Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees may not be British—you can tell by her straight teeth—but she is certainly funny.
It's time to pay tribute to British television's finest comediennes and the memorable characters they portray.
This lightweight, amiable television special about some of the most famous female faces in British television comedies—or Britcoms, as they are often known—is a pleasant but certainly not exhaustive retrospective, almost too airy to warrant the title "documentary." Perhaps because it was produced by Iowa Public Television, The Funny Ladies of British Comedy restricts its focus to actresses featured in Britcoms that public television frequently imports—Patricia Routledge of Keeping Up Appearances, Mollie Sugden of Are You Being Served?, Prunella Scales of Fawlty Towers, Dame Judi Dench of As Time Goes By, Felicity Kendall of Good Neighbors, and Dawn French of The Vicar of Dibley. Notably absent are such actresses as Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders, of Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most successful Britcoms ever to cross the pond, but which is perhaps too edgy for public television and hence for this special. The overall tendency is toward older series and older actresses, with Dawn French of The Vicar of Dibley being the sole representative of young blood.
Graciously hosted by Penelope Keith, who herself starred in two popular Britcoms—Good Neighbors and To the Manor Born—this special combines highlight clips from the actresses' television work and recent interview footage with the actresses themselves as well as male colleagues such as John Cleese, Chris Barrie (Red Dwarf), Lenny Henry (Chef!), and Frank Thornton (Are You Being Served?). The program runs a scant 71 minutes (not the 124 minutes claimed by the package) but rarely lags; it covers a lot of ground, and Keith's narration provides smooth transitions between different topics. The program is organized around different topics, both biographical (comedic influences on the actresses, their early work, how they got into sitcoms) and those that arise in the sitcoms themselves (class differences, the battle of the sexes, women in the workplace, and so on). The interviews range from stating the obvious to offering genuinely amusing or enlightening insights, and the performance clips are well selected to maintain the pace—and the viewers' interest. Fans of these series will recognize some classic moments, such as Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) jockeying to sit at the captain's table on the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner, and Sybil Fawlty raking her intractable spouse over the coals for groping a female guest—from one room away.
Although the show itself is relatively brief, the primary extra—extended interview footage with Routledge (15 minutes), Sugden (11 minutes), and French (12 minutes)—is a substantial bonus. Very little of this material repeats the footage used in the program, and it's a pleasure to get to listen to these actresses offer more reminiscences, commentary, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Since many of these funny ladies come off as more dignified and reserved in their interviews than they do in character, Dawn French's sequence is particularly enjoyable: She is more of a clown than the other actresses, and her interview footage even ends with a mock fund-raising plug for public television. Also among the interview footage is a 15-minute sequence in which Jon Plowman, producer of The Vicar of Dibley and Absolutely Fabulous, discusses the origins and development of these series. This is a trifle dry but will interest fans of the two shows. Also included are text biographies of six of the actresses profiled in the series, including Keith, which feature key television and film appearances.
Audiovisual quality is adequate, reflecting the limitations of filming conditions and the age of much of the footage excerpted: Keith's narrative segments are filmed on video and suffer from harsh lighting, and many of the vintage clips, some of which are thirty years old, have a rather smeary quality. Nevertheless, there is not much fading, and overall the vintage footage looks quite respectable for its age. Audio is admirably clear, even in the older segments, and the volume is nicely consistent between new and old footage. The laugh tracks are a bit overpowering, but this is true of the series when they are broadcast and is clearly not a fault of this release.
Overall, this is an enjoyable look at some very talented actresses, and fans of Britcoms will probably enjoy it. Likewise, those who are unfamiliar with some of these series will find it a useful introduction to Britcoms they may want to seek out. I'm not certain that the rewatchability quotient is high here, so I suggest a rental instead of a purchase for all but devoted fans; most viewers will find it more rewarding to invest in one of the actual Britcom series on DVD than in this pleasant but slight television special.
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Studio: BBC Video
• Extra Interview Footage with Patricia Routledge, Mollie Sugden, Dawn French, and Producer Jon Plowman
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