The Guardian view on working-class comedy: welcome back Early Doors

<span>Photograph: Matt Squire/Ovation Productions/BBC</span>
Photograph: Matt Squire/Ovation Productions/BBC

“No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity!” So sings fictional pub landlord, Ken Dixon, in the first episode of Early Doors, vigorously channelling Whitney Houston while fishing fag ends from the men’s urinals.

Broadcast two decades ago, this slow-burning northern comedy became a cult classic that left a hooked audience wanting more. Taking place entirely within the confines of a rough-and-ready Stockport pub, the show combined mordant wit with directorial warmth towards Ken’s flawed but redeemable regulars in The Grapes. Only two series, comprising 12 episodes, were made. It was always a mystery that more series were not commissioned, though a successful stage sequel sold out theatres across the country.

At a time when the underrepresentation of working-class perspectives in the arts is again under deserved scrutiny, it is cause for celebration that, from Saturday on BBC Four and iPlayer, Early Doors episodes are to get another outing. The show’s Mancunian co-writers, Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, have talked in the past of the difficulty of pitching comedies to commissioners whose social background means they may not, as it were, get the joke. That Early Doors made it over the line was surely down to Mr Cash’s track record with The Royle Family, which he co-wrote with Caroline Aherne. Television was thus blessed with a consummate portrayal of lives lived to a rhythm of brutal one-liners, but underpinned, at times of crisis, by a sense of solidarity. When, for example, eccentric Joan and Eddie – the butt of many wisecracks – run into serious financial trouble, it is the miserly pub misanthrope, Tommy, who comes to their rescue.

The passing of time can bring different aspects of beloved comedies into clearer focus. In the 1970s, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? addressed industrial decline through the strained friendship between proudly proletarian Terry Collier and upwardly mobile Bob Ferris. Viewed from today, it seems evident that both Early Doors and The Royle Family spoke to the aftermath of deindustrialisation, and subtly subverted the dominant political tropes of the 2000s.

As an increasingly alienated blue-collar Britain was exhorted to shape up to compete in a globalised world, Tony Blair told the Labour party conference in 2005 that the future belonged to those “swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change”. But viewed from The Royle Family sofa, or inside The Grapes, life was principally to be satirised to give everyone a laugh, rather than treated as a self-improvement course. Both comedies created convivial safe havens for characters who did not subscribe to the fashionable politics of striving and individual aspiration. The programmes were extremely funny, but also interestingly countercultural.

Plus ça change. As Early Doors is repeated for the first time in nearly 14 years, Rishi Sunak has taken to suggesting that the country’s productivity problems can be solved through a dynamic new national “mindset”. An updated version of The Grapes would provide a withering counterpoint to such rhetoric which, ironically, sounds very tired. In crisis-torn 2020s Britain, working-class comedies can provide more than light relief. Channel 4 – newly saved for the nation – should take note.