Whenever you scan through those 'Best British Sitcoms Ever' lists, there's a couple of things you'll notice:
1. We've produced some HILARIOUS sitcoms
2. Most of these sitcoms are male led affairs
Yes, whilst Absolutely Fabulous, The Liver Birds and Miranda will all sneak in, they're mostly in the minority. And, sure, many of the other sitcoms will feature strong, female characters, but they're almost always shackled to a male lead with an equal share in power. Now, the reasons why there's such an imbalance in the genders - when it comes to celebrated sitcoms - is far too deep and complex to be tackled on a humble blog post, so I won't be attempting that.
Neither shall I be writing about Absolutely Fabulous, The Liver Birds and Miranda as they've all been covered within an inch of their lives a thousand times before. Instead, I'll be sticking to the Curious British Telly ethos of highlighting the lesser known gems; in this case, female led sitcoms that perhaps you caught an episode or two of, but can't quite remember the name of. And, whilst some of these are rightfully forgotten, there are many more which still demand a bit of recognition.
So, without further ado, here's 15 Female Led British Sitcoms You May Have Missed:
1. Girls on Top - ITV (Central) - 1985 to 1986
Amanda Ripley (Dawn French) is a liberal journalist with an outspoken dislike of men (secretly, though, she craves men) and has just secured herself a flat in Chelsea. Unfortunately, the rent is well out of her reach and she's forced to search for flatmates to help contribute. And what a curious array of characters they are.
Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders) has all the assertiveness of a dormouse enrobed in a wet blanket and provides a useful target for taking frustrations out on, but has ambition and intelligence hidden beneath this meek bushel as she briefly becomes a master of the stock market in one episode. Shelly DuPont (Ruby Wax) is a brash American with a gob bigger than Alaska and aspirations of becoming an actress, disliked by almost everyone, it's only her limitless trust fund which keeps her in the flat.
Candice (Tracey Ullman) is only present in the first series (due to a pregnancy in real life), but brings a brassy air to proceedings as the gold digging misfit with an uncontrollable libido whom the others, at one point, suspect of being a prostitute. The final character in the mix is Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood) who is the girls' landlady, an aging eccentric who made her money in romantic fiction.
Although less anarchic and violent than The Young Ones, there's plenty of japes housed within Girls on Top such as Jennifer losing Lady Carlton's stuffed dog whilst walking it, Amanda forces two youngsters into being a new reggae sensation for the upcoming street festival and Shelley ends up winning the prestigious part of a tadpole.
Written by the cast, Girls on Top is a fantastic blast of comedy with sharp dialogue from performers who were evolving into something very special. It was also blessed with absolute wealth of talent in supporting roles with Alan Rickman, Helen Lederer, Hugh Laurie, Pauline Quirke and Robbie Coltrane just a few of the names providing an extra sheen. Although not as iconic as other sitcoms from the same era, Girls on Top is a worthy addition to the sitcom hall of fame.
2. The Happy Apple - ITV (Thames) - 1983
Advertising is a difficult old game and capturing that magic moment of engagement which will draw in the customers is a skill which even the life long marketing pros struggle with at times. Sometimes, though, inspiration can be discovered in the most unlikeliest of places as observed in The Happy Apple.
Nancy Gray (Leslie Ash) is the seemingly ditzy secretary at advertising agency Murray, Maine and Spender, but behind this undereducated persona is an almost supernatural ability to understand exactly which products and slogans with complete ease thanks to her position as Mrs Average. Naturally, this improves the fortunes of Murray, Maine and Spencer, but as Nancy seeks to better herself there's the risk she'll lose her marketing prowess.
Although The Happy Apple helped to act as a springboard for Leslie Ash's sitcom career, it's a series which failed to ever fully engage the viewers' funny bones and, as a result, is frequently referred to as "dire", "the worst sitcom ever" and a "rubbish sitcom". Had Nancy Gray ever been consulted on the potential of The Happy Apple to attract an audience, then it's fair to say that it would have been immediately consigned to the rubbish bin.
3. Screaming - BBC1 - 1992
Carla Lane was somewhat of a master (or should that be mistress?) when it came to writing female led sitcoms, but some were more memorable than others. And Screaming appears to be one that's fallen into the slipstream of her more successful efforts, but still remains an intriguing piece of work.
