Rewatching One Foot in the Grave – thoughts on Sitcom structure

For my birthday a week or so ago I was given  more to add  to my collection of classic British sitcoms including the box set of One Foot in the Grave.

I’ve just started rewatching the first series. I’ve found this fascinating as, although a lot of the elements are there – Victor’s character, the pathos of retirement – somehow it lacks the comic intensity of later series. It’s like a picture still coming into focus.

There are still funny moments, good performances and some neat comic touches but it lacks the pressure cooker comic tension building of later series where it feels like laughs can build over a whole episode as Victor digs himself deeper and deeper into whatever farcical situation he has got himself mixed up in.

It just shows that sitcoms (and sitcom writers) need space to grow. (Although that can be an excuse for not getting rid of poor sitcoms when necessary.) You can already see the potential in One Foot in Grave in the funny moments (like Victor finding a frozen cat in the freezer). But in series 1 they often feel more like extended character sketches rather than a unified whole episode.

I would point out that I would be very happy if I could write something as good as this first series. But it is encouraging – even writers like David Renwick are allowed to develop along the way (although he was well established by the time of the first series of One Foot in the Grave).  The success David Renwick had with One Foot in the Grave, of course, meant he could then give us Jonathan Creek.

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3 Comments on "Rewatching One Foot in the Grave – thoughts on Sitcom structure"

  1. Lucy Kaufman
    17/04/2012 at 8:19 pm Permalink

    It is interesting because I was led to believe that his original intention with One Foot in the Grave was to create a series that was almost anti-sitcom, in that the structure was episodic. Victor was the victim (I use that word loosely as he could bring much of the disasters upon himself) of random, unlinked occurrences rather than a character in a conventional sitcom where everything would be connected and neatly tied. Perhaps this intention was actually eroded, series by series, until it became more conventional in structure and fulfilled our expectations of what makes a sitcom, rather than it got better.

  2. david
    18/04/2012 at 12:36 pm Permalink

    Perhaps you’re right in that this was his original intention. And I can quite enjoy unconventional forms of comedy. I just didn’t find that first series as funny as it got later. Perhaps it simply evolved towards the funny stuff and away from original plan – that’s still a sign someone’s doing the right thing…

    In general I’m not sure that bad things happening to people for no reason is that funny. Bad things happening to people because of the mistakes they make or their natural flaws is usually funnier. I’m sure there is an exception to this but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

    In the later series Victor is still the victim of things but his flaw that makes it so funny is the overreaction and inability to let things rest that gets him deeper and deeper into trouble.

  3. Lucy Kaufman
    18/04/2012 at 6:02 pm Permalink

    Yes no doubt the traditional sitcom structure is the way it is because it works. I guess it’s similar to the case of Brookside- where Phil Redmond originally intended to create a soap that wasn’t a soap because the families would coexist in the Close without actually meeting and interacting, but eventually he realised that form couldn’t be sustained and the characters had to interact.

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