Compiling this list was at once easier and harder than anticipated. Easier because, as a lifelong fan of TV comedies, the names sprung readily to mind. Difficult because thinning down the longlist was so agonising. It felt like choosing a favourite child. How could there be no place for a Steptoe, or anyone from Friends or Cheers? Leaving out Sir Humphrey Appleby, Alan Partridge or Homer Simpson seems tantamount to heresy.
Nevertheless, here it is, my final, and doubtless deeply flawed list of the top ten TV sitcom characters of all time (in no particular order). I’ve tried to get a good cross-section of Brits and Americans, and chosen characters from across the decades. But I’m pretty sure that it’s inevitable that I’ll wake up in the middle of the night for weeks to come, and slap my forehead at the memory of some long-forgotten comedy masterpiece. Ho hum.
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10. David Brent – The Office
I would really like to have chosen both Brent and Michael Scott, the corresponding character in the American version of The Office, a genius performance by Steve Carrell. But Ricky Gervais’ grotesque comic creation came first, and was a magnificently tragic portrait of arrogance and self-importance combined with neediness and vulnerability. Watching Brent’s attempts to impress everyone he came into contact with made for the sort of agonisingly awkward TV that you have to watch through your hands. But what made Brent a genuinely classic comedy character was that you still ended up rooting for him.
9. Captain Mainwaring – Dad’s Army
Much like David Brent, Captain George Mainwaring was someone who had been promoted way above his capabilities. A local bank manager and captain of the Home Guard in Walmington-On-Sea, he was a man filled with pomposity and self-regard. An inveterate snob, a stickler for the rules, and a pedant, like Brent, he should have been a loathsome individual. But beneath the bluster there was a different story – of someone with a sense of duty and camaraderie, of loyalty and even occasional kindness. That he was trapped in a loveless marriage with the unseen Elizabeth, and trapped in a career that he knew was going nowhere, made him a deeply sympathetic character – all the more so thanks to a peerless portrayal by Arthur Lowe.
8. Del Boy – Only Fools and Horses
Captain Mainwaring would doubtless be appalled to be on the same list as Del Boy Trotter, a Peckham-based small-time market trader with a somewhat liberal interpretation of the law. David Jason’s career-defining performance made Del Boy arguably the most loved character in British sitcom history. By turns selfish, manipulative and dishonest (particularly in his treatment of younger brother Rodney) he was also kind, generous and loving – he was the glue that held his fragmented family together. In the end, Only Fools and Horses is a show about love and decency, and how it can be found in the most unlikely places. And the most improbable people.
7. Baldrick – Blackadder
Baldrick was always a servant to Blackadder, in the historical sitcom that crisscrossed the ages, from medieval times to The Great War. But in the first series, he was a scheming genius who helped his hapless and dim-witted master out of scrapes. In the last three series, however, the roles were reversed somewhat, in that while Blackadder was a good deal smarter than his earlier incarnation, Baldrick was a turnip-loving halfwit. But – thanks to a divinely daft deadpan performance by Tony Robinson, he was a turnip-loving halfwit who audiences grew to love – never more so than in the last series, Blackadder Goes Forth. The final episode, which saw the men go over the top to almost certain death, was one of the most deeply moving moments in sitcom history, as audiences said goodbye to Blackadder, Darling, George and (sob) Baldrick for the last time.
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6. Hawkeye Pearce – M*A*S*H
From one military tragicomedy to another. M*A*S*H told the story of a US Army medical camp in the Korean War, and was an eloquently comedic illustration of the lunacy of war in the grand tradition of Catch-22. It was also riotously funny. An ensemble comedy with a wonderful array of absurd characters, the show’s beating heart was army surgeon Hawkeye Pearce, played with effortless charm by the great Alan Alda. As well as being irreverent, insubordinate and with a rather eager eye for the ladies, Hawkeye was a brilliant surgeon, and a voice of humanity and sanity amidst the mayhem of conflict. He also mixed a mean Martini.
5. Margo Leadbetter – The Good Life
The Good Life was perhaps my first experience of a sitcom. It was also my first crush (Felicity Kendall – who could blame me?) But rewatching it, my favourite character is Margo. A grotesque snob and a social climber, she was Hyacinth Bucket before Keeping Up appearances ever existed. But there was a good deal more to her than that. She had a big heart, and despite her constant irritation at her unruly neighbours Tom and Barbara, and the transformation of their suburban garden into an allotment-cum-farmyard, she was devoted to them. A loyal and true friend, albeit one who spoke her mind, she was a marvellous comic creation. And the great Penelope Keith was never better – as evidenced by the Best Comedy Performer Bafta she won in 1977.
4. Malcolm Tucker – The Thick of It
A comedy about an unelected Machiavellian mandarin pulling all the strings in the cutthroat world of politics had been done before (see earlier reference to Sir Humphrey Appleby) but it was never done better than this. Malcolm Tucker chimed with what many felt were the characteristics of Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press secretary (although subsequent years have painted him as a rather more sympathetic figure in real life). Peter Capaldi’s breathtakingly funny performance as the power behind the throne was a display of sweary cynicism and constant rage that was glorious in its rawness. You would almost physically flinch when Tucker appeared on screen.
3. Lesley Knope – Parks and Recreation
A political operative of an altogether different kind, Lesley Knope is the kind of politician we could all do with in our lives (and indeed parliaments). Optimistic, idealistic and determined, her conviction that being in charge of the outdoor leisure facilities in Pawnee, Indiana, was akin, in importance, to running the United Nations was genuinely touching. The fact that she ran a department filled with misfits, was thwarted by bureaucracy at every turn, and presided over a litany of disasters, never dampened her sunny outlook and boundless enthusiasm. Amy Poehler’s portrayal of Knope combined a naïve enthusiasm, an iron will, and a touching vulnerability. If you’ve not watched it, this is a feelgood delight with a modern-day heroine at its heart.
2. Basil Fawlty – Fawlty Towers
Of course Basil Fawlty is in here. How could he not be? There were, famously, only 12 episodes of the classic sitcom ever made, but that didn’t stop the show from rewriting comedy history as, in many people’s opinions, the greatest sitcom ever made. Fawlty himself was yet another in a list of comedy grotesques – narrow minded, snobbish, xenophobic, sycophantic, anxious and bullying, he lived in terror of his wife Svbil, and in turn terrorised poor Manuel, the hapless waiter from Barcelona. In the title role, John Cleese displayed brilliant comic timing and magnificent physicality, seemingly constantly panicking and on the verge of mental collapse. He seemed very short of redeeming features, but somehow we rooted for him anyway.
1. Niles Crane – Frasier
I said at the top that this list was in no particular order but, in truth, I have left my favourite of all to last. David Hyde Pierce’s Niles, brother of radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane, and a psychiatrist himself, was a hilarious mix of neuroses, twitches and phobias – certainly a physician in need of healing himself. He was a snob, both intellectually and socially – obsessed with being seen at the best restaurants, drinking the finest wine, and going to the opera. But he was also deeply, effortlessly lovable. His (seemingly unrequited) love for his father’s carer, Daphne, was as tragic as his relationship with his wife Maris who, while never seen, cast a huge shadow over proceedings. In the end, Niles was humane, kind, intelligent, passionate and loyal. And very, very funny. What more could you want in a sitcom character?
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