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Comedy Culture Portfolio

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Jessica Leeman

on 18 May 2013

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Transcript of Comedy Culture Portfolio

Characters "On the surface, The Royle Family appeared to be humdrum and low on incident - but such ordinary appearances belie the fact that it was a groundbreaking work of exceptional comedy invention.
Writers Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne's knack of capturing every nuance of character and dialogue made the sitting room of the titular Royles a must-see for an ever-growing audience. Viewers simply dropped in to this Northern family's conversations and watched them channel-hop and discuss various everyday subjects.Family patriarch Jim Royle is master of his space - unafraid to rearrange his nether regions, pick his nose or fart, regardless of the company. Ricky Tomlinson embraces the part with gusto, making Jim's oft delivered "My arse" a national catchphrase.
Frequently boorish, always laughing at his own jokes, and intent on announcing his lavatorial visits to all and sundry, Tomlinson made Jim impossible to dislike.
Because of Jim's indolence, it is his hard-working wife Barbara (Sue Johnson, reuniting with her former Brookside husband) who is the main breadwinner. She is the only one who sticks up for their oft picked-upon youngest son Anthony who is obliged to do any errand or drudgery without complaint.
Their daughter Denise and her henpecked husband David are ensconced on the family sofa even when they have a house of their own, as is Barbara's morbid, storytelling mother Norma (known as Nana).
All the characters in this show just seemed so right. The laughs appeared to come effortlessly (although, ever the perfectionist, Aherne reportedly agonised over every syllable), and there was no contrivance or slapstick to be found anywhere.
The Royle Family mined comedy from the mundanity of life, and brimmed with affection for its characters. Although infused with occasional moments of sentimentality, it was unflinching - never afraid to portray its characters with all their flaws apparent.
If one scene could sum the show up, it would be that of Denise and Jim on the bathroom floor after her waters have broken. Juxtaposing earthy humour ("Are you sure it's not just a bloody big piss, love?") with heartfelt emotion (Tomlinson breaking down in tears as he describes the unassailable love he felt at Denise’s birth) it is raw, tender, funny and heartbreakingly real.
Semi-regular characters popped in and out of the Royles' living room: yin and yang neighbours Mary and Joe (she cheery, he dreary), Anthony's wayward best mate Darren, Anthony's "posh" (she’s from Altrincham) vegetarian girlfriend Emma, and Denise's plump friend Cheryl." Representations of Class in British Sitcoms The Royles Jim Royle - played by Ricky Tomlinson

Jim Royle, the patriarch, epitomises the stereotypical 'couch potato' and miser. The sardonic, idle, and complacent Jim spends his days (and nights) sat in his armchair, watching the television, and doing as little as possible. Jim's short temper results in frequent outbursts, often accompanied by his well-known catchphrase, "My arse!" Despite his often vulgar sense of humour, Jim is at times very understanding, especially when his family are experiencing times of trouble.

Barbara Royle - played by Sue Johnston

Barbara Royle's character is, in almost every way, the long-suffering wife. She lives for her family, though is often taken advantage of by her husband and daughter. Barbara is significantly more friendly, respectful, and down to earth than her husband of over 50 years. Barbara had a part-time job at a bakery, and for a while was the only member of the family to be employed, making her the family's main breadwinner. Thus, breaking down the popular stereotype of the 'housewife'.

Denise Best (née Royle) - played by writer Caroline Aherne

The lazy and obnoxious Denise is Jim and Barbara's only daughter. Denise and her husband have two children, however, she rarely parents them, instead passing duties on to everyone else.

Antony James Royle - played by Ralf Little

The Royle's youngest child, Antony is treated as a drudge by the family, often ordered to do menial tasks such as answering the door, making cups of tea, and babysitting Denise's children. Despite originally being unemployed with little prospects, it was revealed in a special episode in 2006 that Antony became a successful businessman, and no longer lives in Manchester.

