British TV comedy is admired around the world. Thanks to their success films inspired by or directly based on British TV comedy have been made. But which ones are worth checking out?
With The Inbetweeners Movie recently scoring big box office returns in the UK I thought there was no time like the present to look at the best British sitcoms and comedy series to make that leap to film.
In recent memory most obvious to American audiences is the work of Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen and Simon Pegg, the creators and stars of The Office, Da Ali G Show, and Spaced respectively. Although Gervais hasn’t made as successful a move into film as Cohen and Pegg, he’s understandably the most well-known given his head-turning performances on the Golden Globes.
Cohen and Pegg have had far more success with their film work though. Cohen, who found moderate financial return with his feature film outing for Ali G, had audiences queuing up around the block for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan which he followed up with the amusing Bruno. Pegg found even more success turning an episode of Spaced into the brilliant Shaun of the Dead which he followed with the equally cool Hot Fuzz.
But what other British comedy television shows have made a successful transition to film and where do these three comic geniuses rank?
10. The Inbetweeners Movie (Palmer, 2011)
Inspired by: The Inbetweeners (2008 – 2010; written by Damon Beesley, Iain Morris)
The much-loved show from creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris follows the exploits of the British Jason Biggs (otherwise known as Simon Bird) as he enters a new school after his parents get a divorce. The series has been lavished with praise since first airing in 2008, winning numerous accolades including the Audience Award at the British Academy Television Awards 2010. The series has now been shown around the world.
The hugely successful film from 2011 grossed over £45 million at the UK box office having been made for £3.5 million. The film follows Simon Bird’s Will and his friends’ misadventures on a holiday in Crete.
9. Extras (Gervais/Merchant, 2007)
Inspired by: Extras (2005 – 2007; written by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant)
Would Ricky Gervais suffer from second album syndrome? Definitely not. After the extraordinary success of The Office, both in the UK and internationally, he and co-conspirator Stephen Merchant conceived of Extras. This more conventionally styled sitcom follows the exploits of television extra Andy Millman (Gervais) as he tries to break into the industry with his sitcom script for an original show called When The Whistle Blows. The feature film – arriving after two very successful series – concludes the story as Millman becomes famous off the back of his new show but at the expense of his friendship to best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen). This affectionate, well-written and funny film is a fitting finale for what is arguably a better television sitcom than The Office.
The film, like the series, is notable for the array of celebrity guest stars that appear as fictional versions of themselves. Throughout the series these included Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Stewart, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Radcliffe, Chris Martin, Robert De Niro and David Bowie.
8. The League of Gentleman’s Apocalypse (Bendelack, 2005)
Inspired by: The League of Gentleman (1999 – 2002; written by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith)
Like Spaced, The League of Gentleman was a television show that celebrated the macabre, this time transporting the urban squalor of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s brilliant series to the green hills and Derbyshire stone houses of a parochial northern English village. Not shying away from the creator’s influences, The League of Gentlemen focused on an array of strange characters as the show wallowed in homage to Hammer Horror, classic characters like Frankenstein and Dracula, the work of horror fiction writers such as Stephen King and James Herbert, and well-known films such as the The Shining. The series was notable for creator’s Reese Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton playing all the principle characters which included both men and women.
The big-screen outing for The League saw them take their self-referential humour further. The film follows fictionalised versions of the actors as they are stalked and kidnapped by their own characters in the real world after the show’s creators decide to stop making episodes.
7. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Park/Box, 2005)
Inspired by: Wallace and Gromit (1989 – 2008; written by Bob Baker, Nick Park)
The instantly lovable pairing of well-meaning inventor Wallace and his trusty canine and best friend Gromit arrived on UK television screens for the first time in 1989. Creator Nick Park envisioned a world made entirely of plasticine as Wallace (voiced by equally lovable Londoner Peter Sallis) whisked audiences away on several misadventures in four short films. The wonderful friendship between the films two main characters is so charming you can’t help but be overcome by their joyous camaraderie. Significantly, since Gromit never speaks and only communicates through gestures, the brilliant writing of Nick Park and Bob Baker comes to the fore.
The 2005 feature film saw the disaster-prone twosome coming to the saviour of the local village after a mutated rabbit starts eating all the crops before the annual vegetable competition. The wholesome, sweet-natured tale is both funny and stylishly made. The film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
6. Dad’s Army (Cohen, 1971)
Inspired by: Dad’s Army (1968 – 1977; written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft)
Dad’s Army, running from 1968 to 1977, followed the misadventures of a bunch of Home Guard recruits during World War II. Based partly on creator Jimmy Perry’s real-life experiences in the Home Guard as a teenager, the show followed the exploits of a group of soldiers led by the pompous but well-meaning Captain George Mainwaring played by Arthur Lowe.
