Sitcoms are the best gauge of our society

If you want to learn about premillennial complacency in the US you need only endure a few episodes of Friends or marvel at a season of Seinfeld

One half of a legendary cultural partnership died earlier this week. Alan Simpson and Ray Galton met as tuberculosis patients in the late 1940s. It's hard to imagine a more appropriate beginning for the team behind mainstream comedy that made Samuel Beckett seem merrier than the Tellytubbies. Both men were in their mid-20s when they began writing a radio show for the militantly glum Tony Hancock. In 1956 Hancock's Half Hour successfully transferred to television, where it established the template for the British situation comedy. Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son, an even more miserable series concerning filthy, frustrated rag-and-bone men, played to huge audiences from 1962 to 1974. On Thursday, February 8th, Simpson passed away, at the age of 87. Galton remains aloft.

The news emerges just two weeks after the death of Mary Tyler Moore. That subtly hilarious actor and producer first became famous in The Dick Van Dyke Show, but it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, that secured her place in televisual history. The show addressed important issues: divorce, adoption, racial prejudice, prescription-drug abuse. Set in a Minneapolis newsroom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show began in a period of uncertainty and then, as Watergate erupted, walked the United States calmly through one of its greatest political nightmares.

It requires no great stretching of history to conclude that, throughout the second half of the last century, situation comedy offered the best available gauge of the atmosphere in western society. If you want to learn about premillennial complacency in the US you need only endure a few episodes of Friends (now more dated than Mary Tyler Moore) or marvel at a season of Seinfeld (whose cynicism feels indestructible).

Shaping the mood

Classic British shows of the 1970s such as Dad's Army or Fawlty Towers did not just reflect the prevailing unease with contemporaneous society: they did something to shape that mood.


You will find references to then-current concerns such as the National Health Service and petrol rationing in Hancock's Half Hour. The industrial chaos of the early 1970s seeps into Steptoe and Son.

The real historical value of the shows, however, is their knack of summarising the national psyche. From the end of the second World War to The Beatles’ first LP, Britain endured a period of emotional constipation that not even the end of rationing could alleviate. Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – resident of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam – came across like a dyspeptic basset coping badly with unexpected inflation to human dimensions.

This was the era of the Suez humiliation, economic readjustment and the confirmation of empire's end. There's wasn't even any decent pop music to leaven the mood. Sunday Afternoon at Home, the signature episode of Hancock's Half Hour, finds our hero and his irritating friends failing to amuse themselves on a typically uneventful English weekend. No other episode of any other series makes such effective use of the sigh as a punchline.

Steptoe and Son is an even more peculiar piece. Harry H Corbett, a gifted Lancastrian, and Wilfred Bramble, the great Irish actor, played, respectively, a middle-aged rag-and-bone man and his bitter, selfish clinging father. Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, which premiered just two years before the first episode, is scarcely any bleaker in its outlook. Yet Steptoe and Son somehow became one of the most successful shows of its era. In 1964 Harold Wilson, leader of the British Labour Party, petitioned Sir Hugh Greene, director general of the BBC, to pull the show from the schedules on election night. "He thought that would keep away particularly Labour supporters from the polls," Greene recalled. The BBC relented, and Labour won.

The characters on Steptoe and Son go from reflecting a prevailing gloom in the early 1960s to being outsiders in the swinging era before chiming with the unhappiness of the mid-1970s. Similar cultural maelstroms buffeted Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore's smart producer in the series that bears her name, throughout the show's long, successful run. Spin-off shows carried on that work. In Rhoda Mary's best friend married and divorced. In Lou Grant Mary's editor dealt with the mess Watergate left behind.

It is, in such columns, customary to conclude by mourning the passing of a golden age. And it's true that sitcoms no longer capture and dictate the zeitgeist as they once did. But that is more to do with the scattering of the medium than with any decline in quality. Magnificent shows such as Veep, Catastrophe, Peep Show and Parks and Recreation emerged in the 21st century. We are, however, no longer all watching them in the same place and at the same time. There are too many good shows for any one to dominate the conversation.

We could have worse complaints.