The problem with My Family and other animals
Andrew Mickel25 March 2011
My Family has been axed. You probably don't care. You're probably right not to. But what it once got right is where TV family comedy should go next, says Andrew Mickel
Families, eh? You always wish they would give you some space, but when they finally leave you alone, you curse the BBC One commissioners who have axed them.
Well, okay, you probably don't: My Family's continual recommissioning for eleven long series stands as testament to the near-absolute lack of successful family comedies in the UK.
It is largely forgotten now, but when the show first started it was lauded for introducing American-style processes to creating sitcoms, namely the use of a team of writers instead of the solo writers or pairs that typically got shows to the screen.
The first few series – the first couple of years being jointly overseen by Fred Barron and Geoffrey Perkins – had a light touch that was standard in American family sitcoms, but absent from their British counterparts.
Sound unlikely? Well, its worth remembering that this was a time when ITV still made sitcoms. Goodnight Sweetheart and The Grimleys were among the alternatives on air.
By comparison, My Family, with its decent-enough scripts, actorly actors and Daisy Donovan in a prime time slot, was about as daring as could be expected.
That wasn't kept in place for very long. The programme had a remarkable propensity to create lows for itself that you thought it couldn't surpass, before managing to excavate through the basement if its imagination and create entirely new ones. In that sense My Family is, in many ways, the British answer to the Black Eyed Peas.
First there was the efforts to introduce new blood after Kris Marshall left with his BT family (I like to imagine his ads are a spinoff from My Family, but that his BT wife doesn't let him call his parents).
There was not one but two comedy Welsh characters – nothing as funny as a regional accent! – but the real low point was when younger son Michael was made gay, despite the fact there was no previous indication of that for ten series. Just one day, poof, he's gay. That is what would pass for exploring new frontiers in plotting.
The sneering at the show has long predated these problems, though, as it does for pretty much any gentle family comedy: what was essentially the New Labour era's 2 point 4 Children was never going to be a critic-friendly show. Kudos is due for Zoe Wanamaker and Robert Lindsay for sticking with it, even though even they had started to publicly grumble about the writing in the last few years.
But as the programme was quietly shunted into the Friday night graveyard for TV shows, and Danny Cohen is continuing to clean out the rather tired programmes he's finding at the back of the BBC One cupboard, it's time was clearly up.
So where does that leave family-friendly comedy? Scripting on the most recent efforts, After You've Gone and The Life of Riley, made My Family look like Proust. In the absence of any obvious shows (I'm disbarring the recently-promoted-to-BBC One Miranda here, which seems to appeal to jaded adults rather than explicitly to families), it's CBBC that seems to generate the most family-friendly comedy: first Sorry I've Got No Head and then the slow-burning success of Horrible Histories, both created on shoestring budgets.
My Family isn't going to be missed, but what it did well in the early days – knowing its audience and catering exclusively for them, haters be damned – is exactly what the CBBC shows do well. In the absence of anything else from the BBC One commissioners, prime time could do worse than promoting some of its junior counterparts to the fore.
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