The film version of the series was released in 1971 and featured a more cinematic interpretation of the story with the Home Guard rescuing hostages held captive by three German pilots.
5. The Likely Lads (Tuchner, 1976)
Inspired by: The Likely Lads (1964 – 1966; written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais)
Created by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, The Likely Lads featured two working class young men in the North East of England who have grown up together and now work at the same factory. Terry (James Bolam) is a cynical working man who might not be happy with his lot in life but makes no attempt to better himself, while Bob (Rodney Bewes) is ambitious and wants to move onto a better life. The humour derives from the very class orientated society the story revolves around, and sees the twenty-something men trying to enjoy the swinging sixties on their meagre finances.
The 1976 film centres around Terry and Bob later in life as they reminisce about their past and find themselves at a crossroads – Terry is awaiting his final divorce papers while Bob is growing tired of married life. The two get up to many scrapes during the film including stranding Bob’s wife and Terry’s new girlfriend accidentally while on a caravan holiday and inadvisably picking up two attractive hitchhikers, and getting into trouble with a landlady who walks in on Bob canoodling with her daughter. The farcical film is both funny and endearing with bittersweet undertones.
4. Borat (Charles, 2006)
Inspired by: Da Ali G Show (2000 – 2004; written by Sacha Baron Cohen)
Borat was introduced to audiences by Sacha Baron Cohen on Da Ali G Show. The television series was first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK and provided a pedestal for the comic to use his array of characters, that included faux suburbanite gangster Ali G, outwardly homosexual fashion reporter Bruno, and curious but dim-witted Kazakhstani journalist Borat, to interview leading public and political figures to ostensibly highlight their prejudices towards race, class, homosexuality, religion and anything else that might crop up during the course of an interview. It was an instant hit and each of the three main characters had a feature film made about them.
Borat proved the most popular with the film version seeing the journalist travel from his home town in the Republic of Kazakhstan to America to make a documentary about the “greatest country in the world”. Through the character of Borat, who is himself sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic, the largely unscripted scenes find his own prejudices often bringing out the worst in his subjects. The charm of the film comes from Borat’s inability to come to terms with the American culture he experiences throughout the film – there’s a wonderful awkwardness that is as cringe worthy as it is funny. One particularly interesting sequence sees Borat unintentionally offend guests at an exclusive eating club in one of the southern American states. He then gets thrown out when he invites an African-American prostitute named Luenell to join their party.
3. Porridge (Clement, 1979)
Inspired by: Porridge (1974 – 1977; written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais)
Created by The Likely Lads writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Porridge follows the exploits of British comedy legend Ronnie Barker’s Norman Stanley Fletcher, a habitual criminal, who finds himself in prison once again. The television series follows Fletcher’s various schemes as well as his blossoming friendship with cellmate Lennie Godber (Richard Beckinsale, who tragically died at the age of 31 of a heart attack but not before having two daughters, one of which is actress Kate Beckinsale).
The film, released in 1979, sees the hapless pair escape from prison only to have to break back in before the police realise they’ve gone.
2. Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004)
Inspired by: Spaced (1999 – 2001; written by Simon Pegg & Jessica Stevenson)
Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s Spaced featured two London twenty-somethings who live together in a small flat. The series was noted for its surreal humour, Edgar Wright’s kinetic visual style and its celebration of pop culture. Episode three in series one sees Simon Pegg’s Tim hallucinate after taking drugs. While playing Resident Evil 2 on the Playstation he begins to think the zombies are coming alive and attacking him for real. This led to the conception of the critically and commercially successful feature film Shaun of the Dead. Read full review of Shaun of the Dead here.
1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam/Jones, 1974) / Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Jones, 1979)
Inspired by: Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969 – 1974; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin)
One of the most famous comedy troupes of all time, made up of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, first appeared on British television in 1969 with their comedy sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Their influence on comedy has been likened to The Beatles’ influence on music, and their show not only led to several films but also books, music, and stage plays, as well as propelling the performers and producers to individual stardom.
Of the films inspired by the television series Life of Brian and Holy Grail stand out. The films marry the creator’s ability to write absurd sketches with equally absurd plots. Life of Brian very loosely tells the story of Jesus while Holy Grail bases itself on the legend of King Arthur.
Your turn – what are your favourite films based on or inspired by British television comedy?
Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.
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