By Aaron Brown (comedy historian and fan, and Editor of British Comedy Guide, promoting British comedy of all varieties to audiences across the globe)
It would not be unfair to describe the confused sitcom dad – bemused by his children and frustrated by his wife – as having become somewhat of a sitcom archetype. Such relationships, to varying extents, have been the foundation of many comedies over the years (perhaps most recently in BBC One’s long-running My Family), including Network-issued titles such as Home To Roost and Father, Dear Father; but one sitcom honed in on this vein of comedy magic like no other: Bless This House.
A third television vehicle for Carry On favourite Sidney James and from the writers Vince Powell and Harry Driver (after George And The Dragon and Two In Clover), it was an undeniable overnight smash-hit upon its launch in February 1971, entertaining millions of viewers through six television series and one feature film, only concluding with James’s sudden death five years later.
Following the Abbott family in Putney, south-west London, the comedy is built around man of the house (or so he likes to think) Sid, a mild-mannered salesman of stationery and office supplies. He is both a product of his time, yet not remotely unfamiliar to viewers today: Sid loves his children, Sally (16) and Mike (18), but is thoroughly perplexed by their tastes and attitudes.
In the wake of the 1960s’ cultural revolution, Mike wears his long hair and jewellery with pride, whilst Sally is far more familiar with – and relaxed about – sex than her father would like; and their mother, Jean, is (to Sid’s constant alarm) almost as laissez-faire about many issues as they are.
Bless This House sees the natural generation gap exacerbated by the effects of the era’s massive cultural shift, and it is around this that many of the plots revolve. There’s the one where Sally declares she is engaged (not to be married, you understand, just to live together); there are numerous other episodes concerning Sid’s confusion over his son’s sexuality, and concern that – if Mike is interested in women at all – he’s going for completely the wrong ones; there are environmental protests; dalliances with vegetarianism; health kicks; and plenty of challenges to his status as an able husband, father, employee, and man in general: certainly not “past it”.
Sid is, in short, an everyman. All the most popular television sitcoms are built around such recognisable, identifiable characters, and Bless This House is no different. He is every father: longing for the love of his wife, the respect and idolisation of his children; and, crucially, the ability to have a drink, a laugh with his mates (notably best friend and next-door neighbour Trevor), watch a bit of sport, and enjoy a relaxed existence after clocking off from work each day.
Unfortunately, as in real life, it’s many of these desires that bring him into direct conflict with the world around him, leading – if not to humiliation as such – then certainly to his great frustration, with great comic pay-off for viewers. For this is sitcom-land, with unpredictable bosses, irascible neighbours, highly-strung wives, flitty offspring, and more than a few stern-faced policemen ready to bring our hero down a peg or two.
Over the course of 65 episodes (and that feature film, often cited as one of the greatest of all sitcom-to-movie adaptations), we delight in such weekly adventures. There are all the hallmarks of daily life explored in a predictably heightened sitcom fashion; a release-valve for viewers across the land, laughing at the all-too-recognisable frustrations of daily life, dialled up to eleven.
Yes, there are many depictions of both literal and metaphorical father figures in the annals of British television sitcom, but in Bless This House, and in the constantly bewildered Sidney Abbott, we probably have the very best. So raise a cheer for your own old man this Father’s Day, because it could be worse: you could have this family’s luck.