The history of British comedy is a history of ever-increasing male humiliation. Let’s start in the Seventies, the decade of declinism and brown suits. Forced to bear witness to both is Basil Fawlty, the supreme specimen of self-righteous control-freakery who, shorn of Empire and role, is doomed to patrol a seaside town far from any front or position. Advance through his successors, and see the punishing realism cranked up each time. Discarded pensioner and domestic authoritarian Victor Meldrew. Showbiz’s great charisma-bypass Alan Partridge. And David Brent, the most vibrantly hideous character introduced to a British audience since David Copperfield first noticed Uriah Heep at Mr Wickfield’s window.
All have lofty ideas of station and status and all have these ideas disappointed. All are repulsed by a hostile, progressive world. And all are shown in the process to be (to varying degrees) trapped, spiteful, grasping, status-obsessed and self-deluding. It’s a comic instinct that speaks to something masochistic in the British spirit. Some sense that human dignity really is only as thick as a sticking plaster, but that tearing it back to expose our wounds and prejudices is in fact cathartic — cringe-making yet somehow soothing. It is through these embarrassments of men that we strangely choose to represent and interpret our culture.
Much psycho-historical ink has been spilt on the roots of this national quirk. Is it the bad British weather? Perhaps it’s a sublimation of glories lost, of needing to find a personification for superpower contraction. It’s a seductive theory — while other countries (France) tried to physically cling on to empire, we channelled the loss of ours into making people laugh. Whatever the cause, it has generated a streak of vicious, self-lacerating humour, which always works best when targeted at flawed cases of masculine psychology. It’s a tradition that has a culminating triumph in Peep Show, which marks its 20th birthday tomorrow, and despite its age, is increasingly emerging as the defining British sitcom of the early 21st century.