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!

 
'This Made Me Laugh' films

'This Made Me Laugh' films

The Barbican has invited eight stars from the world of comedy to select their favourite classic comedy films. Read

ITV's Play To The Whistle

ITV's Play To The Whistle

Holly Willoughby has signed up to present Play To The Whistle, a sports-based comedy panel show for ITV. Read

Ray Peacock: taboo comedy

Ray Peacock: taboo comedy

Ray Peacock explains why he has decided to open up about his suicide attempt in his latest stand-up show. Read

Dad's Army only just made

Dad's Army only just made

A speech by TV executive Huw Wheldon revealed that the BBC nearly didn't make the Dad's Army series. Read

Lemon is Back To The Future

Lemon is Back To The Future

Keith Lemon is to star in a one-off special on ITV2 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Back To The Future film. Read

Charlie Brooker special

Charlie Brooker special

Charlie Brooker will return to BBC Two in the run-up to the Election with a new hour-long Wipe special. Read

Graham Fellows interview

Graham Fellows interview

Graham Fellows will celebrate his 30th year as John Shuttleworth with a big gig - but could it be his last hurrah? Read

Russell Howard's new show

Russell Howard's new show

Russell Howard's Stand Up Central, which launches in April, will feature guests including Joe Wilkinson. Read

Frankie Boyle's new show

Frankie Boyle's new show

Frankie Boyle will follow his 2014 Scottish independence referendum special with a new iPlayer election show. Read

Doc Martin Series 7 filming

Doc Martin Series 7 filming

Martin Clunes and the rest of the Doc Martin cast are now in Cornwall to film Series 7 of the hit ITV show. Read

Laura Aikman interview

Laura Aikman interview

Laura Aikman talks about joining the cast of Bluestone 42, and how she was 'liquid sweat' filming the show. Read

ITV2 orders Plebs Series 3

ITV2 orders Plebs Series 3

ITV2 has ordered more Plebs, the Ancient Rome sitcom starring Tom Rosenthal, Joel Fry and Ryan Sampson. Read

Nathan Caton interview

Nathan Caton interview

Stand-up comedian Nathan Caton talks to us about various topics, including his ideal comedians football squad. Read

Jack Dee's Help Desk on TV

Jack Dee's Help Desk on TV

BBC Two has ordered Jack Dee's Help Desk, a series starring Jack Dee and a panel of comedians. Read

Michael McIntyre new shows

Michael McIntyre new shows

Michael McIntyre is working on two new series for BBC One, however his chat show format won't return to TV. Read

Images from '50 Comics'

Images from '50 Comics'

Check out some striking pictures from photographer Matt Crockett's book of comedian portraits, 50 Comics. View

Milton Jones interview

Milton Jones interview

Milton Jones talks about big hair, bad shirts, Mock The Week, his mammoth 2015 tour and other topics too: Read

Harry & Paul win RTS Awards

Harry & Paul win RTS Awards

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse have won two gongs at the Royal Television Society Awards. Read

Jeremy Clarkson HIGNFY

Jeremy Clarkson HIGNFY

Jeremy Clarkson is still currently booked to act as a presenter on the next series of Have I Got News For You. Read

Rik Mayall - legend award

Rik Mayall - legend award

Rik Mayall has been named as the recipient of the Leicester Comedy Festival 'Legend Of Comedy' award. Read

Harry & Paul to tour

Harry & Paul to tour

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse are planning their first ever live tour together - Harry & Paul: Legends. Read

Prof Branestawm to return

Prof Branestawm to return

Harry Hill will return as eccentric inventor Professor Branestawm for another one-off BBC special this Christmas. Read

Chortle Award winners

Chortle Award winners

Bridget Christie and James Acaster are amongst the winners at the 2015 Chortle Awards. Full results here: Read

Ben Miller's science show

Ben Miller's science show

Ben Miller, Romesh Ranganathan and Rachel Riley will front the pilot of ITV science show Out Of This World. Read

The Week That Wasn't pilot

The Week That Wasn't pilot

Jolyon Rubinstein and Heydon Prowse will host the pilot episode of The Week That Wasn't, a new topical format. Read

Raised By Wolves interview

Raised By Wolves interview

Sisters Caitlin Moran and Caroline Moran talk about creating Raised By Wolves, their Channel 4 sitcom. Interview

Learn improv in London

Learn improv in London

A group of established comedians have set up a new theatre company and school - one devoted entirely to improv. Read

Enter Amused Moose comp

Enter Amused Moose comp

Entry is now open for the 2015 Amused Moose Laugh Off, a stand-up comedy competition for new acts. Read

Stewart Lee discusses axe

Stewart Lee discusses axe

Stewart Lee has talked about the axing of his Comedy Central show, The Alternative Comedy Experience. Read