David 'Dave' Best - played by writer Craig Cash

Denise's husband, Dave is generally quite unintelligent, however, he is a friendly and laid-back character. He is often Jim's partner-in-crime when Jim is arguing with Barbara or Denise. Most of the time Dave is taken advantage of by Denise, leaving him to look after their two children.

Norma Jean Speakman (Nana) - played by Liz Smith

Barbara's elderly mother, known as 'Nana' by most of the family, was very demanding and never really saw Jim eye-to-eye, despite her many hints to move in with the Royle's. When her health declined, Norma did move in with the family, and later died, aged 90, in a special episode. Feeling guilty for always feuding with Nana when she was alive, Jim decided in a mark of respect to put her ashes on top of the television, where she will always be remembered. When it comes to sitcoms, class seems to be a very highly considered subject. When creating a sitcom, you have to consider not just the representations of the class you are portraying, but also how that representation will be received by audiences. Over the last ten years, there has been a noticeable shift towards more middle class comedies. Sitcoms generally follow the consensus of Britain and what we consider to be British, thus, indicating that in the 2000s, the middle classes were a far more prominent target audience.

During the 1990s, family sitcoms predominantly focused on the working classes. Emerging in the late 1990s, The Royle Family represented the working class and their 'stereotypical traits'. This did not mean however, that the sitcom could only be enjoyed by those who are from a working class background. What The Royle Family did so well was portray the generic popular opinion of the 'British family unit'. The choice to forgo a live audience and canned laughter was an incredibly shrewd one. If it had been decided to film in front of an audience, or to include laughter over the narrative, it would have taken away any sense of realism and intimacy, and audiences would have related to the Royle's far less. "Very little actually happens in the show beyond the everyday rhythms of life: TV, dinner, cups of tea and the occasional marriage or birth. Instead of witty one-liners and funny plots, the jokes are those that people in a family would make about each other"(Wickman: 2003). Instead, the humour emerges from recognition and familiarity. "We understand the truths told about family life and gradually get to know the subtleties of each character, so that we can predict what their responses are going to be"(Wickman: 2003).

Despite occasionally showing signs of some underlying intelligence, Jim Royle is exceptionally lazy and hostile, regularly demanding son Antony 'puts the kettle on', seldom leaving his beloved armchair. Browbeaten Barbara is frequently ordered around by husband Jim and daughter Denise. Denise's responsibilities are virtually non-existent, constantly nagging husband Dave, Denise has never been able to hold down a job, and regularly neglects her children. "The family's quirks are brought into relief by deftly drawn supporting characters, particularly Barbara's wily but repetitive mother Norma and Denise's put-upon friend Cheryl" (Wickman: 2003).

Throughout all three series of The Royle Family, there was an undercurrent of darkness under the laughter. Issues such a neglect and bullying were touched upon within the show's storylines. However, as Aherne herself has said; "there is a lot of love there too. The series has great respect for ordinary people and their lives and a belief that they are both interesting and funny" (Wickman: 2003). "The 'sit' in 'sitcom' stands for 'situation', but you could be forgiven for thinking it stands for 'sitting room', since the situation in so many TV sitcoms has been a family home. Like radio before it, television brought entertainment into the domestic space" (Duguid: 2012).

At first, the role of the television was to bring the outside world world in to our homes, no one expected it would also act somewhat like a mirror to our own domestic lives. As the TV entered more and more homes, following the Queen's Coronation in 1952, scheduling began to reflect the domestic space far more closely, particularly in comedy. "But the functional, happy and loving family was more the exception than the rule in subsequent TV sitcoms. The template for the warring sitcom family was established as early as 1962 with the birth of 'Steptoe and Son'" (Duguid: 2012).

