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Sunday, December 5, 2021

The world’s first sitcom: why you’re still watching Pinwright’s Progress 75 years later

Unfortunately, Alexandra Palace’s studio B was already very cramped. In a room about the size of a tennis court were two sets, two huge cameras mounted on two-wheeled chassis, and a 12-piece orchestra which played the theme music and three or four comic songs each episode. Glyn-Jones ended up with an audience of six, a mixture of extras, out-of-work television actors, and a woman called Doris Hoy. “We know nothing about her,” a BBC memo helpfully noted.  

The first series of six episodes went well enough that a second series was commissioned shortly after the second episode, on 16 December – though only four were made thanks to a fuel crisis. 

After Pinwright’s Progress ended, Hobson’s attempts to get more commissions from the BBC were met with indifference. Kavanagh went back to ITMA and Glyn-Jones stayed in production at the BBC for a few years before returning to acting. But their influence on a genre that’s given British TV many of its most famous characters and beloved moments is huge.

Traditionally, the history of sitcoms says that they started in America with I Love Lucy and in Britain with Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, both of which permanently welded a kitchen sink sensibility to our take on the genre. 

But Pinwright’s Progress was already half an hour long, with regular characters interacting in the same setting, commissioned and written in a run of six episodes. It’s a lot perkier than Steptoe and Son, but here’s another scrappy, hand-to-mouth setting 15 years before the gates to the rag and bone yard opened. 

You can imagine the pitch for Pinwright’s Progress still being commissioned too – Channel 4’s Phone Shop, from 2010, wasn’t a million miles away. Mills is quite surprised at how fully formed Pinwright’s Progress was. “I find this fascinating, actually,” says Mills, “because it kind of undercuts everything that I’ve said for decades.”

Most of all, Pinwright is a classic little man of British sitcom, convinced of his genius but beaten by his own shortcomings.  “The idea that your main character is somebody who just repeatedly encounters disasters, again, is a very British idea,” says Mills. “That’s Hancock, that’s Basil Fawlty, that’s David Brent, that’s Del Boy.”

The final scene of Pinwright’s Progress on 16 May 1947 saw the shopkeeper marched off to prison when he boasted to a customer about how lax he was with rationing coupons and tax arrangements, only to find the customer was actually the tax inspector. His story didn’t end there, though; he’s still there, in the DNA of every British sitcom that followed him.

(BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved)

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