powerful and poignant pieces of television ever made. Its ironic in a way when you consider how British sitcoms are normally a lot colder and more cynical, yet arguably the most genuinely moving moment in any comedy can be found at the end of Blackadder Goes Forth, when Captain Blackadder, the last in a long line of scheming, self serving liars, genuinely wishes his men good luck as they go over the top to certain doom.
Personally I always thought this was the best ending to Blackadder. There was something fitting about the Blackadder dynasty coming to an end during the first world war.
It was symbolic of how the first world war was truly unlike anything that had come before. The Blackadders survived the witch hunts, the plague, the Tudor dynasty, the poverty of the 19th century, but it was finally the first world war that finished their blood line, and that’s because it wasn’t just another bad period of history, a corrupt, crazed monarch, a new form of disease or even just an unfair society. This was a conflict with new and devastating weapons, that spread out across the entire world where millions of young men where killed. Nothing would ever be the same again.
It also highlights the pointlessness of the conflict, that again here was a family with such history that had stretched back throughout the ages, been a key part of events such as the War of the Roses and the fall of many other Monarchs, finally ends on a field in the middle of nowhere, and its last surviving member will probably be buried under an unmarked grave. With no one even remembering his name.
There was a film called Blackadder Back and Forth that showed the dynasty surviving until modern day and though the film was great, personally I always felt Captain Blackadder was the best ending to the family.
Another area where Captain Blackadder was stronger than other versions of the character was that he was genuinely sympathetic. Unlike the others who were greedy self servers who wanted to advance their position in society. This Blackadder just simply wanted to escape the Trenches. He was also the only one who ever demonstrated any care for other people around him and even bravery in his final moments.
Captain Blackadder really combines the best qualities of the previous Blackadders. He is suave and smooth like Lord Blackadder, he has the acid tongue of the third Blackadder, and the fact that he is in the worst position, and is simply trying to escape the Trenches, allows the writers to make him more of an under dog that you can actually root for which is what they wanted with the first Blackadder.
Thus whilst I’d say that Captain Blackadder is the best iteration of the character objectively, the third one is still my favourite simply because he was such a magnificent bastard.
Blackadder continues to be just as popular nowadays. He and Mr Bean are really Atkinsons two most enduring creations and its a testament to his talent as they are both in many ways polar opposites.
Arnold Judas Rimmer/ Red Dwarf
All of the characters in Red Dwarf, Britain’s second longest running sci fi series after Doctor Who are excellent, and it was hard to choose just one here. I thought about just having the Dwarfers. Ultimately however I decided to settle on Rimmer, as whilst they are all great, I think he is the real standout character. He is both the funniest and has arguably the most complex personality.
He is every bit as vile as your average British comedy character. He’s a liar, a cheat, a backstabber, a miserable coward, he’s bitter, he’s a snob, he’s uptight, he’s a bore he’s an idiot, he has revolting attitudes towards women (his favourite book is how to pick up women with hypnosis.) He’s just an all around unpleasant person. However at the same time, when we find out about his past, we can see there is good reason for him to be the way he is.
His entire family despised him and abused him in utterly horrific ways. His father was a military failure who was determined for Rimmer to join the space corp. In order for Rimmer to meet regulation height, he would put him on a rack in order to make him taller but it nearly killed him instead. His father also asked Rimmer questions about the Space Corp every day before every meal, and if he got them wrong then he’d get no food. Once again this nearly led to Rimmer’s death from malnutrition at a young age.
His brothers (who all went on to big successes whilst he became a vending machine repair man) also used to bully him in some absolutely horrific ways. They chained him to the ground, smeared his face with jam and covered him in large flesh eating ants! They also once put a live mine in his school bag.
On top of that he was also molested by his uncle Frank when he was just a boy!
With all this in mind its not hard to see why he has so many issues. The fact that Rimmer at his core was such a basically tragic character allowed the writers to flesh him out in quite interesting ways. It was always left open as to whether or not all of Rimmer’s negative qualities came from his hang ups, and that without them he might be a decent person.
There are several episodes that show a much more sympathetic and even admirable side to his character. In the episode Holoship, Rimmer falls in love with a woman named Nirvanah Crane (played by Jane Horocks who later played Bubble on Ab Fab) and later sacrifices all of his dreams for her sake. In the final episode of season 6, Rimmer after having seen what a disgusting person his future self will become bravely fights him to the death declaring “better dead than Smeg”. In the most recent episode of the series, he also managed after facing his demons to destroy an entire fleet of simulants, killer androids that had cornered the crew.
