A look at sci-fi and fantasy in British comedy

Ian Wolf
Ian Wolf
February 2013

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Lister (Craig Charles), Cat (Danny John-Jules), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn). Image credit: UKTV.On the 15th February 1988 Red Dwarf appeared on television screens for the first time. The comedy is now celebrating its silver anniversary and thus it seems a good time for Ian Wolf to take a brief look at the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy within British comedy programming...

Many people have their own theories as to how comedy works. I tend to think that most of it works best at the extreme ends. For example, take profanity. At the one end, you can be absolutely clean and not swear at all (Harry Hill, Tim Vine) or you can be thoroughly filthy (Derek & Clive, Frankie Boyle). Let us take another possible subject: realism. At one end of the scale, you can be incredibly realistic about your subject - a gritty sitcom for example. At the other end of the scale you'll find the completely surreal and the realms of make-believe... including science fiction and fantasy. This is the area this article will focus on.

Science fiction and fantasy comedy are somewhat oddballs in terms of their place in British humour, in that the most critically respected works tend to come from the printed word. In fantasy, there are the Discworld novels of Sir Terry Pratchett. In sci-fi, the most highly regarded is probably Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Starting life as a radio show, its world was soon novelised, expanded and popularised in a series of best-selling books before returning to radio. To date, six books have been published, a television adaptation, numerous radio series broadcast, a film, countless items of merchandise and burgeoning cult fan followings worldwide. There's even Towel Day to celebrate the author's life.

Whilst H2G2 began on the radio, television has also proved a successful medium. We today celebrate 25 years of Red Dwarf, undoubtedly British TV's single most successful sci-fi comedy. Originally pitched as "Steptoe And Son in space", the theme and setting give it a host of classic sitcom ingredients, notably the confinement of the spaceship and the characters' ultimate predicament. Yet the inventiveness of sci-fi allows the characters to be taken out of their comfort zone for adventures within the wider 'world' established by the writers - for example, visiting a planet where time is experienced in the reverse (including the act of relieving oneself).

Red Dwarf. Image shows from L to R: Lister (Craig Charles), Rimmer (Chris Barrie), Cat (Danny John-Jules), Kryten (Robert Llewellyn). Image credit: Grant Naylor Productions.Indeed, the 1990s - the height of Red Dwarf's popularity - saw plenty of other fantasy and science fiction comedies broadcast on television alone.

Long-running hit Goodnight Sweetheart had Nicholas Lyndhurst's principal character travelling back and forth through time; So Haunt Me featured a Jewish ghost haunting a north London family; whilst the titlular Mulberry, played by Brush Strokes heart-throb Karl Howman, was none other than the son of the Grim Reaper himself.

Meanwhile, long-running domestic comedy 2point4 Children, whilst largely real world-based and often derided as a simple family sitcom, was in fact jam-packed with dark, supernatural elements; and the 2000s saw a successful six series of superhero sitcom My Hero going out in prime-time.

Radio, however, is still the most successful medium for both fantasy and science fiction. There are many reasons why this is. Perhaps the most obvious is the lack of budgetary constraint on production. A writer can create any setting he or she wishes, be it a spaceship, an alien planet or a parallel universe, with mere descriptive words and the odd sound effect - no expensive scenery! And, quite simply, there is no issue of struggling to achieve suitable, believably futuristic set design as, to use that old cliché, 'the images are better in your imagination'.

An early success for sci-fi on the airwaves was back in the 1950s. The Goon Show performed their own comic version of George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, entitled 1985, in which the country was run by the totalitarian Big Brother Corporation or, as we know it, the BBC.

Old Harry's Game. Image shows from L to R: Satan (Andy Hamilton), Gary (Steven O'Donnell). Image credit: British Broadcasting Corporation.H2G2 may be one of the most famous audio sci-fi/fantasy comedies, but there are plenty of other very successful examples in both genres on the airwaves. For example, one branch of fantasy is 'Bangsian'; stories set partly or wholly in the afterlife. The most successful British Bangsian comedy is Radio 4's Old Harry's Game (pictured). Primarily set in Hell, the sitcom is written by and stars Andy Hamilton as Satan. It began life in 1995 and has so far broadcast seven series and several specials (the most recent during the 2012 Olympics), making it one of radio's longest running sitcoms. At the time of writing, repeats are available on iPlayer.

In recent years I have come across more audio sci-fi and fantasy radio comedies. Many of these come from BBC Radio 4 Extra, which has a special sci-fi slot called 'The 7th Dimension' (a title that was more witty back when the station was BBC Radio 7). Broadcast between 8pm and 9pm and again from midnight to 1am every day, most of the shows in this slot are dramas, but comedies are also repeated.

In the slot you can find repeats of shows including Undone, a comic drama set in a parallel version of London called Undone; Space Hacks, a sitcom about a pair of incompetent intergalactic journalists working on a space ship disguised as a hedge on Clapham Common; The Spaceship, about a team in the future trying to find alien life; and Revenge Of The Celebrity Mummies, a comedy horror set in the British Museum.