Sitcom innovation has been a feature throughout 1990s and 2000s. Ricky Gervais' 'The Office' being an example of a 'comedy hybrid', in that it was both a sitcom and a 'mockumentary'. The conventional family sitcom survived in the form of '2point4 Children' and 'My Family'. "Another approach to 'comedy realism' was the more recent 'Outnumbered', in which semi-improvised performances from the three child actors supported the overall impression of the difficulties faced by middle-class parents Pete and Sue Brockman in attempting to control their unpredictable offspring" (Duguid: 2012).

In recent years, the BBC have had considerable success with sitcoms featuring affluent families, such as those in My Family and Outnumbered. Now, BBC one's controller, Danny Cohen, wants to change this. A BBC spokesperson has said: “When Danny spoke to producers it was realised that a lot of success used to be based on the some of the more classic kinds of comedy which are blue collar. This sort of philosophy is based on great classics such as Only Fools and Horses and Open All Hours.” (Gammell: 2011). They continued: "It isn’t a case of one in, one out – Outnumbered is an important part of the BBC which has been recognised at the Baftas and is really well received. " (Gammell: 2011)

This portfolio will consider and explore the representations of class primarily in relation to the BBC sitcoms ‘The Royle Family’ and ‘My Family’. However, it will also discuss class in a wider media context. Both sitcoms represent a certain aspect of a typical British family, however, they offer completely contrasting British family ideals. Introduction 'My Family' 'The Royle Family' The Royle Family is a British sitcom that ran for three series on the BBC from 1998 to 2000 on the BBC. The narrative surrounds the Royles, a benefit-dependent and TV-fixated working class family from Manchester. Almost every episode of The Royle Family is situated in the living room of the Royle's home. Perhaps the show's writers, Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, believed that by situating the programme around the family's living room, they were portraying a stereotypical working class British family, one that viewers will be able to both relate to and empathise with. In 2000, the British Film Institute placed The Royle Family 31st in a list of the 100 greatest British television programmes.

Most episodes of The Royle Family were filmed in real-time, and, unlike many sitcoms, it was done so using a 16mm film and a single camera production style. The absence of a live audience and canned laughter gave the show a look and feel different from other sitcoms. This style of filming gives viewers the sense they are in the living room with the Royles, allowing for a far more personal experience. The one-off specials, on the other hand, took on a more traditional sitcom structure, though many scenes still ran longer than standard, in line with the 'real time' nature of the original series. "The Royle Family, which, like The Office, jettisoned the studio laughter, but also allowed the humour to emerge from the working-class Royles' casual banter more than from elaborately concocted situations. This approach, coupled with an unobtrusive style more redolent of documentary, suggested a more 'truthful' representation of the interactions of an ordinary family, no more united or divided than any other, and certainly no less loving" (Duguid: 2013). The Harpers Case Study: The BBC on 'The Royle Family' Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/theroylefamily/ Created by Fred Barron, My Family became the longest-running British sitcom of the 2000s, despite being frequently disparaged by critics. The sitcom had a mass-appeal and was reminiscent of an archetypal American family sitcom, such as 'Frasier' or 'Everybody Loves Raymond'. The sitcom follows the Harpers, a middle class family living in suburban London. The Harper family initially consisted of father Ben, a successful dentist; mother Susan, an obsessive control freak; the dim-witted yet loveable eldest son, Nick, rebellious teenage daughter Janey; and studious yet mercenary schoolboy Michael. However, characters have come and gone over the series. Barron has said it was his ambition to provide audiences with characters of all age groups that they were able identify and relate to. This ambition was fulfilled in the later series with the introduction of Susan's elderly mother. Dissimilar to The Royle Family, the numerous change in writers meant that My Family took on a far more generic sitcom style. Although this was not looked on favourably by critics, the sitcom consistently found favour with audiences. "My Family's longevity allowed viewers' continued identification with favourite characters who they saw literally grow over the years, Janey progressing from spoilt brat to single mother upon her return in 2004, and Michael from put-upon sibling to scheming Machiavelli"().

