Report on the BBC1 sitcom ‘My Family’

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2006

15 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Synopsis of the Programme

3. Features of the Genre
3.1. Formal Features of Sitcoms
3.2. Entrapment
3.3. Stereotypical Characters and Situations
3.4. Circular Closure
3.5. Verbal and Visual Humour
3.6. Characteristics of British Humour

4. Signs and Symbols

5. Cultural Awareness

6. Discourse Analysis

7. Audience Reaction

8. Entertainment Value

9. Conclusion

10. List of References

11. Transcripts from My Family

1. Introduction

The decision to deal with situation comedy in this report is primarily based on my general preference for this TV genre and on my appreciation for British humour, for instance series like Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Black Adder. In addition, due to the fact that American sitcoms are an integral part of the German TV landscape, I was familiar with the American standards of this genre, which laid a good foundation for cultural comparisons.

Thus, choosing My Family for the following analysis, I was interested in how a contemporary British family sitcom deviates from its American counterparts, and what comic features constitute such a ‘Britcom’[1]. A second, more pragmatic reason for choosing the programme was the comprehensibility of the language in My Family. In contrast to the alternative Little Britain, it was less colloquial and exhibited, with the exception of Welsh, no hindering dialects or accents, which made it easier to transcribe and analyse.

2. Synopsis of the Programme

My Family is a BBC1 family sitcom revolving around the Harper Family which lives in the North London suburbs. The series is an American-British hybrid, which was created as an answer to the superiority and dominance of American formats (cf. Lewisohn) Contrary to the author-based Britcoms, it is written by a team of American and British writers and overseen by an American producer (Lewisohn; The British Sitcom Guide Homepage – My Family). Therefore, it also exhibits a rather American look (cf. Lewisohn; English Wikipedia – My Family).

The Harper family consists of Ben Harper, a dentist, his wife Susan, a tour guide, and their three children Nick, Janey and Michael.[2] Other characters involved are Abi Harper, the daughter of Ben’s cousin, Rodger Bailey, Ben’s colleague, and Alfie Butts, a friend of Nick who moved in with the family.

The episode contains four strands of plot. In the first storyline Susan is fascinated by a self-help book and invites its author, the American Dr. Buck, to stay at the Harper’s house, while he is visiting the area on a book tour. Dr. Buck continuously flirts with Susan, even when her husband is around. The situation escalates when he tries to seduce Susan and has to face heavy resistance form her, as well as threats of violence from Ben.

The second plot deals with Ben’s longing for social acknowledgement. His application to a country club is turned down, but by chance one of his patients invites him to join a secret society called “The Brotherhood of the Cockerel”. In order to become a member, he must pass an eccentric initiation ceremony, in which he has to dress up as a chicken and imitate its behaviour. Much to Ben’s surprise and regret the brotherhood turns out to be a gay society which celebrates its new member with a stereotypical gay disco.

Michael tries to impress a young woman working at the British museum by presenting her historic artefacts that he allegedly found in the Harper’s garden. In reality he nicked them from the school cabinet. The young scholar realizes the swindle easily and brushes him off, despite his witty and laborious advances.

In the fourth storyline Rodger woos Abi by speaking Welsh to her. Although Rodger just utters profane phrases, which he learnt working at a Welsh tourist shop, Abi regards them as romantic and enchanting. She still remains under the spell of Rodger’s words when Alfie translates Roger’s statements and reveals the truth.

3. Features of the Genre

My Family exhibits the typical characteristics of the sitcom genre as well as a range of peculiarities connected to British humour. A full enumeration and exemplification of all features and facets would go beyond the scope of this report. Thus, only the most striking aspects are discussed.

3.1. Formal Features of Sitcoms

My family exhibits formal features of sitcoms, e.g. its duration of thirty minutes matches the half an hour standard (cf. Whickham; Medhurst & Tuck 1996, 110; Bowes 1990, 128). In addition, it uses canned laughter to create a stimulating comedy atmosphere and the illusion of a collective viewing experience.[3]

3.2. Entrapment

Sitcoms exploit the comedy arising from a set of characters, which are stuck in a consistent situation from which they cannot escape, usually family (family sitcom) or work (working-place sitcom) (cf. Whickham; English Wikipedia – British sitcom). My Family is a domestic sitcom presenting the Harper family and their struggle against the adversities of everyday life and problems arising from family relationships. It covers typical topics, like marital strife, problems of parenting and annoying relatives or friends. Additionally, it also incorporates elements of a work-place sitcom, for example Ben’s profession as a dentist, to increase the variety of possible topics, interactions and guest characters.

British family sitcoms seldom present a ‘perfect family’, but confront viewers with a portrayal of dysfunctional families and problematic family situations (Bowes 1990, 131 et seq.). In this respect, the Harper family is an exception, due to its intact family bonds. This may owe to the influence of the American writers who might prefer the American ideal of an intact nuclear family.

3.3. Stereotypical Characters and Situations

Sitcoms are based on the audience’s familiarity with the characters and their situations. Due to the shortness of these programmes the identities of the protagonists have to be established as quickly as possible, using stereotypical characters, which are easy to recognise, understand and to identify with (cf. Bowes 1990, 129, 134; Medhurst & Tuck 1996, 111 et seq.) In order to create a comic drive, characters also have to be very contrasting. All characters in My Family accord to these principles and can be shortly summarized. Ben Harper is a grumpy and cynical misanthropist who is constantly moaning. His wife Susan is an intelligent and witty control freak, who cannot cook. Michael is an intelligent, studious and geeky adolescent, while Abi is a clumsy, naïve and slightly dim-witted student. Rodger is an optimistic, good-natured and sometimes over-enthusiastic person, and Alfie is an extremely slow and weird Welsh musician.

Like the characters also the situations need to be stereotypical. They have to be predictable, intrinsically comic situations, common areas of social and cultural experiences, which the majority of people are likely to recognise and can identify with (Medhurst & Tuck 1996, 112; Bowes 1990, 132, 137). My Family deals with family and work relations that everybody is basically familiar with, for instance family quarrel and the generation gap, marital strife, embarrassing and annoying aspects of love and affection, or class boundaries and hopes of social advancement.


[1] The term “Britcom“ was coined by American commentators to distinguish British situational comedy from the American one (cf. English Wikipedia, British sitcom)

[2] For an general overview cf. Lewisohn - My Family and The British Sitcom Guide Homepage – My Family

[3] Cf. Ross 1998, 1; Medhurst & Tuck 1996, 113 for the function of canned laughter

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Report on the BBC1 sitcom ‘My Family’
Liverpool John Moores University
English in British Television
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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16 Einträge im Literaturverzeichnis, davon 8 online
Report, BBC1, Family’, English, British, Television
Quote paper
Dipl.Jurist Marco Sievers (Author), 2006, Report on the BBC1 sitcom ‘My Family’, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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