Classic British Sitcoms: Would They Make Good Movies?

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With the announcement that a feature-length Dad’s Army reboot may actually be going ahead, Empire got to reminiscing about some of the other ’70s British sitcoms gathering dust. In fact, a lot of them got a big-screen makeover back when they were on TV. Do they hold up today? In some cases! And would any of them benefit from being polished, re-cast, and dragged into cinemas? Perhaps! Read on for a trip down memory lane – or, for non-Brits, a whistlestop tour of some of our greatest cultural exports since Shakespeare.

What was it about?
A group of soldiers in a Royal Artillery Concert Party, stationed in India and Burma, enjoy their cushy theatrical posting, but are overseen by the tough and angry Battery Sergeant Major Williams (Windsor Davies). He tries in vain to toughen them up and make them better soldiers, while the crew get into various scrapes with the enemy.

Was it any good?
It wasn’t too bad – it ran for eight series, and was written by the Dad’s Army duo of Jimmy Perry and David Croft – but it makes for uncomfortable viewing today. Davies in particular plays a pretty angry and bigoted character, prone to berating his soldiers as "poofs". It also features Michael Bates playing the Indian bearer Rangi Ram, which has proved controversial since it was first broadcast (though he was born in India). That may be why it isn't repeated on Saturday afternoons like Dad’s Army has been...

Best bit?
Ignoring Williams’ repeated fey impressions of Gunner "Lah-de-Dah" Graham, one great moment was Windsor Davies trying to get an elephant to step in a noose – the animal proves to be an improv expert:

Was it made into a film?
Nope. Although Privates On Parade is pretty similar.

Worth remaking?
Get rid of the blackface and some of the more dated slurs, and it could work surprisingly well. Gary Oldman would be a good Battery Sergeant Major Williams (he certainly has the spittle for it) and Werner Herzog could bring the sweaty realism of Rescue Dawn as director. Either him or Michael Cimino.

What was it about?
The accident prone and distinctively voiced Frank Spencer (Michael Crawford) goes about his daily life, infuriating most people he meets, all the while remaining happily married to Betty (Michele Dotrice).

Was it any good?
It depends if you take to Crawford’s "Ooh Betty" voice, as well as how impressed you are by stuntwork and pratfalls. Famously, Crawford did the stunts himself, and in an age of wirework and CGI, those make for some impressive moments. Still, this was certainly popular in its day, running for three series and three Christmas specials.

Best bit?
The first ever episode – The Job Interview – is a good primer, but if you’re after some stunt work, Frank’s rollerskating is the way to go:

Was it made into a film?
Nope: three Christmas specials, but no film. Condorman doesn't count.

Worth remaking?
Cast a good Frank and it could work. Michael Crawford’s still going strong, although given he’s in his 70s those stunts may be a bit tricky today. Alternatively, Russell Brand or – a left field choice, this – Alan Tudyk could pull it off. Oh, and Hayley Atwell would be great as the long-suffering Betty.

What was it about?
Buses. And the people on them. More specifically, it followed bus driver Stan (Reg Varney) and the conductor, Jack, (Bob Grant) on various adventures, often involving the laydeez. Inspector Blake – or "Blakey" – (Stephen Lewis) is their superior, and is constantly trying to rein them in.

Was it any good?
No. Honestly. It was popular with audiences (despite having been rejected by the BBC), but not with critics, and time has not been kind. There is a black character (Glen Whitter), but he’s called Chalky.

Best bit?
The episode where Blakey tries to ban smoking in the workplace – demonstrating his villainy – is a pleasingly dated time capsule, if you can ignore the sexism and occasional creepiness:

Was it made into a film?
Oh God yes. Films plural, in fact: On The Buses, Mutiny On The Buses and Holiday On The Buses. This epic trilogy casts a long shadow over big screen adaptations of British comedies, providing a yardstick of how not to do it. Armando Iannucci holds them in particularly low esteem, saying of Alpha Papa, "We didn’t want it to be the equivalent of Holiday On The Buses," and of In The Loop, "When I was making the film, I was thinking On The Buses Go To Portugal, or whatever, and it’s always shit."