At the same time however there are episodes that hint that as hard as his life has been he may have always ended up this way.
In one episode of series 4, we are introduced to an alternate version of Rimmer called Ace Rimmer who is everything our Rimmer is not. He is a suave, charismatic, likable, sexy, dashing hero who is beloved by everyone around him. Most people upon meeting him will say afterwards in utter amazement “What a guy!”
Ace Rimmer himself is a candidate for one of the greatest British sitcom characters of all time.
What a guy!
Naturally our Rimmer HATES Ace, as he thinks Ace got all the lucky breaks he didn’t get, but in a great twist it turns out that it was our Rimmer who got the break. Ace was held back a year in school and that caused him to finally settle down and make something of himself, whilst our Rimmer went on making excuses for his own failings “it was my parents, it was my background” etc.
Thus with Rimmer at various points, he is the most loathsome character, and at others the most heroic, and we are always left to wonder what his true nature is.
Rimmer’s relationship with Lister played by Craig Charles was also very interesting. On the one hand their relationship was very vitriolic in some ways. Lister does everything he can to annoy the prissy, uptight Rimmer. Rimmer in turn will often take a great delight in anything horrible that happens to Lister, from him being dumped by the love of his life Kochanski, tortured by the Cat for weeks, or even being seemingly horribly killed in Future Echoes!
Yet despite this the two do regularly save each others lives (one of the few times Rimmer demonstrates great physical courage is in the first episode when he, believing the Cat to be a hostile alien, charges at him whilst telling Lister to stand back). Most bizarrely of all though for two guys that hate each other, they don’t half spend virtually ALL of their time together. They sleep in the same bunk as each other, even though they have an entire spaceship 5 miles long to themselves, with over 200 rooms!
Many of the earlier episodes will often feature long scenes of the two men talking to each other on their bunks about things that matter the most, and they will often share their innermost secrets with each other.
Yet despite this they never admit to being friends. One hilarious example of this is when Rimmer is leaving the rest of the crew and says to all of them, seriously, including Lister “over the years I came to see you all as people I met”.
Still one episode in series 7 does come close to having one of them admit that they are friends, Something Blue. By this episode Rimmer has left, in order to take the place of Ace Rimmer and become a hero in his own right (though later episodes hint that he may have failed as the later Hologram Rimmer in series 10 is hinted to be the same one from series 1-7)
Anyway Lister actually starts to miss Rimmer and wonders if he was all bad, though he gets a quick reminder at the end of how obnoxious he truly as. Most hilarious of all though is when Lister at one point actually has a homoerotic dream about Rimmer. Read into that what you will.
Fun fact this actually marks the first interracial gay kiss in the history of British television
Rimmer was by far and away the most popular character in Red Dwarf. Its no surprise that series 7 which he is absent for half of is often regarded as one of the worst.
He is an all around fantastic character capable of great comedy and tragedy at the same time.
Alan Partridge/ Alan Partridge franchise
Steve Coogans most enduring creation, Alan Partridge is an excellent parody of British chat show hosts.
Almost every negative cliche about chat show hosts you can think of Alan embodies. Wanting to talk about himself more than his guests, fawning over his attractive female guests, crossing the line when he is joking about with them. He often ends up insulting and even humiliating them. He has actually assaulted and even killed his guests!
Over the years we’ve followed Alan’s career as it has slowly declined to the point where he went from a young up and coming chat show host to a failed tv star hosting a local morning radio show. Its a testament to how great a character Alan is that Coogan has basically been able to play the character on and off throughout his entire career.
Not many characters can be as funny after 25 years as Alan still is, and be just as effective at different points in his life. A lot of characters often only work at one point in their life. For instance the main characters of Friends only really work as young people. The show ends when they grow up and get families. On the other end of the spectrum meanwhile, characters like Jack and Victor from Still Game or Victor Meldrew only really work as old men. Alan however has been just as funny as a twenty something hopeful, and a middle aged has been, and he’ll be just as funny as an embittered 80 year old. Coogan will probably be able to play him until the day he dies.
Also on top of that Alan has been able to transfer to so many different mediums effortlessly. stage, television, literature, radio and even film and be every bit as hilarious in all of them. He’s easily one of comedy’s most adaptable characters. I think that’s because as awful as he is we can all relate to him in a way, as all of us deep down just want to be accepted and successful at what we do like he wants to. Thus in spite of all his MANY flaws there is something still human about him.
