As 2018 draws ever nearer its denouement, Network asked me if I’d look back over their comedy DVD and Blu-ray releases from the past 12 months and select the ten best titles. Naturally I was only too keen to agree and use the opportunity to indulge in some comedy gold. Whilst this hasn’t been the most abundant year for the genre, there was still a very healthy selection to pick from, and, after a good amount of umm-ing and ahh-ing, I’ve wrestled them into a semblance of an order for you here. So go on: have a read, and maybe you’ll find two or three new titles to add to your shelves – heck, why not go for all ten?
From writers Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney – best-remembered as the creators of On The Buses – comes this important sitcom, one of the earliest with a predominantly female (and indeed, starring) cast. Originally clocking up three series in black and white on BBC Television from 1961-3, the show was revived in the mid-1970s for two runs in colour.
This complete box set of the 22 LWT episodes reunites stars Peter Jones and Miriam Karlin as the managing director and militant shop steward of a clothing company operating from a small factory in central London; Reg Varney was the foreman in the BBC original, with Christopher Beeny taking up the role on ITV. For a bonus On The Buses link, Anna Karen reprises her role as Olive, gaining a seemingly rare period of employment at Fenner Fashions alongside Diane Langton, Gillian Taylforth, Deddie Davies and Lucita Lijertwood.
With the two writing Ronnies reusing plots from their original BBC series (most surviving episodes of which are available elsewhere) but significantly rewriting the jokes and dialogue for a more outrageous, 1970s ITV audience, it’s truly fascinating to compare and contrast the two incarnations of the sitcom. I can’t think of a clearer example of the changes in British comedy between the early 60s and late 70s – and indeed the difference between BBC and ITV – than can be found in The Rag Trade. Add in its feminist credentials, and in this “Year of the Woman” The Rag Trade – The Complete LWT Series should be on everyone’s shelves.
Actor, entertainer and oft-cited national treasure Bernard Cribbins is perhaps not best known for his comedy talents: an oversight now starting to be addressed by Network, with the release at the end of the summer of his own, self-titled sketch show.
Aired over two series in 1969-70, the Thames comedy comes from writers Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke. Then hot on the heels of success with radio’s Round The Horne, the duo are now by far better known for their sitcom work, including such titles as Father, Dear Father, Man About The House and George & Mildred (all wonderful, and all available from Network).
Over 12 episodes Cribbins is joined by Bob Todd – plus, in the first series, the likes of Madeline Smith, and in the second Tim Barrett – and guest stars including Patrick Cargill and Dennis Price, for a mix of quick-fire sketches, songs, and longer character pieces. The laughs haven’t always stood up as well as in other shows, but there are still some real delights to be enjoyed.
Now often forgotten in favour of the likes of Paul Daniels and Tommy Cooper, the equally talented David Nixon was a byword for British magic during the 1960s and 70s. Appearing regularly on television until his untimely death in December 1978 – aged just 58 – these two sets comprise a delightful collection of programmes from the early 70s: the complete surviving collection (18 episodes) of David Nixon’s Magic Box, and two Christmas specials from its successor, The David Nixon Show.
With both formats mixing music, magic, comedy and speciality acts around Nixon as host and primary talent, they’re a source of pure delight from an altogether more innocent – and varied – age of British television entertainment. I’m still scratching my head over how some of the tricks were achieved!
It would have been ridiculous not to have included toward the top this list of Network’s finest 2018 comedy releases, the long-awaited delight that is The Kenny Everett Video Show. Announced in a flurry of excitement a mere month before its late-Autumn release date, it represents one of the most-demanded comedies yet released by any distributor.
Following his wild success as a radio DJ – probably still the single most inventive and influential Britain has known – Kenny (almost literally, one feels!) exploded onto television with the first series of his Thames Video Show in July 1978. Famously written by Kenny, Ray Cameron, and the national treasure that is Barry Cryer, it was billed as “the programme that will eventually replace television” and over four series made a suitable impression on the public, if not fully living up to that promise!
Staved of repeats or commercial availability until now it’s been easy to categorise the format as a run-of-the-mill sketch show, but thanks to Network’s shiny new release we’ve now the enviable luxury of taking in its full mix, being much closer to a pop music series with linking comedy.
Sadly, and almost inevitably, some of those music performances have been cut from the DVD release due to rights issues, but many more remain in their full glory over the 6-disc, 35-episode set. Mixing sketches, character quickies, archive oddities and gags between tracks (both in the studio and on video), it’s a vibrant slice of late 1970s/early 80s culture that’s begging to be watched and enjoyed again. And with many characters quickly becoming iconic, playground favourites over the following decade, it’s certainly not before time. Go on: indulge. You know you want to.
So, we come to the end of this list and the none-too-surprising #1 positioning for one of the most overdue, highly-demanded DVDs yet to be released by any company in Britain: The Goodies.
Following on from their cruelly tantalising three volumes of ‘best’ BBC episodes issued between 2003 and 2010, plus the complete LWT series (Series 9) release in 2007, Network sent thousands of comedy fans and nerds around the world into meltdown in the Spring when announcing this complete BBC box set – save the missing-believed-wiped original edit of the legendary Kitten Kong episode, of which only the revised international-television-contest-winning version survives.
Spanning 12 discs, the set comprises almost 70 episodes of sitcom joy from the eponymous trio – Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor – as they take on an almost unending selection of tasks, characters and bizarre, fanciful scenarios. By turns slapstick, satirical, witty, inventive, farcical and downright daft, the comedy ran on the BBC for a full eight series from 1970, taking Britain by storm and proving to be an award-winning cultural phenomenon.
Anarchy abounds as the BBC’s props and effects departments could play to their hearts’ content in the madcap series, packing in explosions, camera tricks, collapsing sets, trick props, giant kittens and much more besides. It’d be misleading to pretend that some episodes have fared the passage of time far more successfully than others, and that certain scenes, references and topics don’t now stick out rather awkwardly, but The Goodies nevertheless remains sparkling in creativity and humour: a cultural landmark, iconic sitcom, and very important chapter in British TV comedy that has now been restored – and a DVD box set that should find a place on anyone’s shelves.
Aaron Brown is a comedy historian and fan who owns and runs British Comedy Guide (link: https://www.comedy.co.uk/), promoting British comedy of all varieties to audiences across the globe. With a passion for sitcom, he has previously written for the BBC and Gold, and has numerous radio and television credits discussing British comedy.