Worth remaking?
They tried in 1990, with Back On The Buses, but it never got made. This is widely considered a good thing.

What was it about?
A white working class couple, Eddie (Jack Smethurst) and Joan (Kate Williams), try to come to terms with the fact that their neighbours happen to be a black couple, Bill (Rudolph Walker) and Barbie (Nina Baden-Semper). Er, that’s it.

Was it any good?
It’s difficult to assess quality amidst all the controversy: the show has become justly notorious as a non-PC, pretty insensitive and mercifully dated take on race relations. There really is a lot of racism in there. It's worth noting, though, that whenever Bill and Eddie spar with each other, Eddie’s ignorance is usually exposed in some way. Still, put all that aside and you’ll find the jokes themselves are pretty dated too.

Best bit?
Wasn’t that theme tune nice?

Was it made into a film?
...yes. It includes a moment when Bill pretends to become a "native" and puts Eddie into a pot with vegetables, for a cannibal cook-up. Let’s move on, shall we?

Worth remaking?
Weren't we moving on? Fine: no, don’t try and remake this. Oh, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Tyler Perry’s US TV show of the same name.

What was it about?
This is the story of miserable landlord Rigsby (Leonard Rossiter) and his often fractious relationship with his tenants: the glamorous Miss Jones (Frances de la Tour), the right-on youth Alan (Richard Beckinsale), and the intelligent Philip (Don Warrington). Philip, by the way, is black, much to Rigsby’s discomfort. The more memorable plots revolve around Rigsby desperately trying to woo Miss Jones.

Was it any good?
Yes. The race relations are a lot less uncomfortable than in Love Thy Neighbour, with far fewer laughs coming from the racial epithets. Instead, Rigsby is almost always the butt of the joke. In every scene, Leonard Rossiter proves a gurning, sniveling triumph.

Best bit?
Rigsby's flailing – and weirdly sweet – attempt to propose to Miss Jones:

Was it made into a film?
Yes, successfully! Although it recycled a fair few of the TV version’s storylines, it worked on the big screen remarkably well. It's also worth watching for Leonard Rossiter’s extraordinary outfit when he takes Miss Jones on a date: a pink shirt unbuttoned to his navel and a tasteful gold medallion.

Worth remaking?
It could work well, especially given the contemporary political debate about private landlords. Julianne Moore or Olivia Colman could make great Miss Joneses, but the hallowed role of Rigsby should undoubtedly go straight to Ralph Fiennes. Or at the very least to Peter Serafinowicz impersonating Ralph Fiennes.

What was it about?
It was set in a department store, and followed the interactions between the motley crew of staff and their varied customers. Overseeing the staff was Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton).

Was it any good?
Sure – at least if jokes about an old woman’s pussy are your cup of tea. This one was co-written by David Croft, who also co-wrote Dad’s Army, and ran for an impressive 13 years. At its height, it was pulling in 22 million viewers.

Best bit?
Pretty much every time Mrs Slocombe refers to her "pussy", and John Inman does his best pout in response:

Was it made into a film?
Yup, in 1977. Unfortunately, it went down the route of Holiday On The Buses and Carry On Abroad, sending its cast off to "Costa Plonka" in Spain. It includes gunfights, tanks and much pussy punnery. It’s also terrible. Incidentally, there was an Australian version of the TV show (not in film form), and it's also also terrible. It even features some cast from the original version, which somehow makes it worse. The theme tune is truly awful. No, really.

Worth remaking?
They already did, with Grace & Favour in the early 1990s. It’s a bit rubbish. That said, what with the modern decline of the high street, there’s the possibility of a vaguely high-stakes plot where the staff rally together to save their shop. Meryl Streep would make a brilliant Mrs Slocombe, and although John Inman’s camp-to-the-max Mr Humphries might require a bit of updating, Michael Sheen would make a great sparring partner.

What was it about?
Now largely familiar for its infuriatingly catchy theme tune, the series followed the titular suburban couple (played by, er, Terry Scott and June Whitfield) as they go about their daily lives. Terry is cocksure but fairly useless, and June rolls her eyes a lot.