Examples of Alan’s success across so many different mediums.
What’s great about Alan is that we come close to feeling sorry for him so many times due to the many crushing failure’s both personal and professional he endures throughout his life, but we always end up losing our sympathy because he brings about 99 percent of his misfortune on himself.
Unlike Victor Meldrew who is a victim of the most heinous circumstances, Alan’s problems are all of his own doing, such as when he memorably insults the Farmers of his own town to the point where they drop a cow on him!
Personally I have enjoyed all of the Alan Partridge series, Knowing me Knowing You, I’m Alan Partridge and Mid Morning Matters. Steve Coogan has often spoken badly of the second series of I’m Alan Partridge , but personally I thought it was just as good as the others. One of the aspects of the series I liked the most was Alan’s relationship with his girlfriend Sonia who is a lot younger than him and who he clearly disliked “I love you in a way”. He clearly only keeps her around to boost his own ego, such as when he tells an old school bully with relish that his girlfriend is younger than him.
Coogan has embraced the popularity of Partridge. Often when an actor is associated with one role more than any other they will try and escape it, and never even talk about it, but in Coogans case he has always been happy to reprise his role, even just for charity skits and we can only hope he continues to for many more decades to come.
Basil Fawlty/ Fawlty Towers
What can be said about this character that hasn’t already been said? Truly one of the most iconic comedy characters of all time. What’s even more incredible is that Basil Fawlty was actually based on a real person called Donald Sinclair.
I’ve often wondered what Sinclair’s reaction must have been when he found out that Basil was based on him. Imagine if Basil found out that someone had based a comedy character on him!
The best thing about Basil is that he simply cannot cope with life, never mind running a hotel. He has about 5 mental break downs over the course of 12 episodes, he is prone to panic attacks, he explodes with rage and often takes his anger out on Manuel (who to be fair does sometimes does cause a lot of grief for Basil “Mr’s Fawlty she go crazy”.) In the final episode of the series its implied he may have had a heart attack from all the stress when his staff carry his seemingly lifeless body away. Its left open of course as they don’t come out and say it, but it does seem a fitting end to the series.
Basil really was the one who brought the dark side to British Sitcom characters. Tony Hancock laid down the foundations that British characters were often a bit more ordinary, delusional and with Sid James, he established the double act that most of them were to follow.
However Basil I think was the first British character who was a completely repugnant individual and who was a total loser too. He wasn’t just simply surly like Hancock or grumpy like Steptoe. He treated those around him in violent ways, nearly elbowing Polly in the face, and whacking Manuel with a frying pan.
Rather than just be involved in some social faux pas’s he would at various points be beaten up, publicly humiliated and suffer severe mental distress.
At the same time however Basil whilst awful would have to deal with people who were just as awful if not worse than he was such as Bernard Cribbins character Mr Hutchinson
Almost all British sitcoms after Fawlty Towers would feature leading characters who were much more unsympathetic like Basil often having to deal with other characters who were just as bad, like Alan Partridge and his awful guests, or Eddie and Richie’s dealings with their violent neighbours. Whilst Tony Hancock did establish many of the tropes of modern day British sitcoms, the darker edge of British comedy owes a lot to Basil.
The brevity of British Sitcoms also really began with Fawlty Towers too. Prior to Fawlty Towers most British sitcoms such as Rising Damp, Steptoe and Son, the Goodies and Hancocks Half Hour all ran for years and years, but again after Fawlty Towers we start seeing sitcoms such as the Young Ones, Bottom, Ab Fab, The Office, Extra’s that all have much shorter runs, with many of the creators of these series even citing Fawlty Towers short but memorable run as a reason.
Basil Fawlty was the man who established British sitcom characters as having short and very nasty lives. I’d say that with Basil, John Cleese made as big a contribution to British comedy as he did with his work with Monty Python.
David Brent/ The Office
The role that made Ricky Gervais a household name, David Brent is a classic nothing guy who thinks that he is something special whether that’s because of his poems, his music or his “fabulous” sense of humour.
The best thing about Brent was how delusional he was. He did literally have no idea of how much his staff either disliked him or didn’t care about him. Of course not that you had any sympathy for him, as his affection for his employee’s as seen in the final episode of the first series was very hollow, as he was ultimately prepared to make them all redundant to advance his own career.
