Sitcoms are one of the most difficult television formats to maintain, which is why, if they are popular, they often go on for slightly too long, beyond when they may have exhausted the original idea or ‘jumped the shark’*.
Case in point: the Ronnie Corbett vehicle ‘Sorry!’, which ran from 1981 to 1988 and documented the pathetic life of Timothy Lumsden (Corbett), a middle aged librarian whose every move was governed by his overbearing mother. Clearly a metaphor for the Thatcher years, ‘Sorry!’ ran out of steam in its sixth series but, due to popular demand and the BBC’s ongoing difficulties in developing time travel sit-com ‘Goodnight, Sweetheart’**, a seventh series was commissioned, which is where things got weird.
The problem is, of course, that sit coms necessarily revolve around a situation - and situations, by their very nature, are usually in a state of flux. With ‘Sorry!’ it was clear that Timothy Lumsden would need to move forward, to find a girlfriend, to get a life - or to simply surrender to being alone and miserable and probably end up killing himself, which, any way you look at it, is not particularly funny.
Having used up a myriad of storylines in the preceding 36 episodes, series seven is notable for some bizarre diversions, not least the third episode (‘Who’s That Lady?’) in which Tim, wishing to get a woman’s perspective, goes out in drag and gets touched up in a club car park by Nicky Henson, and the disturbing fifth episode, ‘Better Out Than In’, in which Timothy becomes possessed by ancient evil.
After unpacking a delivery of supposedly new library books, Timothy becomes drawn to an aged tome bound in human flesh. Reading it aloud opens one of the portals of Hell, and poor Timmy is taken over by Assyrian winged demon, Pazuzu - with predictably hilarious results!
As a young man, I can remember laughing like a drain at the bit where Mother goes out to the shops and, as she steps out of the front door, is hit on the shoulder by what she assumes is a spot of rain, only to look up and see a laughing Timmy urinating out of an upstairs window, his eyes rolling back in his head. That’s a lot funnier that Del Boy falling through that bar, yet, for some reason, it is ranked only second on the Channel 5 ‘Great Comedy Moments’ list.
|"Sorry, Timothy isn't in right now"|
|'Let the power of Christ compel you!'|
|Mother gets in on it.|
The climax to the episode, in which Tim’s Father conducts a DIY exorcism, is notable for its pre-watershed use of 98 strong swear words, including 60 instances of ‘f___’, twelve ‘motherf_____’s, three ‘c___sucker’s and twenty three uses of the word ‘cunt’. Numerous complaints were made to the Broadcasting Standards Commission but, ultimately, the BBC were exonerated as every single instance of rude dialogue was countered by the phrase ‘Language, Timothy’, making it clear that the use of the words was socially unacceptable.
One of the more outlandish twenty seven minutes in British broadcasting history, ‘Better Out Than In’ was watched by almost 30 million people, a statistic only beaten by the series finale***, in which Tim’s father dies and, after the funeral, Tim strangles his mother and interferes with the corpse, a downbeat but sadly inevitable ending to a much loved show.
* The phrase ‘jump the shark’ was originally coined after a 1975 episode of ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ in which Compo went surfing on Ramsden Reservoir on Nora Batty’s ironing board and, inexplicably, was menaced by a rubber Great White. This moment is usually cited as the end of the show as a credible entity. Unabashed, the programme continued for another 35 years.
** ‘Goodnight, Sweetheart’ eventually debuted in 1993 after almost ten years of intensive development. It is generally considered the greatest sitcom of all time.
*** The final episode was watched by 80 million people, i.e. everyone in Britain and half of France.