Bursting onto screens way back in 1989 and soon becoming a huge hit – much to the dismay of some at the BBC – Birds Of A Feather charted the lives of three very different women. Focusing around sisters Sharon (the resolutely working class one) and Tracey (the working-class-girl-done-good one), plus neighbour Dorien (the too-much-money-for-her-own-good one), it would become one of the most popular comedies of the 1990s, reaching millions of viewers over a nine series run.
Perhaps it was simply an accident; perhaps it got lost amidst the comedy industry’s rush to praise and emulate less ‘sitcommy’ fare such as The Office in the immediate years following BOAF’s end; but it was never the less a huge oversight that the series then went almost entirely unavailable and rarely repeated until Network picked up the baton in 2010.
It’s de rigueur these days to dismiss almost all TV comedy of the 1990s as cheap, low-brow and mainstream – as if popularity and success are somehow bad things in an entertainment medium. I’m breaking from that right here, proclaiming that this era-defining sitcom (perhaps the most successful ever to focus solely on female lead characters), was long overdue the full DVD release that Network afforded it. Indeed, such is the programme’s continued popularity that ITV revived the show in 2014, where it has run for three further series (also available from Network) and several specials to date.
Running for 10 series between 1979 and 1992, this volume completes the collection (see also Series 1 – 6, the first four of which were separately released in the previous decade) of this popular comedy. Hywel Bennett stars as the eponymous workshy philosopher, with Belinda Sinclair as long-suffering partner Frances, and the wonderful, much-underrated Josephine Tewson playing landlady Mrs. Hawkins.
The sitcom, which initially ran till 1984 and was revived from 1988 due to its ongoing popularity, was created by Peter Tilbury and enjoyed a range of other scribes across its run, notably including Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who’d go on to create hits such as Drop The Dead Donkey and Outnumbered.
James Shelley is a highly intelligent underachiever. Lazy in every possible respect, he wants nothing more than to avoid work – and perhaps moreso now, in Thatcher’s Britain. As he concocts ever more ways to avoid the reach of the labour exchange and shirk his responsibilities as a boyfriend, then husband and father, he comes up against ever more challenges – with wonderfully entertaining results for we viewers.
I may be cheating slightly here, but these two films starring legendary comedian Tony Hancock feel difficult to separate. His only starring film roles, made amidst the TV and radio star’s famous breaking of a long-standing working partnership with writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (and various other actors besides), they are both also wonderful works of comedy in their own right.
The first, 1961’s The Rebel, was penned by Ray & Alan. It satirises the art world, following a creative-spirited but largely talent-free London office worker as he quits the rat race, moves to Paris, and begins making waves on the city’s bohemian international art scene. Shot in colour, Network’s new HD remastering is a genuine delight on the Blu-ray release. I’m pretty sure you won’t have seen Tony’s eyes sparkle with this much colour before. As a bonus, the initial manufacturing run also includes a bound copy of Galton & Simpson’s second – declined and unproduced – feature script for the star, The Day Off.
The Punch And Judy Man is the picture Tony made instead. Written by him and friend Phillip Oakes, it follows the community of a seaside town, looking at the aspirations, social climbing and snobbery of early 1960s society.
Woops, I’ve done it again. At number seven it’s this duo of repeat-starved sitcoms, both starring a pre-Only Fools And Horses Sir David Jason, in a variety of roles that exhibit the much-loved star’s range and comic abilities (including a significant portion of slapstick) better than we’ve previously been able to see.
Remarkably, both series were produced by ITV franchises between the Open All Hours pilot and its second series. The two vary in style and quality, but Lucky Feller is particularly interesting for OFAH fans as it sees Jason in a Rodney role: here he plays the younger of two working class, south London brothers. Unlucky in love and resident (with their mother) in a tower block, the siblings run their own business… Sounding familiar? Some episodes stand up better than others, but there are a lot of laughs to be had in the comedy’s various mishaps, and it’s a fascinating comparison with what could have been, had the more famous BBC series’ casting gone a bit differently.
The Top Secret Life Of Edgar Briggs, meanwhile, was long sought-after by fans and collectors, so Network’s 2014-5 releases of these titles was widely welcomed. It sees Jason as a hapless British spy. whose endeavours. nevertheless. come up trumps. Despite the best efforts of his team, the bumbling Briggs causes no end of havoc: he “inspires fear in the hearts of enemy agents, and sheer terror amongst his fellow colleagues!”
Goody-goody yum-yum! After years of frustration amongst fans and starved of repeats (in the UK at least), Network began teasing the comedy aficionados amongst us with highlights compiled from the trio’s – Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie – much-loved BBC years, early in the 2000s. Their complete ninth series (made by LWT) followed in 2007, but it was another long wait before we got to experience the full delights of their decade under Auntie’s wing.
2018, then, brought with it the long-awaited, long-rumoured, and long-promised BBC Collection, alongside a mouth-watering set of extras: two books, and a CD set of Oddie’s original compositions for the series. And this year the follow up, uniting all 8 BBC series with the LWT successor for the first time.
