This post is about the British TV shows you should watch if you want to get to grips with the British sense of humour
There’s a lot that you can tell about a people by the way they treat the most vulnerable in society – at least that’s what American writer and Pulitzer winner, Pearl Buck wrote. But, I’m here to tell you right now, if you want to truly understand the British people – and integrate more smoothly into the UK – then you need to get to grips with… our television. Yes. you read that correctly. My theory is that British TV shows are like a cultural Rosetta Stone, from our sarcastic wit and friendly banter, to our acerbic put-downs and the importance of having a stiff upper lip. You can actually learn a lot from the fun we poke at ourselves.
However, by immersing yourself in our comedy, not only will you be peering deep into the British psyche, you’ll also have something fun to do. If you are moving here from any significant distance, you may be faced with anything from airport waiting rooms to a long quarantine lockdown.
I’ve curated a list of great comedy shows below. A word of warning, some of the clips contain swearing – which frankly feels like an essential part of British humour! Also, you’ll need a TV licence to watch programmes on BBC iPlayer. So, where possible, I’ve specified a second platform source too.
Right. Now that that piece of housekeeping is out of the way, pull out your device, put your feet up (if possible) and get watching.
Fleabag (2016 – 2019)
If you’ve not heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge you’ve been living under a rock because she is on fire at the moment. She’s like a British Lena Dunham, minus the politics. Waller-Bridge has moved from sold out one woman theatre shows to Star Wars (the Hans Solo origin story). She was the head writer on the excellent first season of Killing Eve. But, Waller-Bridge is perhaps best known in the UK as the writer, producer and star of Fleabag.
It’s difficult to know whether this is a comic drama, or a dramatic comedy. However you label it, Fleabag is a very funny, touching vehicle for Phoebe Waller-Bridge to showcase her many talents. The lead character is a 30-something year old woman. With her Londoner, Singleton ways, you can’t help but think of an angry Bridget Jones. But, a Bridget Jones who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in House-of-Cards-type asides. And, running underneath the humour is a complex subtext that will still have you thinking about the show long after each episode ends.
Derry Girls (2018 – )
OK, Derry Girls is made in Northern Ireland. So, technically this is UK television and probably shouldn’t be allowed on a list about British TV shows. But, one of the main characters is British, so I’m running with it.
Derry Girls is set in the 1990’s and follows two sets of cousins and a fifth friend. All are school kids, growing up in a Northern Ireland that has seen sectarian violence, and is still a hotbed of political and religious separation. These 15 and 16 year olds are not the cool kids. In fact, their very uncoolness, poor decision-making and awkward teenage ways constantly get them into hilarious situations. I’m not ashamed to say I sometimes watch this with the subtitles, as their Irish accents and their occasional Derry slang would go over my head otherwise. But, don’t let that put you off. This is one of the strongest comedies on the list.
There are just 6 episodes in each of the series (‘series’ being the traditional British term for a ‘season’ of TV). And, oh, how much they manage to pack into each one! The nineties soundtrack is the icing on the cake, and will have you singing along or quickly reaching for your Shazam app.
Red Dwarf (1988 – )
For the majority of Red Dwarfs early run, you can see parts of the set wobble when doors are closed too hard. And, rumour has it that a number of props in the first season were recycled from old episodes of Dr. Who. Whilst the production values are deliberately cheap, the characters are rich indeed.
Character-wise, there’s Dave, a slovenly, lazy, rulebreaker with a heart of gold. There’s Karlton, a diplomatic housekeeping android, who Dave has helped to evolve beyond his programming. There’s Rimmer, an officious, cowardly jobsworth with few scruples, who happens to be an hologram. And, there’s Cat. He’s literally the descendant of Dave’s pet cat, Frankenstein, from the clip above. Cat is a stylish, loveable idiot. Put all those characters onto a spaceship stranded a million years from Earth, and you really do have comedy gold. It’s all about the writing. This is one of the British TV shows that I return to again and again.
The Thick of It (2005 – 2012)
If you can look past the effing and blinding, you’ll find an intelligently-written political satire, that’s loosely based on the Tony Blair / New Labour government years. This show stands on the shoulders of giants like, Yes, Minister, and led directly to Veep – the latter of which was also created by The Thick of It’s showrunner Armando Iannucci. So, if you’ve watched Veep you’ll already get the concept… a documentary style, single hand-held camera cinematography. Each episode is rife with absolute cockups from incompetent politicians who’ve risen far above their actual abilities. But, all of that with a very British flavouring.
The Office (UK) (2001 – 2003)
Before Michael Scott and Dunder Mifflin, there was David Brent and Wernham Hogg. The British show that started it all has the same mockumentary, single camera setup in a dowdy office selling paper. It has the same audience-free and laugh-track free set. To me, THIS is British humour at its purest. The sarcasm, self-deprecation, banter and meta-jokes flow from every comedic pore. I also think all of these strengths are why the first season of The Office (US) did so poorly in the ratings. Season one was the most faithful to the British original. But, the showrunner either didn’t understand, or couldn’t quite translate the specific type of British humour that made Ricky Gervais’ creation work. The Office (UK) ran for just two seasons with a few special episodes on top.