"However, despite continuing ratings success, the programme was criticised even by those who worked on it. Marshall revealed in a Radio Times interview that it was not something he would ever choose to watch, while in 2007 Wanamaker complained about the repetitive nature of the scripts, claiming that the initially quirky series had turned into 'a machine' powered by "a football team of writers". In 2009 Lindsay referred to some of the episodes as 'dross', saying that only one in ten represented good comedy writing.Allegations of unoriginality aside, the programme's prolific production rate ensured its place in broadcasting history, even if its popularity was perhaps more often due to the efforts of its cast than the quality of the scripts"().

Beginning in the 2000's, and running for eleven series, My Family is one of Britain's most successful sitcoms, based on audience figures alone. "My Family certainly has all the right ingredients to be an audience-grabber: strong stereotypical characters that are easy to identify with placed in embarrassing and comical (yet believable and familiar) situations" (). As mentioned before, My Family often found itself the subject of much criticism for being too 'generic' as well as using an unsophisticated method to generate laughter from audiences. This did not seem to phase Barron, however, as he has said on numerous occasions that the show was carefully created to appeal to the masses.

The Harpers are a fictional middle-class-yet-comically-dysfunctional British family, living in the suburbs of London. The father, Ben Harper, is a successful dentist, whilst the mother, Susan, is a tour guide in the earlier seasons, then later works for an art gallery. Their three children are a mixed bag of characters, however, in some way, they each portray the stereotypical characteristics of Britain's younger generation. Janey leaves the family home to go to University, but later drops out and moves back home. Nick eventually leaves home and gets his own apartment. Though most of the narrative surrounds the stereotypical bickering married couple, Ben and Susan and their daily predicaments involving their jobs, their children, and each other; there are often sub-narratives including Abi and Roger's ongoing 'will-they-won't-they?' storyline, very reminiscent of the famous Ross and Rachel storyline from 'Friends'. Following the narrative structure of a typical family sitcom, many, if not most of My Family's episodes feature some kind of disruption to the equilibrium, meaning the family must work together to once again set things right, thus restoring the equilibrium. Before his departure, Nick’s string of bizarre jobs became a major feature of the earlier series. Cousin Abi, and and Ben's colleague, Roger’s love life, along with Michael’s constant scheming and Janey’s endless list of boyfriends, have all been a feature within My Family's narrative. The show saw significant character development over its eleven series run. The once rebellious Janey became a single mother, and Nick turned from irresponsible and immature into a mature and independent adult, and Abi and Roger finally get married. • Ben Harper - played by Robert Lindsay

The grumpy and sarcastic Ben, is a successful dentist. Under his constantly moody exterior, however, is a loving husband and father. Despite always being ordered around by controlling wife, Susan, or manipulated in giving money to his children.

• Susan Harper - played by Zoe Wanamaker

Susan Harper is a control freak and very good at getting her way. She is constantly worried about her three children and often forces Ben to go out of his way to monitor or look after them. Susan is a tour guide but seems to spend most of her time at home. She is a terrible cook (a homage to Butterflies, in which the male lead is also a dentist called Ben) and the rest of the family often have to sneak the food she has prepared into the bin without her noticing.

• Nick Harper - played by Kris Marshall

The oldest of the Harper's three children, Nick, is a stereotypical layabout and is constantly changing career paths. Nick's incredibly laid-back attitude means he cannot be trusted with money or to carry out important tasks. The latter series saw Nick mature into a responsible and he eventually moved into his own place.

• Janey Harper - played by Daniela Denby-Ashe

The Harper's only daughter, the fashion conscious, money loving, boy mad Janey, spends most of her time either on the phone, changing boyfriends, or spending her father's money. Janey left home to attend university, however, whilst there, she fell pregnant and was consequently expelled, returning home as a result.

• Michael Harper - played by Gabriel Thomson

The youngest of Susan and Ben's children, teenager Michael, is very intelligent and believes he is far smarter and more sensible than the rest of his family. Often it is Michael who gets his family out of trouble. In the show's penultimate series, Michael tells his family that he is gay, which, to his relief, is accepted by the family.

