In Pictures

BBC comedy classics go on display

Much-loved British comedians and sitcom stars are being celebrated in a new exhibition.

Comedy faces from Frankie Howerd to Ricky Gervais are on display at the Compton Verney art gallery in Warwickshire from 9 July. BBC Faces of Comedy is showing 100 pictures ranging from the 1950s to the present day.

Leading comics have curated the exhibition - including Have I Got News For You panellist Paul Merton and the star of Citizen Khan, Adil Ray. Here they talk about some of their favourite comedy moments.

Steptoe and Son

Steptoe and Son

"This was the first time I remember seeing comedy that had the power to move you as well as just make you laugh," says Merton. The show centred on a father and son struggling in the rag-and-bone trade. There was a moment in the first episode, called The Offer, which Merton remembers especially. "The son is trying to leave. He's trying to leave the scrapyard behind. He's trying to leave his dad behind.

"He's trying to move this cart on his own and he can't shift it and he breaks down in tears. No other comedian up to this point would have dared play a scene like this," explains Merton.

"And then the brilliance of the next line - the old man says, 'Never mind, son, I'll make you some sausages.' I think that's heartbreaking. One word, just one word that conjures up - I'm going to look after you."

Till Death Us Do Part

Till Death Us Do Part

"I think people do look back and go, 'Oh, you couldn't do that any more,'" says Adil Ray. Till Death Us Do Part first aired in 1965. "It's a little bit racist, a little bit offensive. But we loved it in our house. I remember watching it with my dad, my Pakistani father, and I think we completely got it."

The sitcom focused on one family in London's East End and the controversial views of the father, Alf Garnett. "Yes, he's offensive and yes, he says the wrong things but he's vulnerable, he feels threatened by this ever-changing society around him," explains Ray.

"What was important was that he didn't get away with it."

Hancock's Half Hour

Hancock's Half Hour

"I was about 12 at the time," says Merton. The series began as a radio show before eventually making it to television. "You'd hear that Hancock was coming on and you'd have this reel-to-reel tape recorder and this microphone that you'd hold in front of the loudspeaker to tape it, quite illegally of course. And then your mother would come in halfway through, say something, and then it would be on there forever.

"I would play back this show and try and practise comic timing by copying how they were doing it," he adds.

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

Michael Crawford was famous for doing his own stunts in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.

"There was this very famous roller skates sequence where he gets up on a bus and under a truck and ends up in a removal van. It was genius," recalls Ray. "If I wanted to try and do any of those stunts on Citizen Khan, I'd have to fill in about 50 health and safety forms."

The physical comedy in the show is what gives it international appeal, says Ray. "The time that I realised how brilliant this show is was when I went to Kenya and saw that they still play it on Kenyan television and it's dubbed in Swahili."

The Goon Show

The Goons

"My first real memory of anarchic, surreal humour was undoubtedly The Goons," says Merton. "Here we have them clowning around with an early TV camera. It looks like a cross between a lawnmower and a Volkswagen."

It started life as a radio show, he explains. "It showed the power of radio to conjure up jokes.

"In radio anything is possible - the sound effects tell the story."

Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it's probably the Bible of sitcom," says Ray. "Only ever 12 episodes filmed, but you sit and watch them and as a writer, viewer or performer, you learn something from it every time.

"It was the energy they had and how they managed to keep it up. You watched John Cleese and saw that in every scene there was more and more sweat gathering on his forehead."

Dad's Army

Dad's Army

"It was 1975, the day that England beat Scotland about 5-1 at Wembley and I went to see a recording of Dad's Army," remembers Merton. The episode was My Brother and I, where Arthur Lowe plays the part of his estranged twin for a special episode.

"But because it was the day of the slaughter of the Scots by the English at football, John Laurie came out and went 'Oh, dear', and the whole audience laughed because they knew what he was talking about.

"What a magnificent thing to work on a programme like that, that creates such joy and such laughter."

Only Fools and Horses

Only Fools and Horses

"Only Fools and Horse for me is the ultimate in sitcom when it comes to hearts and family and all those things that really matter," says Ray.

"In comedy, when we're writing at least, the jokes actually come afterwards. What you're really trying to get is the reason why people will care and watch the show. In a sense you're writing the drama first."

Only Fools and Horses focuses on the relationship between Derek "Del Boy" Trotter and his younger brother Rodney. "They were brothers but they were like father and son, they were mates, they were married, it was all of that and it was utterly brilliant. They must have felt like brothers off set," adds Ray.

The Young Ones

The Young Ones

"The Young Ones was one of the first TV shows I was actually in," remembers Merton. "I went up to Bristol one morning, at about half six to film a moment where I was sitting on a log."

The series was broadcast in the early 80s and "completely changed what a sitcom was", he adds. "You might take the elements of a surreal sketch that Spike Milligan might have done but then you make it into a half-hour.

"The rules were broken and characters could become anything."

To the Manor Born

To the Manor Born

"To the Manor Born was an absolutely huge show," says Ray. "For me, it was the experience. I was again quite young and would watch it with my mum."

More than 30 years after watching the show as a child, Ray ended up working with one of its stars. "The interesting and really weird thing is that I've ended up working with Peter Bowles. He was so gracious and accepted a guest part in the last series of Citizen Khan.

"I used to just sit there watching it with my mum - and who knew that one day I would be doing the same thing? And I think that's a message for us all. Sitcom connects so much for us, and it can really push something inside of you and make you really want to tell your story."

For more from the BBC's archives visit Rewind on Facebook and Twitter

If you are interested in discovering more about the BBC, visit the History of the BBC website.

The BBC's sitcom season starts in September 2016 and will celebrate British comedy by revisiting iconic sitcoms.

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