Soon after the original H2G2 radio series was broadcast, John Lloyd (the comedy producer, later creator of QI) and Andrew Marshall (creator of 2point4 Children) wrote a parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for Radio 4 entitled Hordes Of The Things. It lasted four episodes and was only released commercially in October 2009. Interestingly, Hordes Of The Things was broadcast three months before BBC Radio 4's own highly successful drama adaptation of the original Lord of the Rings.

Villainy is something the sci-fi and fantasy comedy genres do expertly. Let us look at two recent fantasies: ElvenQuest (Radio 4) and Krod Mandoon And The Flaming Sword Of Fire (BBC Two). One thing regularly expressed by the audiences of each programme is that the best characters in these shows are the villains and their sidekicks.

In ElvenQuest, there is Lord Darkness, played by Alistair McGowan, who is typically evil but at the same time over-relaxed and constantly thinking of more cunning plans rather than getting the job done. Meanwhile his assistant Kreech (Kevin Eldon) is much more violent.

Krod Mandoon And The Flaming Sword Of Fire. Image shows from L to R: Chancellor Dongalor (Matt Lucas), Barnabus (Alex Macqueen). Image credit: Hat Trick Productions.In Krod Mandoon (pictured), the villainous Chancellor Dongalor, played by Matt Lucas, kills people on a whim, with his grovelling assistant Barnabus (Alex MacQueen) un-happily going along with his every command. Some say Dongalor and Barnabus were the only good things in this latter show.

Different dynamics, but both very funny sets of characters that are able to be heightened, outside of the constraints of reality. Mind you, the fact that villains are often the best thing in such comedies is perhaps not surprising. Many of the great sitcom characters are people who are hardly pleasant. Look at Edmund Blackadder, Basil Fawlty, Alan Partridge, Bernard Black and Arnold Rimmer, to name but a few.

Sci-fi, of course, is not a genre that appeals to all. Nor indeed is fantasy; and for some reason the former appears easier to mock than the latter. Harry Venning from The Stage has perhaps hit on the reason: "What is the point in parodying the sword and sorcery genre when it is already mired in absurdity?"

Television is a harder medium for sci-fi and fantasy shows to work in. Executives seem to have fear of the genres, in no small part due to the cost of such shows' productions - a sitcom set around a family sofa is a lower-risk failure. However, a successful sci-fi programme can really pay great dividends if it works - just look at the seemingly endless merchandise related to Doctor Who, the longest-running sci-fi drama in the world. Similarly - but on a lesser scale - comedy offers us the cult behemoth that is Red Dwarf, now with 10 series under its belt and another expected to be announced this year.

It pays to be patient with sci-fi. Red Dwarf started with ratings of around 4 million back in 1988. This was rather at the time, before multi-channel television truly decimated audiences. However, the BBC stuck with it and the episode Gunmen Of The Apocalypse, which formed part of the fourth series, attracted more than 6 million viewers, picking up an International Emmy Award. Fast forward a bit, and the opening episode of Series VIII set a new BBC Two ratings record with 8 million viewers. It's a show that still works now. When Dave first revived the sitcom in 2009, the resultant Back To Earth specials attracted viewing figures the channel could scarcely have dreamed of before - the ratings graphs for the small repeats station shot up past 2 million.

Hyperdrive. Image shows from L to R: Diplomatic Officer Teal (Miranda Hart), Commander Henderson (Nick Frost), First Officer York (Kevin Eldon). Of course, not every show is given as many series as Red Dwarf to settle in before it's decided to cut the loss. Hyperdrive (pictured), the 2006 BBC Two sitcom starring Nick Frost, Kevin Eldon and a pre-fame Miranda Hart only survived two series before the axe fell, whilst the aforementioned Mulberry was cancelled because BBC bosses felt that one supernatural comedy at a time was enough - So Haunt Me was also broadcasting, but to larger audiences.

Killing a sci-fi comedy over a 'real world' one can be an easy move for commissioners - after all, if you've got to lose one show from the roster, the one sitting at the top of the costs table is the most vulnerable.

But whilst the costs and risks might be high, sci-fi and fantasy comedy will still be produced on TV from time to time. Misfits - the E4 comedy drama in which the characters have superpowers - is set to return for a further series later this year, despite not retaining a single member of the original cast.

Of course, sci-fi and fantasy are not confined and exclusive in themselves. The largely domestic 2point4 Children has already been noted, whilst Radio 4's recent much-loved Victorian spoof Bleak Expectations often breaks from the boundaries of normality (the programme has featured a flight into space, characters coming back from the dead and a tunnel made out of beef, amongst much else).

In fact, radio seems to be enjoying a little sci-fi revival of late. On top of ElvenQuest (Series 4 is on air now on Tuesdays), last year Radio 4 broadcast My First Planet, a sitcom set on a newly established space colony; and Radio 2 is now gearing up for a full series of Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, a comedy featuring an alien takeover of Earth. Even the internet is getting involved, with the first crowd-funded British sitcom named as A Brief History Of Time Travel.