Was it any good?
Not great... The theme tune is pretty much the best bit.

Best bit?
Did we mention the theme tune? And Terry falls over! Hilarious.

Was it made into a film?
No, although there were a fair few Christmas specials endured by families nationwide.

Worth remaking?
No. Please, no. June Whitfield deserves better.

What was it about?
This focuses on some old men pottering around the Yorkshire hills, getting into scrapes and generally failing to act their age. It also features their long-suffering wives.

Was it any good?
Well it certainly ran for a long time – nearly 40 years, and 31 series – and the Queen was apparently quite the fan. It’s never exactly been cutting edge comedy, but it had a certain harmless charm, particularly if you find baths going down hills hilarious.

Best bit?
A bath going down a hill:

This led to Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer launching Three Blokes In A Bath.

Was it made into a film?
Kind of: there were two made-for-TV films: Getting Sam Home in 1983 and Uncle Of The Bride in 1986. But they’re not proper films, really. If you're only after the lilting Yorkshire tones, just stick on Wallace And Gromit to see a vehicle worthy of Peter Sallis' delightful voice.

Worth remaking?
Probably not, since it only ended in 2010. There have also been spin-offs attempted in the past (including – and we’re not kidding here – First Of The Summer Wine), and they haven’t generally ended well. Unless ordered by royal decree, it’s probably best to leave this one alone.

What was it about?
Two inmates – Norman Stanley Fletcher (Ronnie Barker) and Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale) – while away their time at Slade prison. Mr MacKay (Fulton MacKay) is a prison officer forever trying to catch Fletcher committing misdeeds, while his deputy, Mr Barrowclough (Brian Wilde) is far more timid and nice.

Was it any good?
Absolutely. Aside from The Two Ronnies, this marked the undisputed high point in Ronnie Barker’s career. It was also extremely popular within British prisons, particularly for the antagonistic relationship between Fletcher and Mr MacKay. It’s also said to have popularised the word "naff" as a verb.

Best bit?
Fletcher is subjected to a medical exam:

Was it made into a film?
Yes indeed. Known as Doing Time in the US, it was made by the same team as the TV show, and thankfully had an original plot. It’s pretty good, and is guaranteed a small place in cinematic history as it marks Richard Beckinsale’s last appearance on film.

Worth remaking?
Could be. Despite the poorly received TV sequel, Going Straight, Norman Stanley Fletcher returned in 2003 with a mockumentary, Life Beyond The Box. It wasn’t great either. It’s still a good concept, especially if, say, Dexter Fletcher took up the main role.

What was it about?
A father, Albert (Wilfrid Brambell), and son, Harold (Harry H. Corbett) together operate a rag-and-bone business in west London. They’re constantly fighting and bickering amongst themselves, and it frequently gets pretty bitter. Legend has it, this was increasingly reflected in the actors’ offscreen relationship.

Was it any good?
Yes: dark, twisted and quite depressing, this was revolutionary stuff in the late '60s and early '70s. The comedy mostly did away with Carry On innuendo and slapstick humour, choosing instead a more realistic depiction of this impoverished duo. Corbett’s slurring Harold is desperate and miserable in the best way possible. Plus it’s funny!

Best bit?
The episode where Harold decides to build a barrier across the house remains a fan favourite, and for good reason:

Here we finally see Harold boil over, telling his dad more verbosely than ever exactly how he feels: "You frustrate me in everything I try and do. You are a dyed-in-the-wool, fascist, reactionary, squalid little know-your-place, don’t-rise-above-yourself, don’t-get-out-of-your-hole, complacent little turd!"

Was it made into a film?
Not once, but twice: Steptoe And Son (1972) and Steptoe And Son Ride Again (1973). They were good, too. In the first installment, Harold gets married, only to have his father ruin his happy honeymoon and land him back at the rag-and-bone shop. In the second, Albert appears to have died, and farcical consequences ensue.

