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Retro sitcoms not so right on

Who would have believed, a few short years ago, that the defining trend in television comedy in the second decade of the 21st century would be a return to the style of the 1970s?

The reign of sitcoms that traded in racial and sexual stereotypes, and of smug club comedians wearing tuxedos and telling mother-in-law jokes, was supposed to have been swept away by the alternative comedy avalanche of the Eighties.

Yet, here we are in 2013 and the highest-rated comedy on Irish and British TV features a coarse former cabaret comedian dragged up as an irascible oul' wan in a floral smock, recycling gags so old they had mould growing on them when Benny Hill was still chasing scantily clad totty around the park.



The only thing that separates Mrs Brown's Boys from the sitcoms of the Seventies is the copious use of the F-word. Other than that, you could be sat on your tan leatherette armchair circa 1972, stuffing your face with Vesta beef curry and washing it down with a glass of lukewarm Blue Nun, while the kids played outside on their Raleigh Choppers.

Brendan O'Carroll might be the one leading this retro-charge back to the decade that taste forgot, but plenty of others have been eager to jump on the bandwagon. Looking through this week's TV schedules, it's as if the last 40 years never happened.

Tonight, for example, sees the second of female comedy duo Watson & Oliver's dreadful sketch shows on BBC2. This is a channel that used to be considered a left-field alternative to the more mainstream BBC1, and yet it's running a comedy so middle-of-the-road you suspect the script pages have white lines painted down the centre. Watson & Oliver is poor, although not quite as jaw-droppingly awful as The Wright Way, the new sitcom from Ben Elton. I say "new", but The Wright Way is really just a reworking of Elton's own Nineties sitcom The Thin Blue Line, with the action switched from a police station to a health and safety department.

Instead of an anally retentive cop played by Rowan Atkinson, we get an anally retentive civil servant played by David Haig – a good actor who's reduced to shouting every line at the top of his voice in the vain hope that making it louder will make it funnier.

Elton used to write comedies that were sharp, smart, funny and appealed to a mass audience. He seems to have forgotten how. This week's episode of The Wright Way, which featured hapless H&S head Gerald trying to prove that playing conkers is dangerous (do kids even play conkers any more?), managed to be even worse than last week's.



Between all the painfully lame and frequently dated gags about waxing, metrosexuals, piercings, Japanese game shows, checkout queue-jumpers and The Daily Mail – a disappointingly soft target for an old leftie like Elton – it set a new record for the number of knob and humping jokes you can squeeze into a half hour.

On Monday, ITV premiered two new sitcoms, Vicious, starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as an elderly gay couple who've been together for nearly 50 years, and The Job Lot, which is set in an employment centre.

I enjoyed Vicious more than most, judging by some of the reviews, primarily because of the gloriously over-the-top performances of its veteran stars. But there's no denying it's very much a traditional sitcom.

The Job Lot, on the other hand, couldn't be more different; it's shot on film and dispenses with a live audience. If it resembles anything, it's The Office – which, ironically, makes it feel a different kind of old-fashioned.

It's been a full 12 years since Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's comedy first appeared. At this stage, its quasi-realistic, handheld camera style has been so heavily copied by other comedies that it's already become a cliche in itself.

Sitcoms will probably have to get a lot worse before they get better. In the meantime, don't bet against there being a comedy committee plotting how to reboot On the Buses, Love Thy Neighbour and George & Mildred.