Britain has given the world so much over the years: apologising during sex, shouting at foreigners in their own countries, and teeth bad enough to put every orthodontist’s children through college for eternity. But Britain has also has a reputation for its production of high-quality comedy, which is unsurprising to anyone who actually has to live here. As such, it’s easy for certain programmes to slip under the radar, especially when said radar becomes congested with the likes of Miranda and Mrs. Brown’s Boys, both of which are the comedic equivalent of athletes’ foot. Or rickets.
Here are ten underrated British comedy shows from this odd little country that prove that we’re more than a nation of pie-eating, French-hating pig farmers with pictures of the Queen in our toilets. Or loos, as we call them.
1. A Touch of Cloth
There was a time when the sure-fire way to make sure a TV comedy gained almost no viewers or popularity whatsoever was to put it on Sky. Such was the fate of the beautifully named cop drama parody pun fest A Touch of Cloth, Charlie Brooker (yes, from Black Mirror) and David Maier’s answer to the better-known American spoof Police Squad! with Leslie Nielsen.
With a cast split between police procedural specialists such as John Hannah and Suzanne Jones, and sitcom heavyweights like Julian Rhind-Tutt, A Touch Of Cloth mercilessly tore apart the tropes of the genre thanks to a well-observed script and some exquisite comic turns, especially from Hannah himself as the Eponymous D.I. Jack Cloth, the archetypal ‘broken-man’ of the cop show format.
Immensely silly without becoming insufferably stupid, affectionate without being self-indulgent, ATOC provided the antidote to TV’s unending stream of grey-laden police procedurals and still makes me laugh more than almost anything else around. Although it’s now absurdly obscure, the box set is still available and worth checking out, containing all three seasons of a show gone before it could ever truly be missed.
2. Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe
Charlie Brooker’s second appearance on this list could hardly be more different to his first. Before Black Mirror or indeed ATOC, Brooker wrote and presented the cult hit Screenwipe on BBC Four as a spiritual continuation of his old newspaper column Screenburn. It’s a low-budget mishmash of a show, featuring reviews and critiques of contemporary programmes and adverts, as well as insider insights into how TV operates and why, usually, it’s ruining your existence, all delivered with caustic wit from Charlie’s murky living room sofa.
The references and recommendations for shows from the mid-2000s are of course now outdated, but it hardly diminishes the pleasure of Brooker’s acerbic commentaries and cutting turn of phrase, and there’s certainly no limit to the number of times I can hear ‘Terrahawk’ used as an insult without spitting out my beverage.
There have been multiple iterations and spin-offs over the years, including Newswipe, one-off special Gameswipe and Weekly Wipe, as well as an Antiviral Wipe special in 2020 in response to the recent pandemic. They’re all great in their own ways (although Newswipe will become increasingly dated), but Screenwipe stands alone as one of the funniest and most underappreciated British shows of the Noughties.
3. Danger 50,000 Volts
This is a bit of a curveball, I admit. Danger 50,000 Volts doesn’t quite sit so comfortably as some of the other inclusions on this list by virtue of the fact that it isn’t in itself a comedy, but rather a genuine survival show with a darkly comic edge rather than a mere genre parody.
The Channel 5 show was cheerfully presented by the ever-likeable Nick Frost, but the scenarios and advice given were always sincere and completely factual, meaning that you actually ended up learning genuinely useful information such as how to survive a kidnapping, how to navigate a minefield and what to do if caught in a lightning storm. It’s a great show because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, never trivialising the dangers it portrays but poking just enough fun to find some black humour from some very tricky situations. Danger 50,000 Volts doesn’t laugh in the face of danger, but it certainly struggles to disguise a wry smile.
The best episode is undoubtedly one-off special Danger 50,000 Zombies, which saw Frost team up with old mate Simon Pegg, AKA Dr. Russell Fell, acting as a guide to dealing with the undead. It’s always nice to learn how to deliver a baby or survive the forces of nature, but it’s also great to see two pals dick around pretending to give sage advice on how to murder reanimated corpses. And in all honesty, the way things have been going over the past few years, learning to survive a zombie apocalypse doesn’t seem altogether so ridiculous anyway.
4. 15 Storeys High
15 Storeys High was a British sitcom which ran on the BBC, first as a radio comedy on BBC Radio 4 and later as a fully-fledged TV show, following the life of Sean Lock’s semi-autobiographical lead Vince, a moody and reclusive man irked by everyday life and his chirpy if naïve flatmate Errol, the MCU’S very own Benedict Wong.
The show was a small, low-key affair adept at finding humour in the mundane idiosyncrasies of life in a South London tower block through sharp portraits of its inhabitants. Yes, it’s dark and often surreal to watch, but peppered with enough genuine wit and spark to make its dreary environs feel alive and textured. It might take you a while to get into it, especially if you’re used to broader, zippier American shows, but give it enough time and 15 Storeys High will reward you richly.
It’s popped up on YouTube as of writing, although a DVD might be your best bet just to be safe. If you’re reading this and you were born post-2000, a DVD is something your grandparents used before they discovered Netflix. And fire.
5. Look Around You
Before Robert Popper went on to write the immensely popular sitcom Friday Night Dinner and before Peter Serafinowicz was The Tick, the two men worked together to create the eternal cult hit Look Around You for BBC Two.
Parodying the spectacularly clunky tone and eye-gougingly banal production values of 1980s educational schools’ programmes, it covered topics from Water to Music, Ghosts to The Brain in its own uniquely surreal style. Everything is pitch perfect, from the stilted dialogue of its awkward presenters to its arbitrary locations and murderously unsettling soundtrack, immersing viewers in a lie that becomes more convincing as the show wears on. ‘Facts’ such as the Beatles having a number one hit with ‘The Scarecrow Song’, or that water has a boiling point of 1000 degrees, can often go unnoticed, whilst gags such as the paradoxically named ‘St. Heathen’s Grammar School’ in Grantham can easily slip under the radar on first viewing.