I loved his attempts to weasel out of it and paint himself as the hero when he couldn’t take the job because of high blood pressure, claiming that he faked high blood pressure and cheated medical science itself in order not to take a job he could have simply refused. “What’s worse cheating medical science or cheating friends”.
The second series features an interesting development in Brent’s character when we saw the cracks start to appear in the image he had of himself after he was confronted with Neil who was actually genuinely popular with his staff. The great thing about Neil though was that he was actually worse than Brent. He was someone who seemed quite nice on the surface, but underneath would be happy to join in bullying you along with Chris Finch. Thus through his interactions with Neil, Brent whilst becoming more erratic, also became a bit more sympathetic too.
The character was not without his redeeming qualities. In the last episode its brilliant when he finally tells the loathsome Chris Finch to fuck off. Also there are moments where you can’t help but pity him, as he is ultimately someone who puts so much value in a fairly unrewarding job and its actually quite sad when he is forced to beg not to be let go in the last episode of the series.
Overall I actually preferred Gervais’s second series Extra’s to the Office, but Brent is definitely a better character than Extra’s lead Andy Millman, and I am not surprised that Gervais has returned to the character time and time again, including for a guest appearance on the American version of the Office, on Comic Relief and an upcoming film David Brent Life on the Road.
Brent could very well become a character like Alan Partridge that Gervais revisits again and again. The Office may have finished but Brent lives on.
Patsy Stone and Edina Moonson/ Absolutely Fabulous
Two of the most famous British comedy characters around the world. Ab Fab was one of the few British comedies from that generation, the alternative comedy generation, that managed to crack America. I think its because Patsy and Ednia were such well observed characters that they translated better over seas than many other British comedy characters
So well known are they in America that they even guest starred in a crossover episode of Roseanne in its 9th season.
The sad thing about this crossover was that this season was revealed to be a dream so that means that all of Ab Fab is just a dream if you take this seriously.
Patsy and Edina were a brilliant satire on people who have too much money and free time yet don’t have the first clue on how to spend it. They just wile away their days drinking, obsessing over their looks, trying to fit in with the latest fad and yearning for a by gone age when they actually did in some small way fit in.
Like many great comedy characters there is a certain element of tragedy to both characters. Patsy the more cartoonishly awful of the two of them, had a deeply traumatic upbringing, having been basically disowned by her own parents. Even with all of their wealth and power they are both still quite pitiful characters.
The two characters also allowed the series to provide a scathing attack on the fashion industry too. The character of Patsy is even shown to have had an operation done to her stomach to stop her from having to eat!
The best thing about Patsy and Edina for me however were the elements of physical comedy. I think Patsy and Edina were quite unusual among female characters in British sitcoms. Normally female characters in Sitcoms will be portrayed as the more straight laced character, but with Ab Fab it was great to finally get a chance to see women play the more awful, pathetic character who suffers great misfortune and even physical injury.
I think prior to Ab Fab people had been reluctant to watch women suffer in comedies in quite the same way. The thing is in British comedies, which by their very nature are darker then you have to suffer in order to be funny. Hell most British sitcom characters like Blackadder, Eddie and Richie from Bottom, Arnold Rimmer and Victor Meldrew are all beaten, tortured and even violently killed over the course of their series.
Still again understandably I think audiences were maybe a bit more reluctant to see women endure quite the same horrors, as men were and so women sadly were often delegated to being the straight laced, only reasonable character in British sitcoms such as Fawlty Towers, One Foot in the Grave, Red Dwarf, and Men Behaving Badly or they were just left out altogether.
Ab Fab however I feel broke down barriers by having the female characters be just as bad as and endure just as much as their male counterparts.
Ironically having women get horribly injured like being set on fire or falling down the stairs in Ab Fab and be portrayed as utterly pathetic people turned out to be empowering for women.
Itallowed other female characters such as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, Fran in Black Books and Jen from the IT Crowd to emerge who were similarly awful, and who again also endured just as gruesome injuries and misfortune as their male counterparts whether that was Fran being hit by a car, and then having her neck broken, Jen’s feet being mangled by her shoes, or Mrs Doyle falling off the roof and down the stairs several times.
Thus whilst they might not be the most admirable people Patsy and Edina are true pioneers for women in comedy and they have remained truly iconic characters with Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders set to reprise their roles in the upcoming Ab Fab movie this year.
Thanks for reading and let me know your favourite British Sitcom characters in the comments below