Rachael (Jill Baker) has been distraught for the last year following the death of her lover Ralph (Tim Berrington) and, when she's not teaching keep fit lessons to the mentally ill, she's crying over loss. She now lives with Annie (Gwen Taylor) who is struggling to get a divorce agreed with her ex-husband and Beatrice (Penelope Wilton) who has never succeeded in finding long term love. Little does Rachael know, though, that both Annie and Beatrice experienced passionately charged sexual liaisons with Ralph in the past.
And, uh oh, Ralph is suddenly back in town! He's not dead, you see, Rachael just couldn't bear to admit that he'd walked out on her. However, before Ralph and Rachael can reconcile, Ralph is involved in a nasty traffic accident and ends up in hospital with two broken legs. Once our three heroines all discover Ralph's dalliances they're determined not to give into him again, but he's just so charming and handsome...
Screaming is a curious sitcom as, although it has the set up of a traditional sitcom, it's far from conventional. Carla Lane serves up lengthy discussions of female focused issues such as the aging process and its impact of femininity and whole scenes are handed over to investigating mental health issues at Rachael's keep fit classes. And there's also a rather gory closeup of a blood splattered pavement following Ralph's accident. It sure ain't The Liver Birds.
It's not a sitcom which is regularly feted and, sure, there are some terrible gags in there, but we're also treated to some very sharp zingers by Lane's scripts. And the actresses themselves are also on magnificent form, particularly Gwen Taylor and Penelope Wilton who bring their comic finesse to the table and coat their characters with an engaging sheen. Screaming may not be for everyone, but if you're a diehard fan of comedy then it's well worth an episode or two at least.
4. Maggie and Her - ITV (LWT) - 1978 to 1979
Another sitcom focusing on a single female looking for love, Maggie and Her (originally entitled Poppy and Her in the 1976 pilot episode) found divorced school teacher Maggie Brooks (Julia McKenzie) living next door to the much older Mrs Perry aka Mrs P (Irene Handl) whose main hobby appeared to be poking her nose into Maggie's private life.
It may sound a rather cliched setup, and one that's doomed to all the pitfalls associated with cosy sitcoms of the 1970s, but thankfully there's plenty of variety on offer. Episodes involved Maggie going on dates with dry cleaners, Mrs P spending habits spiralling out of control, Maggie visiting a psychologist to get to the root of her relationship issues and Mrs P taking a job at Maggie's school to keep an eye on her.
Although it's not a sitcom which leaves you rolling on the floor convulsing with laughter, the scripts are packed full of sharp barbs between Maggie and Mrs P to ensure that their cross generational bickering sparkles rather than becoming petty. And the reason that this dialogue shines so brightly is thanks to the wondeful chemistry manifesting itself between McKenzie and Handl who both deliver fine performances.
5. Split Ends - ITV (Granada) - 1989
As Angie Watts, Anita Dobson was involved in some of the most gripping storylines to hit Eastenders during her tenure on the show. Following her exit from Albert Square in 1988, though, it was time to search for new projects and Split Ends was one of the first.
Set in the London salon Teasers, Split Ends found owner Cath Gordon (Anita Dobson) struggling to find love and settle down as her forties rapidly approached. Constantly harangued by her mother Ruth (Barbara New) to get married, Cath soon finds herself planning nuptials with work obsessed American stockbroker Clint (Harry Ditson). However, Cath also has her sights set on Teasers' head stylist David (Peter Blake) who does a nice line in smooth talking the ladies and perms.
With her lovelife somewhat of a minefield, Cath is unable to find much solace at Teasers either as her staff are equally as tempestuous and spend a lot of time in the backroom drinking tea. Aretha (Nimmy March) is cursed by an unrequited love, yobbish YTS trainee Lee (Lee Whitlock) specialises in vulgarity and Herbie (Robin Davies) as the somewhat cliched effeminate stylist.
Although it found a dedicated audience, it was rather small and the general consensus was that it was weak and wooden, so it's no surprise that Granada cancelled Split Ends after one series. Dobson, many years later, summed up the series as "Inordinately well-paid, but not very successful. The scripts just weren't right. You can't short-cut scripts. If the writing isn't there, then you're just plucking tricks out of the air to colour it" and this is probably why she's remembered more for being Angie Watts than Cath Gordon.
