We're Britain, and we want our mockumentaries back


Dom Smith analyses a key sub-genre of comedy and asks why Britain no longer produces the world-class mockumentaries it once did

Article Image

Image by Studio Canal

By Dom Smith

What is 2020 missing? Evidently, lots and lots of things. But chief among them, Alan Partridge’s angry exchanges with farmers phoning into North Norfolk Digital. OK, it’s clearly not missing that specifically, but more what it represents. Britain was supposed to be the home of the mockumentary — easily the best genre of comedy out there, partly due to how difficult it is to do it justice. We’ve lost our way a bit.

Did we get complacent? Possibly. Did we simply stop loving mockumentaries? I refuse to believe such a thing. This is Britain — the home of sarcasm. We have a thirst for awkward, observational, situational comedy. Unlike our noisy neighbours across the pond, we don’t smother it all on and overegg over comedy.

The crux of what differentiates The Office UK and The Office US is this; could the US edition have conceivably been a genuine, true documentary that just went a bit wrong? No. What goes on in there is less conceivable than me making it into the library without a study space booking or a face mask. The UK edition, however, could realistically be a true representation of an entirely genuine office. Yes, David Brent is recoilingly cringey, and his leadership skills are less commanding than Matt Hancock’s. However, the premise is just about conceivable.

Most people prefer the US version… but, even if they can’t admit it, that’s largely because it’s way more preposterous so as to be an ‘easy watch’. The UK edition makes many viewers just sink their head into their hands in near-revulsion. If that’s you, ask yourself this; might its intention as a series be to make you react like that? If that is indeed how you react, must this not therefore be a brilliant piece of drama in the same way as a sad film that manages to make you cry? Save your answer. I’ve embarrassed you enough.

This country’s incredible record of producing mockumentaries really got going in the mid-1990s, when the Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci — all-time standout legend in the genre of UK mockumentaries — and Chris Morris created shows like Brass Eye and The Day Today. These were ground-breaking satirical exaggerative series, aimed at parodying growing sensationalism on TV news channels to a hilarious extent. Morris played the lead newsreader in both shows, which featured a number of ridiculously cringey (and often absurd) moments, as well as some quirky recurring backup reporters. The person tasked with reading the sport headlines: a certain Alan Partridge.

And so tragically bad was Partridge that his portrayer Steve Coogan got his own show — Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge. Originally this had been a radio show, but then it graced our TV screens. Well, it didn’t grace mine. This was 1994.

The success of this intentionally awful ‘live TV show’ — the actual programme, not the horrific talkshow Partridge was ‘hosting’ — bought Coogan more airtime in his alter ego, and Iannucci yet more opportunity to write Partridge into even more awkward situations. I'm Alan Partridge was first shown in 1997, with a second series following five years later.

Chris Morris’ character, Coogan’s Alan Partridge and a number of key characters in The Office UK show just how unnecessary catch-phrase humour is. If you develop a character deeply enough, it’s through their mannerisms and conversations that the comedy will flow. And it will FLOW.

The BBC’s Twenty Twelve and W1A in the early 2010s presented those involved in a management capacity at both the London 2012 Olympics and at the BBC respectively. Like the trailblazer mockumentaries that preceded them, well developed characters and that ability to not over-act were key to their success.

But in the years since, barring the odd one-off, Britain’s lead as the most prolific and best place for genuinely good mockumentaries has somewhat narrowed. People Just Do Nothing and particularly the brilliant This Country are the most notable and successful recent contributions to the field, but these are simply rare gems in what has recently become a rather untapped field.

Iannucci still finds himself involved in most of the British mockumentaries produced even today, but others newer to the field must take a risk at claiming some of the market share. Given Britain’s recent drop-off in this department, there’s market share there to be had, that’s for sure.

This all comes back to sarcasm — we’re international champions at it. Dry, observational, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it comedy. Less-is-more stuff. We have an unrivalled sense of humour in this country, and there are so many people like me longing for a more sophisticated alternative to crude rubbish or slapstick dross.

Whenever I want to watch a mockumentary, I put on a DVD. Perhaps that just symbolises how long it’s been since British comedy was last spitting out good mockumentary after good mockumentary in a prolific stream of releases.

I’ll always go back to Alan Partridge and David Brent whenever I need a good chuckle. That won’t change. Nor will that content ever get old. More of that priceless, timeless comedy please. We’ve done it before; we can do it again.