• Abi Harper - played by Siobhan Hayes

Abi is Ben's cousin, once removed, and moved in with the Harper 's in the third series, although at times, Ben wishes she had not. Abi is gullable and slightly dim, but ultimately a loveable character. After realising he had been madly in love with her for quite some time, Abi eventually married Ben's colleague, Roger. However, they have since divorced as Abi wanted to become a nun.

• Roger Bailey - played by Keiron Self

Fellow dentist, Roger is Ben's over-enthusiastic and over-bearing colleague. Roger often turns up un-invited to the Harper household, much to Ben's annoyance. Roger had long had a crush on Ben's cousin, Abi. Representations of Class Within The Royle Family and My Family http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/30/danny-cohen-middle-class-comedy I don't like to get carried away, but TV comedy is in pretty rude health at the moment. Last year we had such excellent series as Peep Show, The IT Crowd, The Inbetweeners, Miranda, Whites, Grandma's House, Him & Her, Getting On, Rev and Outnumbered. Of those, only Outnumbered was on BBC1. And yet it is, horror of horrors, about a middle-class family. A very middle-class family. But now we hear new controller of BBC1 Danny Cohen thinks there are too many middle-class sitcoms on TV and he wants more working-class ones. Call me old-fashioned and bourgeois, but I'd just like to see more comedies on BBC1 that are as good as Outnumbered.
More importantly, I bet most viewers of all social backgrounds would be chuffed to see Miranda, for example, on BBC1, even though that show is also "painfully" middle-class (not painful for me, you understand, but painful perhaps for people who worry about these things – ie middle-class TV bigwigs). They'd be happy to see it on BBC1 because it's so funny, and because Miranda Hart has become, quite rightly, a comedy superstar in recent months, garlanded with awards, showered with praise and love.
So is Danny Cohen, who I very much like, respect and admire, tacitly saying he doesn't want more sitcoms as fresh and funny as Miranda unless they're going to be about working-class people? Is he suggesting that the class origins of the characters in a piece of scripted comedy are now more important to him than the quality of the writing?
I'm sure that's not the message he intended to send out but by letting the world know that one of his first priorities is the class background of his BBC1 comedy slate, rather than the quality of those comedies, it all seems a bit misguided. Here's what he could have said in a bold, clear public message: "Yes, I know BBC1's record in scripted comedy in recent years has been pretty poor, and yes we did actually commission that Big Top series about life in a circus with Amanda Holden, but from now on my priority is to make sure BBC1 comedy is genuinely good and funny like it has been on BBC2 and Channel 4. Go to it, writers!"
Of course, Danny Cohen's message about class is typical BBC Management Think. I truly love the BBC and everything it stands for, but at big-cheese level they do love to be prescriptive. Spend any time with writers who have tried to get their work commissioned at the BBC and you'll hear horror stories about reams of guidelines about how the BBC doesn't want too many shows about the "creative industries" (unless they star Matt LeBlanc), or too many shows set in London, or any more series about tall women who fall over a lot
Time and again, writers are told their idea "isn't quite right" for the BBC because they had something very vaguely set in a tangentially similar milieu about three years ago, even though the script might be absolutely brilliant.
Luckily, the people in charge of BBC2 comedy seem to have stopped worrying about all that stuff, and we've seen a wonderful array of fine comedies on that channel in recent months. And they've all been about middle-class people.
My favourite new comedy of last year was BBC3's Him & Her. It was about a slobby young couple arsing around in a bedsit in London. They might be working-class or lower middle-class but I'm not 100% sure. All I know is that they were totally believable, engaging, likable and above all funny. Danny Cohen should put it on BBC1 immediately. Case Study:
'Are Sitcoms Too Middle Class?' (Guardian Article) Source: Characters Bibliography http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/30/danny-cohen-middle-class-comedy
Television Programmes:

My Family (2000-2011). Television, BBC One. UK.