6. Babes in the Wood - ITV - 1998 to 1999
Much hype preceded the launch of Babes in the Wood with its array of beautiful, contemporary TV stars and it was even marketed as a vague rival to the globe straddling success that was Friends, albeit with a bit more raunch and girl power.
Set in St John's Wood, Babes in the Wood concentrated on the exploits of three women in their 20s sharing a flat. Ruth (Samantha Janus) was the overbearing leader, Leigh (Denise Van Outen) had a savvy honed at the university of life and Caralyn (Natalie Walter) was blissfully dumb. Ruth left after the first series and was replaced by wannabe model Frankie (Madeleine Curtis). Meanwhile, Charlie Lovall (Karl Howman) was the girls' neighbour struggling with the financial hardships of divorce, but had retained his beloved Porsche.
Babes in the Wood was, sadly, somewhat of a disaster. Hackneyed gags coupled with suspect acting from Denise Van Outen meant that it was stumbling from the start to finish and never managed to capture the feisty spirit the writers were aiming for. Somehow, though, the series was recommissioned and, at the very least, it ensured we saw more of the ever reliable Karl Howman, but in terms of empowering its female triumvirate the series fell well short.
7. Honey For Tea - BBC1 - 1994
Having engraved her name in British sitcom folklore as Barbara Good in The Good Life, Felicity Kendall is generally associated with the huge success of that sitcom. However, she made a number of other forays into the sitcom genre and one of these was Honey For Tea.
Following the death of her wealthy husband, the American mother and son pairing of Nancy Belasco (Felicity Kendall) and Jake (Patrick McCollough) have been declared insolvent. However, before he passed on, Nancy's husband invested a large amount of money into St Maud's College, Cambridge. Sensing an opportunity to use her deceased husband's standing with the college, Nancy flies to England to guilt trip the college into offering her a job and Jake a sports scholarship - a feat she achieves despite the reticence of college master, Sir Dickie Hobhouse (Leslie Phillips).
Appointed as an assistant bursar, Nancy manages to secure a number of lucrative investments to cement her position at St Maud's and helps Jake get a place at the college by claiming that he's an Olympic rower. With Nancy firmly in place at St Maud's, it's time for her to get stuck into narratives which see her involved with student protests over rent, using all her wiles to extort a pay rise and struggling to keep Jake enrolled.
Despite Honey For Tea featuring a cast packed full of sitcom experience and a fine writer in the form of Michael Aitkins, the series got a kicking from the critics and, more importantly, failed to win over viewers.
Part of this failure is down to the scripts which contain ambitious, but wittering dialogue which severely limits the series' laugh quota. However, whilst the dialogue is disappointing, what truly sinks Honey For Tea is Felicity Kendal's abysmally awkward American accent. It grates to levels hitherto thought impossible for such a fine actress and leaves you reaching for your boxset of The Good Life.
8. Dream Stuffing - Channel 4 - 1984
Back in the good old days of terrestrial TV, the launch of a new channel was always a very special cultural event as it only ever seemed to occur roughly every 15 years. The launch of Channel 4 promised great things with a more liberal output designed to be in sharp contrast to that on the other three available channels. And helping to shore up the early schedules was Dream Stuffing.
Jude (Rachel Weaver) is a saxophone playing New Romantic with artistic aspirations and a highly dubious/unique fashion sense. Unable to find employment, she spends her days in a grotty East London council flat, but she's not on her own as she's got a flatmate in the shape of Mo (Amanda Symonds) who's a bit more grounded in terms of outlook, fashion sense and - for a few episodes at least - employment, blessed as she is with a job at a glass eye factory.
Together, Jude and Mo pester the DHSS for employment opportunities (or try to scam extra benefits), try to fix their central heating to escape the intolerable cold and also find themselves taking in Mo's friend Brenda (Caroline Quentin) who has just given birth to a baby. Other characters that feature include Mo's mother May (Maria Charles) who just loves to grouse about all and sundry, whilst Richard (Ray Burdis) is their gay next door neighbour who appears to be running a breakers yard from his flat with his father Bill (Frank Lee).
