This article argues that cringe humour in British television had begun at least by the early 1960s and derived from a theatre history in which conventions of Naturalism were modified by emergent British writers working with European avant-garde motifs. The article makes the case by analysing the importance of cringe to the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son
, tracing its form and themes back to the ‘comedy of menace’ and ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ emblematised by the early work of playwright Harold Pinter. The article links the play that made Pinter’s reputation, The Birthday Party
, to dramatic tropes and social commentary identified in Steptoe and Son
and in other British sitcoms with cringe elements. The analysis not only discusses relationships between the different dramatic works on stage and screen but also pursues some of the other connections between sitcom and Pinter’s drama via networks of actors and contemporaneous discourses of critical commentary. It assesses the political stakes of cringe as a comic form, particularly the failure of cringe to impel political activism, and places this in the context of the repeated broadcast of Pinter’s plays and episodes of Steptoe and Son
over an extended period.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.