The Royle Family (1998 – 2012)
Hilarious and bingeable. Almost every single episode of this sitcom takes place in the living room of the Royles, as they sit on the sofa watching TV and chatting. This must have been a cheap TV Show to produce. There’s no studio audience and there’s no laugh-track. Just characters having a chat, the same way lots of families do every evening. With a concept that stripped back, you know the writing has to be as tight as a drum. Every character is fully realised. You know what makes them tick, you understand their hopes and motivations. Even the undercurrents of frustration and annoyance that all family members feel from time-to-time is naturally drawn here – like the combative relationship between Jim and his mother-in-law. And, because the Royles are a straightforward working class family from Manchester, this is a good choice for expats wanting to learn useful English references and sayings.
The Two Ronnies (1971 – 1987)
The Two Ronnies, is probably what most Americans think of when the word ‘sitcom’ is used. There’s the audience – or at least the loud canned laughter. There are numerous ‘stagey’-looking sets. Every inch of it is packed with jokes. But, this is very much a British sitcom, making reference to British products and British places. In fact, The Two Ronnies might well be considered the king of British TV Shows from the 1970’s.
Each episode was made up of a series of unrelated sketches, and often contained a musical number. There are definitely jokes that wouldn’t be considered politically-correct today. But, at the time this aired, The Two Ronnies was considered very much a show for all the family. One everyone could sit down to watch together. With the passing of our national treasure, Ronnie Corbett, this one has an added layer of nostalgia for me. If you can push past some rather dated attitudes, this is a great window into the British society (and comedy) of the past.
Only Fools and Horses (1981 – 2003)
“This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires”. That’s something the main character Del Boy earnestly told his brother almost every week. The two brothers from South East London would come up with some hustle to make a quick bit of cash. Then we’d get to watch as it invariably went wrong in disastrous, yet funny ways. Looking back at Only Fools and Horses now, Del Boy and Rodney are basically petty criminals. But, that won’t stop you from rooting for them.
The Inbetweeners (2008 – 2010)
If you want to watch four foul-mouthed secondary school kids go through awkward, cringe-inducing experiences, desperately trying and failing to get girls… well, this is the show for you. It’s laugh-till-you-cry stuff. But, the level of swearing and sex-related jokes means you probably won’t want to watch this one with your parents.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969 – 1974)
A classic British comedy. Even if you’ve never seen an episode you’ll probably have heard of the Monty Python TV show. Or, you’ll be able to quote lines from the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian – created from the same comedy team. A bit like the Two Ronnies, this has a sort of variety show feel, with each episode being a string of comedy sketches strung together. For a programme that ran for just five years, it’s had a massive effect on British comedy.
Porridge (1974 – 1977)
Another classic. ‘Doing porridge’ is old British slang for ‘doing prison time’. And, this programme follows career criminal, Fletch as he is sent down for burglary yet again. We also meet his cellmate, Godber, a prison first-timer who’s taken under Fletch’s wing. Each episode sees Fletch and gang trying to outwit prison guards and other prisoners who are holding something over them. Every now and then, the laugh-track mask will slip, and you get to see the real heart beneath.
Father Ted (1995 – 1998)
Another comedy set in Northern Ireland. So, again this is more UK humour, than strictly British humour. This slapstick comedy exists in a fictional world of pure fancy, where zany, crazy characters shout at each other in ways that would see you sectioned in the real world. But, somehow it works. Craggy Island is a made up place, with a very small population and three Catholic priests who it appears have been exiled there for being… just a bit rubbish, really. Good clean escapist fun, where any off-colour jokes are at the expense of the characters themselves.
Famalam (2018 – )
A cracking sitcom stuffed full of funny sketches, and sharp observations from a cast of black British talent. This is a good watch for anyone. But if you have family members from West Africa or the Caribbean, I think you’ll love it. High production values, very funny writing, and interesting observations about British life.
Toast of London (2012 – )
This is a very odd show. The Toast universe is as zany as Father Ted. But, with more swearing and sexual references. The show is set in London and follows round a middle-aged voiceover artist and actor called Steven Toast. He’s a pompous, slightly ridiculous figure who feels he’s #winning at life, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s kind of difficult to explain the type of comedy you’re in for, as it needs to be experienced. Take the clip above… there’s no reason that this clip should be as funny as it is. But, somehow, all the eccentric disparate elements come together.
Gavin and Stacey (2007 – )
Forget Carpool Karaoke and The Late Late Show. When it comes to James Corden, we Brits will always think of Gavin and Stacey first and his character Smithy. Corden co-wrote the award-winning comedy with fellow co-star Ruth Jones. It follows the long-distance relationship of Essex man, Gavin and Welsh woman, Stacey. Smithy is Gavin’s best friend and wingman. He finds himself becoming increasingly jealous of Gavin and Stacey’s relationship, and the perceived threat to their bromance. One of the highest rated comedies in recent years. This is one of my favourites on the list.
At the end of the day, I appreciate that comedy is very subjective. So what do you think of this list? Are there shows that you think should have been included? Or, entries that you think should have been left out? Let me know in the comments below. Whether the show was aired this year, or it came out in the 1980’s I think the reason why these programmes are so enduring is because of the tight writing. All of these characters are people that we get to know. We know their values, their likes, dislikes and what desires drive them. Jumping off the screen, they are very much 3D and when the theme music strikes up, it feels like coming home.