Writing in The Guardian, just after the first episode aired, Martin Walker describe Dream Stuffing as "Heroically bad", but, frankly, that's a little harsh. Sure, it's not perfect and certainly doesn't compete well against Girls on Top, but there's a welcome comic relief in between the less engaging plots and the weaker gags. And it's so 80s that it's a worthy time capsule of the era where rising unemployment is tackled, CD players are considered highly aspirational items and Boy George is held up as a fashion icon.
9. Come Back Mrs Noah - BBC1 - 1978
With a particularly far fetched plot which sees Mrs Noah (Mollie Sugden) being accidentally blasted into space following a guided tour round Britain's new space station Britannia Seven, a prize she won in a not-very-astronomical-at-all cookery competition. And, if you can suspend your disbelief for a few seconds longer, almost every attempt at getting Mrs Noah back to earth fails spectacularly and ensures she stays on the Britannia Seven for another episode at least.
Now, if you're rounding up candidates for Britain's Worst Ever Sitcom, then Come Back Mrs Noah will surely be one of the first names on your list. Packed full of corny gags and ridiculous premises, it's a sitcom that somehow manages to betray the talent of all involved, coming as it does from the pen of Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft whilst it also features Ian Lavender, Gorden Kaye and Donald Hewlett. One to miss, unless you're a writer, in which case it's a telling example of what not to do.
10. Dressing For Breakfast - Channel 4 - 1995 to 1998
Louise (Beatie Edney) is a fresh faced, empowered young woman making her way through the 90s as a jewellery maker, but one who struggles to find and nail down that most elusive of goals: a stable relationship with the man of her dreams. To provoke Louise's frustration a little further, it appears that everyone else in her life has already reached this milestone - best friend Carla (Holly Aird) has been with Dave (Nigel Lindsay) for several years and Louise's frank and liberal mother Liz (Charlotte Cornwall) has recently remarried handsome Italian Fabrizio (Robert Langdon Lloyd).
With a strong emphasis on female determination and the struggles associated with dealing with men on even a platonic, social level, Dressing for Breakfast was a refreshing, breezy sitcom which never failed to shy away from straight-up discussions on masturbation, the girls sex lives and sexual politics. Written by Stephanie Calman - and based upon a series of books investigating life as a female - Dressing for Breakfast manages to combine female savvy with insightful patter which makes for an entertaining sitcom that acts as a nice antidote to the more laddish sitcoms from the mid 90s era.
11. Marjorie and Men - ITV (Anglia) - 1985
Several years before Patricia Routledge slipped into the guise of Hyacinth Bucket, she was honing her sitcom skills in Marjorie and Men in her very first leading sitcom role.
Marjorie Belton (Patricia Routledge) is a divorcee looking to get back on the merry-go-round of dating, but as we all know this can be a trepidatious affair and far from easy. Each episode finds the bright eyed and cheerful Marjorie going on a date with a different male suitor who she hopes could spark the next big romance in her life.
Through lighthearted and quintessential sitcom mishaps, however, Marjorie never manages to secure the perfect date, not even with vegetable obsessed greengrocer George Banthorpe (Timothy West). Marjorie is aided by her interfering mother Alice (Patricia Hayes) who is determined to rescue her daughter from the dreaded status of a spinster. Meanwhile, Marjorie's job at the bank adds an extra dimension of romantic frisson with both the under manager Henry Bartlett (James Cossins) and married work colleague Sid Parkin (Ronnie Stevens) having designs on Marjorie.
Not a huge success at the time, Marjorie and Men is a light and warmhearted sitcom with plenty of fantastic performances from an amazing cast. Patricia Routledge may be best remembered for Keeping Up Appearances, but Marjorie and Men remains an intriguing footnote in her career.
12. After Henry - ITV (Thames) - 1988 to 1992
After Henry is a curious ITV sitcom in that it started life as a BBC Radio 4 sitcom before making the leap onto the small screen. With the BBC not keen on adapting After Henry for TV, Thames Television stepped into the breach and went about giving the series - and its female leads - a visual identity.
Following her husband Henry's death, Sarah France (Prunella Scales) is coming to terms with life as widow. However, despite being relatively well off in financial terms, Sarah is being severely tested by the turbulent conditions of family life which, unfortunately for her, she is unable to escape. With her nit picking, critical mother Eleanor (Joan Sanderson) living upstairs in their Edwardian house and her independence seeking daughter Clare (Janine Wood) occupying the downstairs, Sarah faces all manner of familial strife.