There may not be an awful lot of sci-fi on television at the moment, but it seems that radio is still offering the goods. If you're a fan of fantasy or sci-fi comedy and wondering what its future holds, just remember two simple words - DON'T PANIC!

 
Bad Education Movie details

Bad Education Movie details

Sarah Solemani, Mathew Horne and Harry Enfield will all appear in The Bad Education Movie. Read

O2 Comedy Gala 2015

O2 Comedy Gala 2015

Channel 4 has confirmed a sixth year of its Comedy Gala fundraiser in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital. Read

Vic & Bob on tour

Vic & Bob on tour

Reeves & Mortimer will later this year with their Poignant Moments show, celebrating 25 years together. Read

Bad Education Movie is go

Bad Education Movie is go

Jack Whitehall has confirmed that his hit BBC Three sitcom Bad Education is heading to the big screen. Read

Funz And Gamez on TV

Funz And Gamez on TV

Funz And Gamez, the award-winning live comedy show hosted by Phil Ellis, is to be piloted as a TV show by the BBC. Read

BBC Scotland's 2015 shows

BBC Scotland's 2015 shows

BBC Scotland has unveiled its comedy plans for 2015. They include a full series for Two Doors Down. Read

RTS Awards nominations

RTS Awards nominations

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse lead the comedy-based nominations in the Royal Television Society Awards. Read

Top Coppers filming now

Top Coppers filming now

Production is underway on Top Coppers, a new BBC comedy series starring John Kearns and Steen Raskopoulos. Read

Matt Lucas interview

Matt Lucas interview

Matt Lucas talks about filming Pompidou, the visual comedy series for the BBC in which he plays an aristocrat. Read

Would I Lie To You? - S9

Would I Lie To You? - S9

Following strong ratings, the BBC has ordered 10 more episodes of its panel show Would I Lie To You?. Read

Do you run a funny blog?

Do you run a funny blog?

Do you write a funny blog, curate an amusing website or joke a lot on Twitter? If so, here's a competition: Read

Rare 1980s photo exhibition

Rare 1980s photo exhibition

Rare images of iconic 1980s British comedy stars are to be displayed at the Museum Of Comedy. Read

Russell Brand's podcast

Russell Brand's podcast

Russell Brand has announced he is to launch a new podcast. The Russell Brand Podcast will be a 24-part series. Read

Tom Little wins competition

Tom Little wins competition

Stand-up comedian Tom Little has won the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year 2015 competition. Read

I Live With Models interview

I Live With Models interview

The main cast members involved in new Comedy Central sitcom I Live With Models introduce themselves. Read

Getting fit pitfalls

Getting fit pitfalls

Tiffany Stevenson talks us through some of the bad things that occur when you sort out your health and fitness. Read

Rik Mayall snowman series

Rik Mayall snowman series

Radio 4 Extra is to mark Rik Mayall's birthday by broadcasting The Last Hurrah - Interview With The Snowman. Read

Idil Sukan photo exhibition

Idil Sukan photo exhibition

Take a look at some of the iconic photos of comedians that feature in photographer Idil Sukan's London exhibition. View

Margaret Thatcher podcast

Margaret Thatcher podcast

Check out our funny new satirical comedy podcast. It's hosted by our former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher! Listen

Craft of Comedy Conference

Craft of Comedy Conference

Llandudno in North Wales is hosting The Craft of Comedy Writing Conference on the 24th and 25th April 2015. Read

Old Comedian Of The Year

Old Comedian Of The Year

The Museum of Comedy has a competition for 'comics who've been around long enough to know better'. Read

Elis James interview

Elis James interview

Crims star Elis James talks about preparing to helm Centrepoint's next Laughing Stock gala. Read

Dick Emery at 100

Dick Emery at 100

On what would have been his 100th birthday, we look at the life and work of character comic Dick Emery. Read

Chortle Awards nominees

Chortle Awards nominees

The nominees for the 2015 Chortle Awards have been revealed, with Funz And Gamez leading the pack. Read

Mark Steel's In Town 6

Mark Steel's In Town 6

The sixth series of radio comedy Mark Steel's In Town will be recorded between March and May. Read

Basil Brush is now online

Basil Brush is now online

Classic children's TV character Basil Brush is moving online, with a 32-part sketch show broadcasting on YouTube. Read

Shaun The Sheep facts

Shaun The Sheep facts

Here's some interesting facts about Shaun The Sheep Movie. For example, there are 1589 'baa' sounds in the film. Read

Hunderby to return

Hunderby to return

Julia Davis's black comedy Hunderby is to return later this year to Sky Atlantic for a two-part special. Read

ITV2 orders Job Lot Series 3

ITV2 orders Job Lot Series 3

ITV2 sitcom The Job Lot, starring Russell Tovey and Sarah Hadland, will return for a third series. Read