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Real Life, the Sitcom

Britain's 'Royle Family' gets laughs from a family of couch potatoes. Could Americans get the joke?

April 22, 2001|ELIZABETH JENSEN | Elizabeth Jensen is a Times staff writer

LONDON — British television viewers have recently been captivated by "The Royle Family," but the spelling indicates, it's not the one in Buckingham Palace.

Creator, co-writer, star and third-season director Caroline Aherne's fictional sitcom family, which has mesmerized U.K. audiences through a scant 20 episodes dribbled out over the past three years, couldn't be further from British nobility.

Dad (Ricky Tomlinson) scratches his private parts, passes gas and badgers sullen teen son Antony (rising star Ralf Little), the entire family's errand boy, to go out and get cigarettes. Mom's (Sue Johnston) favorite conversational gambit is asking visitors what they had for tea, or supper, and the many pregnant pauses in conversation often get filled by her offer of a snack or a cigarette. Self-obsessed daughter Denise (Aherne) buys a leather jacket through a catalog, plans her wedding to fiance Dave (co-writer Craig Cash) and, in later episodes, proves to be an indifferent mother. Other characters come and go, but the real star of the show is the television set, which is always on and always the center of attention as the human characters take up their familiar positions on the living room couch and chairs, where almost all the action takes place.

In a TV world in which viewers are flocking to programs with contrived, highly edited scenarios that purport to portray reality, "The Royle Family" makes perfect sense.

There are no one-liners, no laugh track, no audience, only one camera, and the show is shot in real time. It's life-scripted, to be sure, but life-as lived in a northern England lower-middle-class housing complex, in half-hour increments of life's plodding familiarity. And for many viewers, it's very funny. Despite its extreme subtlety, it could even represent what the future may look like for the struggling American sitcom, which is searching for new forms.

Why is listening to a woman ask, for the umpteenth time, about someone else's tea funny?

"You either get it or you don't," says British actress Brenda Blethyn, a fan. "It's so truthful, so honest. I adore it. I have friends who loathe it."

As for Blethyn, the appeal for many viewers seems to be the reality Aherne brings home. "These are characters that, once you get to know them, you expect you could turn the corner in Manchester and there they would be," says Danielle Lux, controller of entertainment commissioning for the BBC.

When it first came on in Britain, viewers were "watching the screens saying, 'Oh my God, that's us.' It took us a year to start laughing," says Paul Lee, chief operating officer of the U.S. cable channel BBC America, which began airing the first six episodes last August. "Once you hear the cyclical conversation for the seventh time, your reaction turns from horror to complete hilarity."

Underpinning it all is the sense that the family members, no matter how much they bicker, care deeply for one another, not unlike the families in "Roseanne" or the even earlier "All in the Family." That sentiment comes through poignantly in Aherne's favorite episode, when pregnant Denise's water breaks and her awkward father is sent to the bathroom to keep her company while her "mam" fetches a taxi. Actor Ben Kingsley, who does a dead-on impression of the dialogue, calls the series "Chekhov," and Lux prefers to call it a "soap-com."

"The reality shows people are watching in America now sound fake because they are fake," says Lee. "Her show is a comedy that sounds real. The fact that they watch television the whole time reminds me of the early [Harold] Pinters, they are so painfully real. I'm sure she didn't mean it, but it is the moment where true fiction is more real than reality."

British TV has a recent history of risk-taking series, but Aherne's show, whose entire run is coming to BBC America in June, was considered so far out of the norm that it almost didn't make it on air.

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