Culture, Taste and Contestation in British Television Comedy, 1961 - 1969

  • Michael Potter

Student thesis: Phd


The thesis makes three broad arguments about television comedies and their audiences in the 1960s. My research will highlight how comedy and responses to it engaged with debates about the perceived large scale social and cultural changes taking place during the decade. I challenge the dominant progressive narratives of the period and argue for a more differentiated and nuanced view of the 1960s. In so doing, first, I interrogate the characterisation of the period as post-Victorian and liberal and, consequently, challenge the extent of popular participation in contemporary social, cultural and economic change. Second, my thesis contends that British comedies were sites of cultural contestation where debates about taste and acceptable public discourse were conducted. Finally, I explore how social identity was constructed and challenged both in the texts and production of the comedies and in the audience response to these. Chapter One examines the comedy double-act of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise in their off-screen activities and in their television programmes Two of a Kind and The Morecambe and Wise Show. It argues that ‘ordinariness’ was persistently championed in all aspects of their self-promotion and representation. Consequently, their style of humour was premised on the deflation of all forms of cultural pretension. The chapter also highlights how the mainstream popularity of the duo challenges any straightforwardly progressive reading of Britain in the 1960s, grounded in cultural modernism. Chapter Two explores two sitcoms written by Johnny Speight: Till Death Us Do Part and Curry and Chips. I argue that Speight’s own confusion about questions of race and immigration in the contemporary period was reproduced in his scripts which, consequently, pointed to his unstable and, oft-times, anxious handling of British social change. Speight’s sitcoms, however, invited a popular conservative backlash from critical viewers. I highlight how, in response to these two programmes, the audience made strong claims about taste and acceptability and, by extension, their self-identity. The third chapter focuses on Steptoe and Son and argues that it served as a key site where the supposed contemporary social advancement and material affluence of the working classes was strongly contested in televisual terms. This sitcom offered a representation of Victorian poverty existing into the period of the so-called ‘Affluent Society’. Viewers became voyeurs of the Steptoes’ social world. Steptoe and Son, as characters, had limited social mobility; they were excluded from the social, cultural and economic advancements of the 1960s, despite Harold’s best endeavours to participate. The final chapter examines the BBC’s satirical programme That Was The Week That Was. TW3 has become synonymous with 1960s social change, emblematic of the youthful and liberal backlash against the conservative, establishment Britain. I highlight that whilst the texts of these programmes support this view, the response from some viewers evidenced the persistence of conservative and deferential attitudes well into the 1960s. Viewers utilised the programme to make assertions about their own and others’ identity.
Date of Award1 Aug 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMax Jones (Supervisor) & Frank Mort (Supervisor)


  • comedy
  • culture
  • conservatism
  • poverty
  • Steptoe and Son
  • affluence
  • Victorian
  • audience
  • distinction
  • cultural capital
  • decline
  • That Was The Week That Was
  • TW3
  • identity
  • Otherness
  • 1960s
  • Sixties
  • ordinariness
  • music hall
  • variety
  • humour
  • funny
  • Enoch Powell
  • satire
  • Morecambe and Wise
  • race
  • Johnny Speight
  • Spike Milligan
  • Till Death Us Do Part
  • Curry and Chips
  • class
  • television

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