Worth remaking?
It’s an evergreen concept, it would seem: not only has it been remade abroad (as Sanford And Son in the US, for instance), but it’s also found new life onstage in recent years. In addition, BBC4’s The Curse Of Steptoe demonstrated that the right actors could do Corbett and Brambell proud (although it proved controversial in its facts, and the DVD has since been withdrawn). The role of Harold Steptoe should be officially reserved for Jason Isaacs henceforth.

What was it about?
This follows miserly grocer Arkwright (Ronnie Barker) and his nephew-cum-delivery boy, Granville (David Jason), as they deal with customers, including Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Barron). It was gentle stuff.

Was it any good?
As we said, gentle stuff. It certainly didn’t have any of the bite, grit or wit of Barker’s other sitcom, Porridge – the main joke revolved around Arkwright’s persistent stammer – but it had a certain charm.

Best bit?
The episode where Arkwright feigns a disease in order to attract the attention of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel is quite sweet:

It’s got Ronnie Barker doing his best stammering and David Jason falling over – what more could you want?

Was it made into a film?
No. And it’s a bit difficult to see how the corner shop could be made in any way cinematic...

Worth remaking?
Way ahead of you. Last Christmas, the BBC broadcast a one-off special, Still Open All Hours, with David Jason’s Granville taking over the shop. The whimsical humour went down well, and the BBC have commissioned a full six-part series for later this year.

What was it about?
Really? Alright. Set in a Torquay hotel, it follows an irate, highly strung hotel manager with delusions of grandeur, Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), and his unimpressed wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) as they try to keep their business thriving. Useless Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) and regular maid Polly (Connie Booth) round out the cast. In most of the twelve episodes, Basil ends up becoming blindingly furious at some poor, blameless soul.

Was it any good?
Considering it’s often held up as the best British – nay, best – sitcom of all time, you could say it’s good. Cleese co-wrote all twelve episodes with Booth (his wife at the time of the first series), and each half hour is honed to perfection. Even the continually wobbly sets are charming.

Best bit?
Many would go for the Germans episode, goose-stepping and all, but a better example of the show’s quick wit can be found when Basil has to deal with the semi-deaf Mrs Richards:

Was it made into a film?
No, but Cleese has admitted he was tempted. He even had a concept: "I thought what would be really funny was if Basil and Sybil got on a plane and went to visit Manuel who has set up his own place – Basil would be terribly funny if a plane was hijacked. He would become so furious, and would probably overcome the hijack. He would be a total hero, and then of course they’d have to bring the plane back to Heathrow, which would make him even more angry, and he would then hijack the plane and force the pilot to fly to Spain and be arrested on arrival and forced to spend the entire holiday in a Spanish jail."

Worth remaking?
Given that its brief twelve episode run is frequently cited as a perfect example of bowing out when on top, a remake is emphatically not a good idea. Still, if we had to (and we don't, so don't start getting any ideas), Darren Boyd makes a decent John Cleese.

What was it about?
A suburban couple (there seem to be a lot of them in this list) Tom (Richard Briers) and Barbara (Felicity Kendal) decide to pack in the rat race and become self-sufficient in Surbiton, with pigs and everything. This doesn’t sit well with their rather more well-to-do neighbours Margot (Penelope Keith) and Jerry (Paul Eddington).

Was it any good?
Yes. It was gentle but witty, and had that rare thing in sitcoms: a believable, loving marriage between two nice people. There was none of the animosity and bitterness of Basil and Sybil here. Watching it is like having a warm hug from someone in a big hand-knitted jumper, sitting by an Aga.

Best bit?
At Christmas, the two couples let their hair down somewhat, and a few nascent romantic attractions bubble up. But not before they’ve exchanged paper hats and jokes…

Was it made into a film?
Sadly not. We would’ve been happy to see this take the place of On The Buses any day.

Worth remaking?
Sure – what concept could be more topical for our financially straightened times? It could also be about sustainability and green energy, or something. Plus Emilia Clarke would make a fantastic Barbara (although Felicity Kendall still looks great, and could probably pick up the role tomorrow), and Arthur Darvill would be a delightful Tom.