Particular fun can be had in watching science experiments unfold with almost no logical purpose, arbitrary quizzes which test completely unknowable information, and a colony of well-trained ants inexplicably building an igloo using tiny blocks of ice. Meticulously well-observed and eerily familiar to anyone who went through the British school system even now, it’s a startling achievement to find humour and warmth from such unfathomably soggy and banal kindling.
6. Matt Berry Does…
Matt Berry Does… is testament to the idea that good comedy is as much down to performance and delivery as it is a result of its writing and production.
Spawning originally from a collaboration with Bob Mortimer called ‘Lone Wolf’, which saw Berry providing a parody of nature documentaries as he commentated over footage of wolves hunting for deer, it was soon taken up by the BBC to provide a sketch for a series of love-themed programmes during the Valentine’s period on iPlayer, leading to a ‘sequel’, Wild Love, another nature doc spoof complete with dancing birds, boxing kangaroos, and golden frog threesomes.
Sporadic follow-ups ensued, covering subjects ranging from Halloween to Father’s Day, always reverting back, in gloriously arbitrary style, to the same format of Berry talking over random footage from nature documentaries. The origins of Father’s Day are explained through the social behaviours of drunk and belligerent monkeys, for example. Very silly and almost endlessly quotable, you can find most of the instalments on YouTube. For now, at least.
Sirens was pretty much the definition of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ television. Only airing for a single season in 2011, Channel 4 managed to tuck it away so successfully that I sometimes have to check my DVD cabinet to reassure myself that the show really existed at all.
Starring Rhys Thomas, Kayvan Novak (most familiar from Fonejacker and What we do in the Shadows) and the King in the North himself Richard Madden as three London-based paramedics, Sirens’ strengths were the unflinching honesty and realism it drew from its source material, real-life ambulance technician Brian Kelletts’ semi-autobiographical book Blood, Sweat & Tea. Sirens not only boasted a superb cast but a carefully crafted script which was as dark as it was funny, focusing heavily on strong, empathetic characters and effective human drama.
The real tragedy of Sirens is that the show clearly had so much potential which would ultimately go unfulfilled, as it was a show rooted in exploration of character rather than exploiting generic comedic tropes. The Sirens crew were predictably dysfunctional, but presented in such a way that the audience could empathise with their flaws rather than merely snigger at their failings. If nothing else, it will certainly give you a renewed respect for your local ambulance service.
Channel 4 dumped the show after six episodes, presumably so they’d be able to expend more of their energy into making Katherine Ryan a household name.
8. Snuff Box
It’s hard to describe what Snuff Box is, let alone why you should invest any time into watching it. Spawned from the creative partnership of Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher after the two met whilst working on the more well-known The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box is a part-sitcom-part-sketch-show melange of surreal, slightly dark humour loosely plotted around a set of trivial circumstances.
Set predominantly at the pair’s gentleman’s club for hangmen, it’s a lowkey exhibition of two immensely talented comedy performers more than anything. Although it never gained The Boosh’s immense popularity, Snuff Box has built a steady cult following over the years and remains well worth checking out, especially as the show’s sketch-like nature has made it easy to dig out choice skits and scenes on places like YouTube.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially if you’re coming to it off the back of watching the sitcom which ‘spawned’ it, but it will likely satisfy those Mighty Boosh fans who weren’t 14-year-old girls who wore fingerless gloves and dyed their hair purple.
9. The Adam and Joe Show
It’s strangely refreshing when a show comes along almost with the express intention of one day looking dated, operating as a time capsule which reflected its own peculiar era. When the Adam and Joe Show enjoyed a run from 1996 to 2001 on Channel 4, Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish seemed to revel in the odd cultural quirks of their age in a show which involved loosely knitting together vaguely topical sketches, parodies and street skits with links performed by the duo from their modest ‘bedsit’.
The show was a warped tribute to its age, the final word on the decade as the 90s gave way to the noughties and ushered in a new era of Millennium Bugs and Aviator shades. The show often derived its strength from its genuinely home-made production values which belied a scathing and decidedly acerbic view of contemporary pop culture. The generically-titled segment People Place, for instance, whereby vapid presenters offer the most basic of insights into the mundanity of daily life through sloppily edited on-location interviews, encapsulated everything wrong with British daytime television.
The startlingly short ending credits typify a programme untainted by external interference from network executives and unburned by worries of fulfilling quota-based demographics or key audiences figures. The Adam and Joe Show was precisely what it promised to be – the product of two men’s collective imagination. And it did stop-motion sketches involving toys and dolls nearly ten years before Robot Chicken.
Starring Lucy Punch and Toby Stephens, Vexed was a classic comedy-drama police procedural in the same vein as shows such as Jonathan Creek or Death in Paradise, focusing more heavily on the comedy but still gentle and cosy in the way that only the British seem to be when it comes to investigating murders on TV. We’re just very accustomed to murder, I suppose.
It’s not a particularly revolutionary dynamic between the pair, coupling Punch’s highly strung, occasionally chaotic DI Kate Bishop with Stephens laid-back, arrogant but ultimately lovable DI Jack Armstrong, but good comedy is almost always built on such familiar tropes, and it works smoothly thanks to the fact that both performers seem to be relishing the sparky chemistry of such a fine script. Season 1 is the place you want to be, as Season 2 saw the departure of Punch to be replaced by Miranda Raison as competent, highly motivated DI Georgina Dixon – sad to say, the show never quite rediscovered its spark and didn’t return for a third outing.
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