Nicholas Lyndhurst, David Jason and Lennard Pearce in Only Fools and Horses, from 1982. Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy
If you wanted a nostalgic comedy, where would you go? You might start with a streaming platform or – if letting go of the past is really hard for you – your DVD collection. But today there’s another place ready to quench that thirst for familiar, comforting, funny television: your local theater.
Later this month, an era-defining sketch series The Fast Show will begin its nationwide stage tour, bringing together the original cast (Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, John Thomson, Arabella Weir) to perform their favorite sketches and their memories of working on the discuss show. It connects Beat the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!, an updated version of the satirical newsroom-set sitcom that ran throughout the 1990s, has already started its UK tour with most of the original cast. Soon there will be a John Cleese stage production of it Fawlty Towersis having a five-month run at the Apollo theater from May (other 1970s tropes include a recent adaptation for the stage The Good Life and Some Mothers do Ave ‘Um).
This autumn, meanwhile, a musical version of it Fools and Horses only, written by Paul Whitehouse and Jim Sullivan, son of the late creator, to continue its West End run with a 30-city UK tour. In fact, the West End is becoming a home away from home for retro British comedy, with Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image The Musical after having a four month run last year.
The transition of comedy from stage to screen and back again is nothing new (‘Hello ‘Hello! tour from 1986 to 1992, Bottom live stage shows during the 90s), but this is largely a modern phenomenon due to the number of high-profile television adaptations to a degree that did very well in the best theatres. Only a Fool and a Horses: The Music it may have received mediocre reviews, but it did well financially, earning £8m during the first four weeks of its run in London. Demand for tickets to Evening By The Fast Show and Beat the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! additional dates have already been added.
Theaters search for existing intellectual property so people can go: ‘I know what that is’ and it cuts the marketing
Steve Bennett, Chortle
What’s behind the boom in shows based on old TV comedies? In one sense, it’s just one part of a much larger – really huge – trend in contemporary popular culture: intellectual property, or IP. This is the tendency for new theater productions (or television programs or films) to take inspiration from a well-known story, character or fictional world. That knowledge makes it a safer bet, with theaters getting “security in the knowledge that they will be in high demand”, says Caroline Usher-Fox, marketing and communications manager for York’s Grand Opera House, which is gearing up for the stage. The Fast Show and Fools and Horses only this year. The instant recognition factor is extremely helpful for a cash-intensive industry. As Steve Bennett – who runs the comedy website Chortle and has reviewed many sitcom-to-state adaptations – explains, theaters are “always looking for existing IPs so people can go: ‘You know I know what that is’, and it cuts the marketing.”
But these representations adhere to a more specific subset of the IP bias. At the moment, Usher-Fox is seeing “80s and 90s classics sell really well”, with musical versions of A beautiful woman, Sister Act and Officer and Gentleman coming to the opera house this year (music on IP is very popular, which could Fools and Horses only and Spitting Image shows benefited from it). That period of pop culture is becoming very attractive, with comedy from the 70s, 80s and 90s as “a very valuable piece of intellectual property because it appeals to a slightly older audience that has the money to go to the theatre”, says. Bennett.
As Usher-Fox says, there’s clearly a “thirst for nostalgia and familiarity” behind the appeal of these shows. With a sitcom, that familiarity can go a long way. Cleese on Fawlty Towers – The Drama sews the plots of three episodes (apparently based on a show that premiered in Australia in 2016), allowing diehards to relive familiar plot lines and dialogue by heart (“It’s almost like karaoke,” says Bennett. “You sing to them”). Although the Fawlty Towers stage show will see a cast of young actors take on classic characters, Dead Donkey and The Fast Show feature of the original players, providing an extra layer of experience and even more “confirmation that they are in for a good night”, says Usher-Fox.
It is worth pointing out that this cozy legacy does not necessarily conflict with the basic idea of these shows: comedy’s ability to provide comfort and relaxation does not only come through a trip down memory lane. David Stubbs, author Different Times: A History of British Comedy, who explains that the element of knowledge is embedded in many of these comedy programmes. “It’s often said that comedy is about surprise, but it’s also about the predictable,” he says. “The Fast Showwith its catchphrases, a great exercise in comedy as predictability.”
But why not indulge in a more predictable activity by watching old shows at home? One answer is for these shows to do something the source material can’t: provide an opportunity to connect with beloved performers and creators, and offer an experience of authenticity and connection. “The audience knows they’re going to be laughing along with a room full of other fans,” says Usher-Fox. something device-based streaming is sorely lacking.
This shows another aspect of the nostalgia that these shows achieve: nostalgia for the monoculture of today. Older viewers miss out on “the big unifying events of pop-culture TV from the days before multichannel, streaming and content diffusion”, says Stubbs. Today “No comedy show is going to garner the kind of audience of 20 million or more that Steptoe or Morecambe & Wise did.”
Contemporary comedy – with its emphasis on “comprehensiveness, nuance, a sense of empathy, depth of character and a certain kindness” – is very different from its ancestors, especially in tone. Such programs are not always “rescue”, they are more esoteric and can be alienating to older viewers who lament that the comedy is not what it used to be, if they come across these shows at all. ”, says Stubbs.
If the appeal to an audience is obvious, the appeal to creatives is less obvious. However, it has something to do with the dire state of television comedy – as Bennett says, it’s just that “there aren’t many sitcoms being made anymore”. In fact, in November Ofcom ruled that scripted comedy was an “at risk” genre for the sixth year in a row. Sitcom-to-stage shows could be “a way to write something that they could commission and get approved quickly”, says Bennett. “Although television happens forever and there isn’t much of it.” Even writers who have earned their streak with several hits seem to be struggling: Kate & Kojithe last sitcom from Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin – the writers behind it Hit the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered – received poor reviews, and was dropped after two series. And although John Cleese announced last year that he was working on a new TV version of it Fawlty Towers with his daughter, no broadcaster is attached (the BBC’s head of comedy questioned the comedy potential of the project when asked), and it’s unclear whether the reboot will ever go into production.
Related: Don’t mention the war … and the rest: the difficulty of bringing back Fawlty Towers
In artistic terms, then, are these stage productions the poor relatives of television comedy? Despite their box office success, they tend to attract lukewarm reviews, with critics praising the performances and staging but expressing disappointment in the scripts. Some find it difficult to overcome the originals, but Bennett believes the problem often lies in the opposite sense of too high expectations. Last year he reviewed Idiots Assemble: Spitting Image the Musicalwrites: “You might expect solid drum content, but plenty of it Idiots Assemble does he have a first draft ‘will he do this?’ quality.” But that’s probably heavier for the original board than you might think. “People remember Spitting Image like a great thing when it was probably pretty trivial,” he says. “You remember all the best bits.”
When it comes to the late 20th century comic canon, this adaptation to the stage seems too lucrative to die out anytime soon. Could it also be coming for gen X and your millennial favourites? Natural style, reminiscent of many of the best comics of the 00s (The Office, Is it thick) certainly would have been more difficult to translate into big, terrifying stage shows. But comic characters of our time are increasingly returning to theaters – Alan Partridge went on an arena tour in 2022 and Garth Marenghi is now on the road, with Ali G reportedly set to join them – which shows that there is potential there to perform live shows that please the crowds. from postmodern comedy. Whether their questioners and writers will catch on to the trend remains to be seen, but it may be too early to tell. Peep Show: The Music! off the table just yet.