With squabbling alliances being formed between the warring generations and swiftly broken with each passing episode, there seems to be little respite for Sarah. However, the secondhand bookshop that she works at - Bygone Books - acts as a retreat where she can discuss her various woes with the owner, Russell (Jonathan Newth), who is gay and has his own set of relationship issues to share with Sarah.
A resounding success for ITV, After Henry proved very popular with viewers and some episodes received viewing figures of 14 million thanks to the engaging cross-generational clashes, marvellous performances and heartfelt laughs. Although it's not one of the greatest British sitcoms of all time - prone to sliding into middle of the road territory as it is and running out of steam by its final series - it's certainly one which deserves to be remembered fondly.
13. Sometime, Never - ITV (Meridian) - 1996
Many sitcoms can be described as cheese, but there's very few which can trace their formative steps back to a series of successful cheese adverts. However, thanks to an early 90s ad campaign for Philadelphia cheese, double act Sara Crowe and Ann Bryson experienced a rapid rise in fame and were soon starring in Sometime, Never.
Maxine 'Max' Bailey (Sara Crowe) is a drama teacher with a nice line in sharp barbs, but as she enters her early 30s she starts experiencing angst over her lack of apparent achievements compared to the hopes and dreams she had as a younger woman. For Max, her life currently consists of missed promotions and trouble with her ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Max's best friend Bernice (Ann Bryson) is hardly tripping the light fantastic either as she struggles with to raise two difficult children with virtually no help from her incompetent husband.
Sometime, Never was the result of writer Jenny Lecoat's dismay that the initial promise for children of the baby boomer generation had evaporated by the time the 1990s had come round. With these dreams dashed, a sense of anxiety was setting in and was a great cause of consternation for many, so Sometime, Never was a series that many could emphasise with. And the script was excitingly frank at times whilst dealing with angst in a way which could never be described as cheese.
14. Miss Jones and Son - ITV (Thames) - 1977 to 1978
Comedy has always been a useful tool for tackling social norms and taboos, so Miss Jones and Son presented an ideal opportunity to look at life as a single mother, a scenario which had barely been touched upon in previous sitcoms.
Elizabeth Jones (Paula Wilcox) - a book illustrator - has found herself manless (after her fiance hot-tailed it before their wedding) and having to bring up her son Roland all on her own. Set in Pimlico, Miss Jones and Son finds Elizabeth navigating the world of dating and the struggles of bringing up a baby alone.
Eventually, Elizabeth appears to find the ideal man in the shape of David (David Savile) - a fellow single parent and author - so she finally restores some sense of parity to her family needs. Paula Wilcox, with her rich sitcom pedigree, brings an intensely likeable performance to the party and the dialogue is a bright, breezy affair, but the doomed dating plots and social faux pas bonanzas of dinner parties all feels a little cliche.
Miss Jones and Son is a pleasant, diverting watch, but you can't help but want a little more substance to it. And, the main sticking point is that it fails to portray Elizabeth - and all the other single mothers out there - as a strong, independent woman. Instead, there's a strong emphasis on the importance of securing a man which speaks volumes about the era it aired in.
15. The Lady Is a Tramp - Channel 4 - 1983 to 1984
One of Channel 4's earliest original programmes -even earlier than Dream Stuffing - The Lady is a Tramp was written by Johnny Speight and starred the inimitable Patricia Hayes and Pat Coombes as grubby pair of down and outs.
Old Pat (Patricia Hayes) and Lanky Pat (Pat Coombes) - such affectionate monikers - are a couple of shambling vagrants who have spent years muddling their way from park bench to park bench in London. However, with their best years clearly behind them, they need to find a roof over their heads and, as luck would have it, they've stumbled across the luxury of an abandoned van in a yard. The local authorities, though, are less than keen with their presence and do their best to turf the two Pats out.
Airing in a period where homelessness was on the rise, The Lady is a Tramp is the type of keen observation that defines all of Johnny Speight's work such as Til Death Us Do Part (Warren Mitchell actually pops up in The Lady is a Tramp) and it's made all the more engaging thanks to the presence of Hayes and Coombes who were true legends of British TV.
Now, here comes the fun part, what do you consider to be the lesser known gems of female led sitcoms? Let me know below and perhaps we'll have a little debate...