When Colin Welland, accepting his screenwriting Oscar for “Chariots of Fire” in 1982, echoed Paul Revere’s famous words “the British are coming!,” it’s widely felt he ushered in a long period of decline in the fortunes of U.K. filmmaking in the U.S. So we don’t want to make the same mistake here, and will just point out that, in addition to all the British imports that have already snuck past Customs and Border Protection and onto American screens, in just a few weeks we see season 3 of “Catastrophe” come to Amazon (this Friday), and the first two seasons of “Chewing Gum” come to Netflix, to no little fanfare. The importation of UK TV comedy is looking pretty healthy, if not quite at invasion levels just yet.
It’s really down to two things — the rise of streaming platforms that are hungry for content, even for shows that might previously have been deemed culturally untranslatable; and the fact that the UK itself is experiencing a blossoming time for TV comedy. A few of these shows have already created a splash and you might know about them, and a few have not yet even received U.S. distribution, but these are the 10 current shows (with pointers to a whole host more) that we feel most indicate the vibrancy and range of the British TV-comedy landscape.
Great comedy should feel risky, and no new UK TV import exemplifies that as much as the brilliant Michaela Coel, creator, writer and blazing star of the funny, brash, gross “Chewing Gum.” It’s risky for Coel’s dignity, of course: this is a show that, as a random example, sees her sexually rejected by a stranger in homeless shelter shower decorated with crisp packets and beer cans, wearing nothing but underwear and her own vomit. But it’s also risky for the audience, with fourth-wall-breaking, to-camera moments of such piercing self-awareness they could blister paint. Rendered in bright, bouncy colors, it follows the sex-obsessed Tracey (Coel), living in a council estate in London with her God-bothering sister (a breakout Susie Wokoma) and trying to lose her virginity to her penniless, moon-eyed crush Connor (a wonderful Robert Lonsdale). The miracle of “Chewing Gum” is that amid all the faking, fronting and foul-mouthedness, there’s a totally sincere sweetness at its heart, especially in Tracey and Connor’s relationship, that tempers the bounce-off-the-screen crude energy — but you can check all this out for yourself, as Netflix now has both crackling six-episode seasons available.
“We’re not metal detectors, those are the machines. We are detectorists,” explains one or other of Mackenzie Crook‘s Andy or Toby Jones‘ Lance, repeatedly and with varying degrees of patience, throughout “Detectorists.” Written and directed by Crook (who was so indelible as Gareth from the U.K. “The Office“) the show is almost willfully old-fashioned — neither spiky nor scathing nor sarcastic, it takes two hapless hobbyist detectorists as its subjects and gently refuses to condescend to them. Mining that same vein of gentle, character-based pathos-laden comedy that shows like “Early Doors” and “The Royle Family” did, yet also presenting a portrait of modern small-town rural life and the English countryside in all its gray-skied beauty and tedium, “Detectorists” is instantly appealing due to the chemistry between Crook and Jones, but also works cumulatively as a slow-build wonder that evokes tales of troubadors and Chaucerian pilgrims. In a time when TV comedy is getting cruder and more garish, its slower rhythms and good-natured, slightly melancholy cast is a soothing balm, though you may need a little archaeological skill yourself in digging it up: the BAFTA-winning series is only available in the U.S. via Acorn.
This Channel 4 sitcom had transatlantic exportability baked in to the premise: Written by UK-based Irish multi-hyphenate Sharon Horgan and American comedian/actor/Twitter behemoth Rob Delaney, both of whom also star, it details the fallout when the one-night stand between a Londoner and a visiting American results in a pregnancy. It’s not the most original set-up and essentially relies on staples shared by many similar shows: a central couple battling their relationship issues with the help and often hindrance of their friends, families and work colleagues. So “Catastrophe” needs something special to lift it above the fray (aside from stellar support from Ashley Jenner, Mark Bonham and the late Carrie Fisher), and it finds it in the extraordinarily sharp writing: frequently LOL-funny, it’s also piercingly, uncomfortably truthful about modern coupledom (and family life, in later seasons) and brilliantly frank about sex. Its warts-and-all approach and the co-creators’ inability to pull a punch for their hapless, frequently unlikable but never unrelatable characters, make this spiky, scabrous comedy (available in the U.S. on Amazon Prime) not just bingeworthy but — that rarest of comedy commodities — re-bingeworthy.
With the crossover success of “Black Mirror,” if you’re looking for some more dark, UK-based, anthology-series goodness, allow us to point you in the direction of the three seasons of “Inside No.9.” Only available so far through the BBC iPlayer, the show debuted in 2014 and is quite the homegrown hit, coming from the twisted minds of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, one half of offbeat comedy foursome “The League Of Gentlemen.” The premise is simple: each show takes place in a single “no. 9” location, be it a house, an apartment, a train carriage or whatever, each features at least one of Pemberton and Shearsmith in its cast along with a changing rota of UK TV greats (Sheridan Smith, Gemma Arterton, Conleth Hill, and Helen McCrory have all starred), and each one combines elements of horror and comedy to unique, twisty effect. Without the self-seriousness of Charlie Brooker‘s show, “Inside No.9” while necessarily uneven, has a higher batting average than most and on form can be inspired, such as in the dialogue-free slapstick burglary in season 1 and the hugely wrenching “12 Days Of Christine” in season 2.
2017 BAFTA Best Actress nominee Lesley Manville doesn’t just star in this utterly endearing slice-of life sitcom from writer Stefan Golaszewski (also creator of the great “Him & Her“), but gives the warm, earthy, good-natured, observational humor its heart and soul. She plays 59-year-old Cathy, who, as the six-episode season starts, is preparing to go to the funeral of her husband of many years. In the subsequent months (the show covers a year, picking monthly celebrations in which the cast of characters can plausibly reunite), life goes on. Her relationship with longtime friend Michael (Peter Mullan in a beautifully hesitant and heartrending turn) incrementally develops into something more meaningful, while her sensible kindness even overcomes prickliness from her snobbish sister-in-law and her feckless son’s loud, dim, insecure but completely adorable girlfriend Kelly (breakout Lisa McGrillis, who brilliantly creates a character you can laugh with and at at the same time). Finely attuned to the humanity of all its characters, even the broadest, this is as wonderful a portrait of later-life resilience as Mia Hansen-Løve‘s “Things To Come” and that’s high praise — shame it hasn’t yet been picked up in the U.S., but hopefully the BAFTA recognition will see that change.