A ‘Courageous Decision’? Using Sitcoms as Sources for Historical Research


Kathryn Robinson

Kathryn Robinson has recently completed an MRes degree in Twentieth Century British History with MBS at Birmingham.


The word ‘courageous’, deployed in this post’s title, is used by Sir Humphrey Appleby and other civil servants in Yes Minister to refer to a decision or policy that would cause the politician to fall flat on their face, despite the best of intentions.

Part of my MRes degree in Twentieth Century British History has involved completing a 20,000 word thesis on the portrayal of Thatcherism in BBC situation comedy during the 1980s, with particular focus on Only Fools and Horses, Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, Bread and The Young Ones.

What follows is a guide to any student considering research in the field of television and some thoughts about how television can enrich Modern British Studies and the historical profession more broadly.

1. Serious television history studies completed by historians are scarce
Despite some innovative studies on television history, historians still have a long way to go to fully recognising the equal status of television to any other historical source. Lawrence Black suggests bluntly but accurately that historians should spend less time judging television and more time watching it: an assertion that many of us need to heed. [1]

Many historical movements and philosophies, such as the Annales movement and ‘history from below’, have taught us that the everyday and ordinary are immensely valuable in writing history. Television is ubiquitous in contemporary British society and has been a key factor in many British people’s lives throughout the twentieth century. Therefore it merits study it in its own right, rather than merely as a light-hearted illustration of a more ‘important’ theme or concept.

2. Television archives can be both fascinating and frustrating
When I embarked upon this course, I naïvely expected to visit an archive and find recently released, confidential letters from Margaret Thatcher to John Sullivan pleading with him to reconsider that joke about dole queues in the 1982 Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special. Alas, this was not to be.

As a historian, you feel a sense of privilege using archives through seeing sources first-hand and handling correspondence and other documents that have not been released into the public domain.

However, the once-held belief that drama and light entertainment programmes had little worth unless they could be sold to other networks or countries has severely impacted the historians’ quest for relevant source material, especially for earlier programmes.[2] This perceived inferiority of light entertainment has meant that fewer records were kept of such programmes, meaning that my search for audience reports for some of my sitcoms, for example, was largely unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, whilst some historians have argued that they have felt awkward in archives and like they were intruding on the work of archivists who are based there, my personal experience has been the exact opposite; those at both the BBC Written Archives and the BFI Southbank Library have been nothing but helpful and supportive of my research. [3]

3. Being a fan helps
For any historian of television, choosing some programmes that you are a fan of personally is advisable. This is primarily because the number of hours spent watching the sitcoms, not mention the hours spent in archives looking at press reports and other archive materials seem longer if you find the programmes uninteresting. This interest however, means that I have been more likely to get distracted from my studies although for example, I am now full acquainted with the story behind the famous chandelier scene in Only Fools and Horses and about Carla Lane’s love of animals…

4. Avoid simplistic conclusions and analyses
This is something that I am still learning. It is all too easy for instance to take a piece of dialogue from The Young Ones and conclude that Rick is a Thatcher-hating anarchist. Historians of television programmes need to learn their case studies inside out in order to ascertain who the characters are, the relevance of the situation they are in, what – if anything –the humour contained within such programmes tells us and what the writers are trying to communicate through their programmes.

It is also essential that historians of television avoid any generalisations about those who watch such programmes. Collective terms such as ‘the audience’ will always be more of a hindrance than a help as to truly understand comedy and television, it is important to consider the many responses and views those watching will have to a particular programme. In this way, Geertz’s concept of ‘thick description’, in which the different meanings of a cultural act are identified and analysed, could prove useful here.[4]

5. Enjoy it – it’s a worthwhile and fascinating topic
I chose this topic because television has been prominent in British society for generations and has at times reflected and driven social, cultural and political change in modern British history. Sitcoms have been an important part of this change and, as such, should be treated with equal importance as other sources from the period. Their contribution and complexity should not be underestimated.

I have come to the conclusion that there will always be those who would probably consider a thesis involving medieval manuscripts or political speeches to be more valuable than one based on sitcoms. However, historians should be saying that there is no source hierarchy and that each source is as important as the next. This idea was illustrated brilliantly through our Sites and Sources in Modern British Studies module, where we discussed sources ranging from rattles to Napalm Death which can all teach the historian so much, yet are often overlooked.

I have enjoyed this research  and although it isn’t without its difficulties and obstacles, in the words of Bread’s Joey Boswell, “some you win, some you have to postpone”. [5]

[1] L.Black, ‘Whose Finger on the Button? British Television and the Politics of Cultural Control’, Journal of Film, Television and Radio 25:4 (2005), pp.547-575.

[2] L. Cigognetti, ‘Historians and TV Archives’, in G. Roberts and P.M.Taylor (eds), The Historian, Television and Television History (Luton, 2001)

[3] G.Born, ‘Inside television: television studies and the sociology of culture’, Screen 41:4 (2000), pp.404-424

[4] C.Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Toward a Interpretative Theory of Culture’ in Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture: Selected Essays (New York, 1973)

[5] Bread, Series Two Episode Six (BBC1, 19th February 1987).