Have you seen The Inbetweeners Movie yet? If not, you should. It’s genuinely funny, faithful to the TV show and, dare I say it, even a little bit heart-warming. Oh sure, the critics have made a meal of the film’s cruder elements, but as an adjunct to the series it’s near perfect. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it the best sitcom adaptation since 2009’s In the Loop brought the madness of the BBC’s political satire The Thick of It to the big screen.
But that’s not really saying much. It’s taken movie-makers decades to work out how to properly adapt British TV’s popular comedy programmes for the multiplex-going masses. For years, producers were content to churn out cheap, crude, half-hearted film versions of a score of classic sitcoms, none of which managed to capture the feeling, or the humour, of their source material.
Don’t get me wrong – more recent sitcom films like Guest House Paradiso (Bottom: the Movie, for all intents and purposes) and The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse are far from terrible, but the evolution of the sitcom movie’s been a long, slow trundle.
Though one or two movies based on TV sitcoms were made in the late 50s and early 60s (of The Army Game and Whack-O!), the format’s heyday was without doubt the 1970s, after television had replaced the nightly journey to the pictures in the lives of the public. Naturally, this led to movie producers conspiring to get people back into cinemas by offering them big-screen adaptations of their favourite TV programmes.
Early sitcom movies tended to go one of two ways: they were either truncated compilations of previously seen material from TV or brand-new feature-length yarns.
Examples of the former – what you might call the recycling school of sitcom movie-making, like Dad’s Army or Rising Damp, which simply appropriated odds and ends of their respective TV scripts to make “greatest hits” features out of their sources – demonstrate a cheap and easy way of avoiding the headaches that come from generating something original, despite being a bit of a con for the audience.
Mind you, the same could be said of their all-original competition. Faced with the daunting task of stretching a 30-minute TV format out for an hour and a half, the writers of many early original sitcom adaptations ended up with scripts big on padding and short on laughs.
Take the two films made of Steptoe and Son, both of which appeared in the early 70s. They’ve both got decent ideas at their cores, but ideas best suited to a half-hour show. The first film descends into bleak, kitchen-sink drama to pad out its last 50 minutes, while the second runs out of steam after about three quarters of an hour, dragging out every subsequent scene at the pace of a particularly idle glacier in order to get the thing up to feature length.
But padding wasn’t the only blight of early sitcom flicks. Bizarrely ignoring the fact that people turned up to these films in order to see their favourite faces from the telly, film-makers often made the mistake of introducing new characters to provide a spark for their feature. Porridge, which was made into a film in 1979, is a particularly egregious example, sidelining Ronnie Barker’s Fletcher and bringing in a new, utterly unlikeable young character named Rudge as the movie’s protagonist.
One further sitcom movie cliché, so prevalent that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant mocked it in the feature-length episode of Extras, is the tactic of sending a show’s characters abroad in order to get some laughs out of a new situation, which is what the makers of The Inbetweeners Movie have done.
But the difference between Will and the gang’s larks in the sun and something like Are You Being Served?, which also sends its cast of characters off to warmer climes, is the quality of the writing on display, and the presence of a bit of money on screen. Inbetweeners is a subtle (yes, despite all the vomit and bare bums), well-rounded, nicely shot, believable tale; the latter a cheap farce, chock-full of material lifted from the TV show and staged on sets of “classic” Doctor Who levels of wobbliness.
Happily, sitcom movie-makers have been bucking their ideas up since the abolition of the Eady Levy, having to work harder for their box-office returns. In fact, the state of sitcom adaptations has improved to such an extent over the past two decades that In the Loop’s screenplay earned an Oscar nomination, something that never happened in the case of Mutiny on the Buses and the like.
Maybe what’s happened is that comedy itself has changed. Broad caricatures, catchphrases and bargain basement production values no longer cut the mustard in today’s arguably more sophisticated climate.
The Inbetweeners Movie works so well because its principle cast are proper three-dimensional characters, who experience a hilarious, but moving and emotionally intelligent, journey throughout the film. Yes, there are a fair few visual gags about poo and “gentlemen’s relaxation” you probably wouldn’t want to watch with your grandmother, but there’s a surprising amount of heart, integrity and wit about the film that proves a sitcom can be turned into a genuinely good film, and not just a cheap cash-in.
With films like In the Loop and The Inbetweeners Movie not only looking as good as Hollywood comedies, but also outdoing them in terms of humour, characterisation and execution, the future looks bright for British sitcom adaptations. Will, Jay, Neil and Simon might have walked off into the sunset at the end of their film, but on the evidence of cinema-goers’ reactions and box-office receipts, there’ll be another bunch of characters waiting to step into their shoes to convince comedy fans to switch off the box, abandon their DVDs and go hunting for their laughs on the big screen all over again.