What today’s ‘mental health’ comedies can learn from Richard Briers

Penelope Wilton, Richard Briers and Peter Egan in Ever Decreasing Circles
Penelope Wilton, Richard Briers and Peter Egan in Ever Decreasing Circles - BBC

Big Mood is about to begin its six episode run on Channel 4. It’s a sitcom; the story of Millennial Londoner pals Maggie (Nicola Coughlan) and Eddie (Lydia West). Can their friendship survive Maggie’s bipolar behaviour?

So far, so Fleabag. Television commissioning goes in waves – it wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t move for quirky writer/performer-led family coming-of-age comedies such as Raised By Wolves, Grandma’s House or The Kennedys etc. But Fleabag shifted the dial to intense friendships with socially inappropriate behaviour, often between youngish women and with an element of what we now call “mental health”.

This wave has been with us a long time now – we’ve had Gameface (trauma, 2017), Pure (OCD, 2019), Such Brave Girls (trauma again, 2023), Shrill (body image, 2019), This Way Up (anxiety and nervous exhaustion, 2019), Alma’s Not Normal (trauma again plus depression, 2020). And it isn’t only the ladies who’ve been having all the fun – we’ve met similar issues with fellers in Flowers (toxic masculinity and depression, 2016), Back (grief and personality disorders, 2017), Ladhood (toxic masculinity again, 2019), After Life (grief, 2019), Ted Lasso (anxiety, 2020), and Big Boys (depression, 2022).

Inevitably, these shows range in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous. Now, with Big Mood, we have yet another. It’s a trend that’s perhaps started to outstay its welcome – and the comedy seems increasingly to be taking a backseat to the depressing stuff – but it’s interesting for what it reveals about 21st century culture and society. On this evidence, we are neurotic, self-obsessed and solipsistic.

Most of these shows take place in fairly bleak, or very bleak, urban or suburban settings, with the washed-out colour palette – all dark greys and dirty blues – of nearly all modern TV. Nobody ever switches a big light on; illumination is provided by feeble, energy efficient lamps, often as many as three in one room. It’s all so murky.

We’ve also, somehow, convinced ourselves that TV comedy tackling what we now call mental health is a new and bold innovation. Certainly there is now an acknowledgement, or at least a naming, of various complaints. These shows are littered with therapists and life coaches and mental health professionals. But the sadness and struggle of life has long been a part of British sitcom. It’s not a groundbreaking observation, despite what we tell ourselves, that people with problems – and the people around them – can be funny.

We’ve always liked a bit of sad with our com. Darkness is a marker of taste and depth when we evaluate TV comedy. The notes of lingering tragedy and despair in, for example, Steptoe And Son or One Foot In The Grave give them a grain that enhances the humour. Shows that go right for the comedic jugular – Mrs Brown’s Boys is the only one left standing – are now deeply unfashionable.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag - AP

One of the reasons the (wildly popular) ITV sitcoms of old still have a bad rep is that they made the cardinal sin of being uproariously, upliftingly jolly and uncomplicatedly funny. Nobody in On The Buses or Never The Twain was seeing a therapist, or likely to. These were throwaway diversions, and in the serious world of 21st century TV we can’t have that, even in comedy.

However, it was never all beer and skittles. Looking back, we can see there was always what we’d now call depression or neurodiversity about in sitcom. The big difference is that such struggles and resulting despair were things then expected, accepted - and acceptable - as an inevitable part of the weave of life’s fabric. You could be sad without being mad.

The brutal opening episode of Steptoe And Son – in the supposedly buttoned-up, pre-swinging Britain of 1962! – sees Harold break down, oppressed by the bleakest, most emotionally blocked and most toxically masculine family relationship you could imagine. Nobody in 1962 would’ve considered that necessary of a label. It was obvious what was wrong.

We can see a similar syndrome in many other comedy shows of the twentieth century. What were then tragic circumstances or quirks of personality are now categorised with medical terms. Martin Bryce of Ever Decreasing Circles - with his constantly boiling anxiety and finicky obsessiveness over tiny details - would now be instantly recognised as OCD.