More often than not satirising the culture and society of the 1970s (when the comedy was made), but with a mix of highly accessible slapstick and tomfoolery, it’d be fair to say that some of the 75 episodes have fared the test of time better than others; but it would take a man with a heart of stone not to find plenty to delight in amongst this wonderful collection of humour from three men who could so very easily (especially in Brooke-Taylor’s case) have become members of Monty Python.
Much less well-known than Monty Python’s Flying Circus but with a similar amount of dedication put into its release, was this high-concept sketch show charting, as the title suggests, a history of Britain, from Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
Made by London Weekend Television and predating Flying Circus by some nine months, just two episodes of the six survive, alongside location-filmed material. Back in 2014, Network brought Palin and Jones back together to film new links to accompany the surviving material, scanning all the surviving footage at high definition resolution for a wonderful Blu-ray release.
Long sought-after by comedy aficionados and Python fans alike, its release was one of the first in a line of important historic titles from Network in the 2010s.
Issued early in 2019, this was a double-pronged release: not just a brand new, high definition (and genuinely beautiful) remastering of the hit BBC sitcom’s feature film spin-off, but also not just one (!) but two newly recovered original TV programmes.
Famously launched as BBC2’s first ever sitcom way back in 1964, the comedy – by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – focuses on Bob and Terry, late-teenage best friends navigating social and industrial change of mid-1960s north east England. Quickly becoming a hit, The Likely Lads clocked up three hugely successful series in a little over 19 months and such was its sustained popularity, that two series of sequel Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? followed a decade later, with the film released in 1976.
That latter series was even more popular and critically acclaimed than its predecessor, and luckily all its episodes survive and are already available on BBC DVD, but even with Network’s wonderful contribution to The Likely Lads’ heritage, half of the original comedy’s 20 episodes are still missing.
This iconic variety series went through various iterations (and varying titles) over its 19-year run. Although much celebrated for its ratings-winning formula of entertainment and a dazzling array of guest performers from across the globe – dating way back to the 1955 launch of the ITV network – it won’t come as a shock to learn that most is lost. Indeed, of more than 455 episodes broadcast, fewer than 20 are known to survive.
Collecting two volumes (2010 and 2011), this set contains all those episodes that remain and is a near-solitary ambassador for a whole era of British light entertainment. With celebrated hosts including Bruce Forsyth and Jimmy Tarbuck, the acts on show range from comedy stars like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Bob Monkhouse, Frankie Howerd and Norman Wisdom, to singers such as Cliff Richard, Bobby Darin, and Roy Orbison.
Eric Sykes writes and stars in this wonderfully silly sitcom, with Hattie Jacques as his housemate and identical twin sister (!). Reviving an earlier format, Sykes And A… (1960 – 1965), the first series of this comedy was restored and initially released by Network way back in 2004. Fans had to wait 13 years for the rest to follow, in the form of this single complete box set – but boy was it worth it.
In parts a normal domestic sitcom, in parts lightly satirising the era, but in whole charting a man whose childish obstinacy is his primary downfall, it’s a sheer joy from beginning to end. From the much-noted guest appearance by Peter Sellers as a burglar, to regular supporting turns from Deryck Guyler as local policeman Corky, and Richard Wattis as Eric and Hat’s impossibly snobby next-door-neighbour, this is a sitcom worthy of far greater notoriety and respect than it currently has.
A sparkling treat from the glorious 1970s BBC, the 12 discs in this set ooze with delight in that unmistakable gentle-but-silly comedy vein. It’s great viewing for all the family.
It won’t come as a surprise to many of you to see this acclaimed Flying Circus release claim the top spot. Despite being one of the very final releases of the decade, the wealth of effort an+d attention to detail that has gone into this boxed set of the iconic comedy series really puts it right up there.
Based on almost 13 years’ of painstaking, meticulous research by Paul Vanezis into the best surviving, closest-to-master copies of each of the 45 episodes, and the various edits and cuts that have been made over the five decades since Python’s 1969 debut, Network’s in-house restoration team have done an amazing job. Recolouring and grading every single scene, cleaning up the image frame-by-frame (and in a remarkably short time period, just a matter of months), professionally upscaling, and rescanning all the film elements in modern HD resolution, it’s a genuine to delight to watch, adding a brand new level of clarity and revealing hitherto unseen detail: captured on tape and film, but simply unable to be replicated on the screens of the 70s, and omitted from previous video-based remasters that may already be on your DVD shelves.
It’d be amiss not to admit that some bits of Flying Circus itself (and by the group’s own admission) now seem decidedly ropey; but other sketches still shine, and the avant-garde inventiveness of the show remains for all to see. It’s the crowning glory on Network’s last decade, and one the company’s entire team can be justifiably proud of.
Aaron Brown is a comedy historian and fan, and Editor of 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.