Goodbye to Friends

Radio Times's TV editor laments the passing of a great sitcom

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In a time long ago and far away, I went on a press trip to a major Hollywood studio, Warner Bros.

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A clutch of other British TV critics and I were to join our global fellows in a great-big “Foreign Press” (as we were called) love-in for Warner’s absolutely huge shows. At that time these included ER and Friends, and some towering piles of crap, the names of which I, and I doubt anyone else, can now remember.

A week in Los Angeles, being ferried by minibus from our hotel to the studio every morning and back again in the evening. Cocooned in LA. With just each other for company. It was like being stifled by melting vanilla ice cream while being prodded with rulers.

All the surrounding bars shut at 9.30pm because everyone in LA goes to bed at ten because they are up at 6am to eat abominations known as “egg-white omelettes”. So, a group of British TV critics who couldn’t find a drink. Have you seen the film Cloverfield? Remember the raging monster? That was us.

Our days were spent on the lot (as we showbiz folk called the studio) going slightly silly. I had my picture taken in ER’s ambulance bay, and we had studio tours on golf buggies. Then there were the press conferences in a hangar. Look, it’s the cast of ER! But without George Clooney. Oh the disappointment!

And look! Here’s the cast of Friends! Jennifer Aniston! Courteney Cox! Matthew Perry! Matt Le Blanc! Lisa Kudrow! This is EXCITING! And don’t they all look very fed up?

I can’t say I blamed them for being sullen, who wouldn’t look glum if someone with a heavy Norwegian accent kept asking you, “What’s it like on set? Are you really friends?” while someone from Japan asked something none of us could make out at all.

I loved Friends, and I hated to see them so miffed. It was an early lesson in never, ever meeting/seeing anyone from TV that you adore. They are actors, not characters. But I returned home with my Friends CD and mug and armfuls of T-shirts for myself and relatives. Because – did I mention this? – I loved Friends.

The episode of Friends on E4 this Sunday (at 6.00pm and again at 8.00pm) will be the last to be shown on either E4 or Channel 4 after 15 years. Friends accompanied me through life for years.

Those E4 double bills between 8pm and 9pm were little touchstones of joy. There was rarely a bum episode (apart from the season where they were joined by Ross’s boring British girlfriend, Emily, and those catastrophically patronising London episodes over which we will draw an asbestos blanket and pretend they never happened.)

I broke my nightly Friends addiction some years ago. I actually forbade myself to watch, because it was just getting silly. But I slip sometimes, and dip in. And they are great, they don’t age because the humour is classic and timeless and the gags are superb and the characters are just so winning.

For me the first four seasons of Frasier will always be the finest ever TV sitcom. But Friends came very, very close. It was astonishingly consistent in a way that Frasier wasn’t because its later series were awful.

Friends always wore its familiarity with panache, in that you could watch episodes you’d seen countless times before, and still laugh and still have fun.

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I know C4/E4 must move on, but I feel a little bit of me has gone, too.