So many Monty Python characters, particularly those played by Michael Palin, are of this breed. “My hard-boiled eggs were in a tupperware container, reputedly self-sealing, which fell open upon contact with the tarmacadam surface of the road … I think in future I shall lash them to the handlebars of my bicycle with adhesive tape,” his character Reg Pither tells a disinterested bystander. “This should obviate a recurrence of the same problem.”

Both Bryce and Pither speak in the stock British male comedy voice of the late 10th century - the John Majorish suburban monotone perfected by Peter Cook with his E.L. Wisty character, and last wheeled out on numerous occasions by David Walliams in Little Britain. We would now quickly dub them all as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

It’s the same with other ‘conditions’ that we encounter in classic shows. The eponymous hero of The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin (1976) is plagued by a sense of purposelessness, and carries out increasingly odd, grandiose behaviour. Today’s diagnosis – borderline personality disorder, 200 mg dyzantil. Bob in The Likely Lads (1964) and its sequel Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads (1973) is miserable and morbid. That’ll be chronic depression, and 20 mg citalopram.

James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in The Likely Lads
James Bolam and Rodney Bewes in The Likely Lads - Alamy

But even back in the day, some shows tackled mental health head-on. Nobody except me seems to remember Horace (1982) a deeply strange show that has never resurfaced, and which I thus have to rely on memory to tell you about. (Some excerpts, from VHS home recordings, have surfaced on YouTube.) From Roy Minton, writer of brutal borstal film Scum (1979), this was a profoundly uncomfortable show about a childlike man with unspecified issues – possibly what we’d now call learning impairment – and his interactions with the people of his small Yorkshire town. The edgy and disquieting “should I really be laughing at this?” sadcoms of today are a breeze in comparison. And it went out in twice-weekly half hour episodes on prime time ITV.

Another memorable show in something of the same vein was Lame Ducks (1984), a sitcom by PJ Hammond, creator of Sapphire & Steel. (The TV writers back then were less pigeonholed.) This featured John Duttine as a depressed husband who, after being kicked out by his wife, assembled around him by accident a gaggle of what were then called “oddballs” – including an arsonist, a hyper-intelligent young woman who can’t fit in to society, a germphobe and a postman who is compelled to roll a huge inflated yellow ball everywhere he goes.

Mel Smith in Colin's Sandwich
Mel Smith in Colin's Sandwich - BBC

Of about the same vintage John Sullivan’s neglected gem Dear John (1986) featured the attendees of the 1-2-1, a social club for singles that was littered with a variety of broken people. We can see the beginnings of today’s therapeutic culture glimmering here, though interestingly the attempts by counsellor Louise to categorise, diagnose and label her charges - with her catchphrase “|And are there any … sexual problems?” - are portrayed as laughably pointless.

This was all well-intentioned and comradely. The very idea of laughing directly at, or rolling one’s eyes angrily at, someone’s evident, serious distress in comedy was pretty much as unthinkable then as now. The bleakness of 1990s sitcoms like Waiting For God (old age), Colin’s Sandwich (alcoholism), Joking Apart (trauma after divorce) or Stressed Eric (er, stress) was always tempered with fellow feeling and compassion. Alan Partridge’s nervous breakdown (and his subsequent “bouncing back”) was the first instance I can recall of a realistic mental health crisis being played for outright laughs.

In the noughties, The Office and Peep Show remade the sitcom genre, bringing out the comedy of minor awkwardnesses and embarrassments in series filmed entirely on location and without a laughter track. For better or worse, this is sitcom as it still stands today; disorienting, lonely, wistful.

I would suggest that the communal nature of raucous laughter is, if not the best medicine as the Readers Digest used to say, still a very good one. We have lost that uplift at our peril – the bright, sparky knees-up replaced by the social atomisation and demographic silos of modern TV. And we wonder why we’re depressed?

Sadcoms have always been a part of British TV, but we could do with some balance of joy in the schedules too. And the friendships of Beryl and Sandra in The Liver Birds or Chrissy and Jo in Man About The House are just as true – and maybe funnier – than the complex and traumatic Sturm und Drang of Maggie and Eddie in Big Mood.