The Royle Family (1998-2000). Television, BBC One. UK.


Christopher, D. (1999). British Culture: An Introduction. London : Routledge.

Edensor, T (2002). Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life. UK: Berg.

Medhurst, A (2002). National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identity. London : Routledge.

Skeggs, B (2002). Class, Self, Culture. London : Routledge .

Webites/Online Articles:

Author Unknown. The Royle Family. Last Accessed: 8th May 2013. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/theroylefamily/

Duguid, M. (2012) The Sitcom Family. Last Accessed: 6th May 2013. Available: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/1368302/index.html

Gammell, C. (2011) BBC to Introduce More Working Class Comedy. Last Accessed: 8th May 2013. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8277022/BBC-to-introduce-more-working-class-comedy.html

Hilton, B and Ferguson, E. (2011) Are Sitcoms Too Middle Class?. Last Accessed: 11th May 2013. Available:

Wickman, P. (2003) The Royle Family. Last Accessed: 9th May 2013. Available: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/tv/id/458640/

The Royle’s are a working class family from Manchester, and whilst they do not represent every family from the North of England, they very much meet the stereotypical view of the traits and characteristics of a Northern working class family, particularly from a middle class point of view. Audience preconceptions, as well as assumptions made based on the lifestyle they lead, may suggest the Royles lived in a council-owned property, which is common with working class families in Britain. Although this was never confirmed nor denied in the show, it goes to prove that unless they are told otherwise, audience presume such things based entirely on the stereotypes associated with specific social groups. Despite being regarded as the patriarch of the family, Jim Royle’s ambitions in life are very limited, and he shows no sign of seeking work to support his family. Jim relies heavily on his wife Barbara for financial support. Although he rarely shows affection towards his wife or two children, it obvious there is deep-rooted emotion, which is highlighted by the more poignant moments in episodes. Jim Royle’s character represents the popular opinion of those who are in receipt of state benefits. It quickly becomes apparent that Jim rarely leaves his domain in the living room; positioned in his armchair in front of the television. Regardless of the fact he has a severe misconception of his own indolence, and is constantly referring to other people’s idleness, and not his own. His views on women are somewhat old-fashioned and chauvinistic, believing it is his wife’s role to cook, clean, shop, and be the general dogsbody. Jim’s wife, Barbara is, in almost every way, the stereotypical housewife; however, the major difference being that she actually has a job. Underneath the humour, the Royle’s are ultimately represented as a close-knit family unit, and despite money being tight, they would never want to see their family suffer. Thus, representing the working class in a positive way, a contrast to how they are often represented across the media.
The middle class family depicted in My Family, on the other hand, portray the stereotypical ideals and values of an affluent family from the South of England. Ben and Susan Harper are both employed, Ben being a professional dentist, and therefore lifestyle they lead reflects that. The Harpers represent a stereotypical middle class family unit, however, a lot what they do is exaggerated for comedic purposes. Both parents are earning their own money, and thus, they are both supporting their family and their lifestyles. For example, because of their combined incomes, they are able to pay their daughter Janey’s university fees. There has long been an association with a university education and the middle classes, therefore Janey’s university storyline fulfills this common stereotype. In contrast, however, Janey’s pregnancy storyline, and Nick’s constant state of unemployment, could go to prove that, even families from an affluent background can experience difficulties and setbacks just like any other family, and are often not as ‘picture-perfect’ as they may seem on the outside.
When comparing The Royle Family with My Family, there is a clear North/South divide. The fact that the creators of The Royle Family chose to situate the family in the North of England suggests that there is some kind of audience association with Northern families and the working class. As for My Family, the choice to situate the Harper’s in London, suggests that audiences associate those families from a more affluent, middle class background to be from the capital, or other towns and cities located in the south of England. Also, the decision to give Ben a career such as being a dentist, suggests that there is general consensus that having a particular profession indicates wealth, affluence and significant social standing.

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