My early morning sit-com viewing continues. And the other day I watched Bread - a sitcom about an extended family, the Boswells, in Liverpool that scrapped to make a living. There is a strong mother at the centre of it who is fiercely loyal to her children, who all live together in a house, with grandad Boswell next door, and the estranged Freddie Boswell turning up now and then.
I watched almost every episode as a child, or teenager, and have great affection for the show, but watching one episode as a one-off one morning last week was rather enlightening. Let me explain why as I note a few thing.
1. Watching the episode in isolation was rather unrewarding. Because it wasn't all that funny. This is not to say that there were lots of jokes in it that didn't work or fell flat. Carla Lane, the writer of the show, knows what she's doing. There were exactly as many laughs are there were meant to be. The comedy, when it happens, is a little sparse at times.
2. Why were the jokes not as thick and fast as I'd have liked? Because the characters are so big and well-developed. They all had stories of their own, and the show covered all of them unashamedly. In one sense, the show is unwieldy. But I really felt that I'd 'heard from' all of the characters by the end of the episode. As a result, I didn't laugh all that much, but I was a little moved at times (in a way that one is not with Bilko or the Big Bang Theory - both fine shows in their own right). At the end of the episode, which was left on a cliff-hanger, I felt I was watching a comedy soap. Again, this is not a bad thing, necessarily. Just an observation.
3. This, then, sounds like a curious show and, given it moves slowly, takes its time over jokes and has lots of characters, would not imply success. And yet its one of the most successful sitcom in BBC history. It was a monster hit show. It ran for years, survived at least three changes in regular cast members (Joey, Aveline, Billy's Julie). And episodes regular drawing ratings of 14 million+. I seem to remember one episode nearly hit 20 million. Yes, there was less choice back that, but that's a juggernaut of a show by anyone's standards. I note, then, that Carla Lane was doing something right. But what?
4. We care about the characters. We really care. When the show doesn't give us a laugh every second, it's okay because she's created a group of people that we want to be with, and we want to succeed. Interestingly, the character that generates the most laughs per minute, in her short time on screen, is the long-suffering stern woman who works in the local Benefits office (DHSS). And she's only in one scene per show.
5. The show had a strong local flavour without being exclusive or annoying. (Even though I find the Scouser accent hard work after a while). It can be done.
6. The show, when you count them up, had quite a lot of catchphrases. Joey's 'Greetings!'. Aveline's 'Modelling'. Mother Boswell answers the phone 'Hello, yes'. And screams, about her ex-husband's girlfriend, 'Lilo Lil' - 'She is a TART!'. There are others. But those have stayed with me for a very very long time. Watching the episode of Bread the other day was like catching up with old friends.
There's lots to learn from Carla Lane's monster hit, Bread.