Getting caught up in a deadly kidnapping, being torn away from your loved ones and forced into witness protection, tracking down a serial killer of vulnerable young girls… none of the above exactly scream ‘LOL’, and yet they’ve all become the subject of British crime comedy-dramas in recent years. The “you’ve got to laugh” mentality is clearly in our national DNA, no matter how bleak the circumstances.
Attracting huge names in comedy, from Matt Berry, Stephen Merchant, James Corden and Joanna Scanlan, to the brilliant Gbemisola Ikumelo, Emer Kenny, Kerry Howard, and created by the writers behind People Just Do Nothing, Peep Show, Succession and more, here are some of the best darkly funny crime comedy series of recent years.
The Outlaws has a simple but effective concept: seven questionable strangers doing Community Service in Bristol discover a huge bag of money, decide to keep it, then quickly discover its rightful owners are highly dangerous criminals.
What elevates it from good to great is the fact it’s created by and stars the effortlessly funny Stephen Merchant (Extras), alongside the casting coup that is Oscar-winner Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter).
It’s a real ensemble comedy, made greater than the sum of its parts, and there are two series to enjoy on BBC iPlayer with a third on the way.
Considering it’s about a police force’s search for a serial murderer of girls with Down Syndrome, No Offence is unsurprisingly much more drama than comedy. Indeed, the comedy element of this series is less “jokes” and more about the ways we use dark humour to cope with reality’s more harrowing scenarios.
Joanna Scanlan (Getting On) is exceptional as the kick-arse DI Viv Deering, who heads a team of detectives investigating the murders, dishing out tough-love lessons to her cast of police colleagues including Will Mellor (Broadchurch), Colin Salmon (Doctor Who), Saira Choudhry (Coronation Street) and Alexandra Roach (Sanditon). Her razor-sharp put-downs and outrageous policing methods make this much more entertaining than your average police procedural.
No Offence ran for three series until 2018, and can be enjoyed on Channel 4’s streaming service.
The Wrong Mans
Six years before starring in Ghosts, Mathew Baynton joined forces with Gavin & Stacey’s James Corden in 2013 to bring us an altogether darker comedy. Baynton plays Sam, a well-meaning but daft council worker who witnesses a car crash, then answers a ringing phone at the scene and — thanks to a case of mistaken identity – finds himself embroiled in a kidnapping. Enlisting the help of his equally daft colleague Phil (Corden), the pair embark on a very clumsy rescue mission.
Their hapless, relatable attempts to save the day provide plenty of comedic moments, but the intricate plot and high stakes make this a gripping thriller too. Both the series and a two-part sequel are available on BBC iPlayer.
Year of the Rabbit
The biggest crime about Year of The Rabbit is that its newly commissioned and richly deserved second series was cancelled by Channel 4, citing budget issues relating to the pandemic, unfairly cutting short one of the most laugh-out-loud comedies of recent times.
It starred comedy legend Matt Berry in the role of Detective Inspector Rabbit, a renegade Dickensian copper who gets paired up with the walking wet blanket that is Wilbur Strauss (Freddie Fox, White House Farm), becoming a hilarious and quotable detective double-act. They’re reluctantly made a trio thanks to Mabel (Susan Wokoma, Enola Holmes, and soon to be seen in Taskmaster) whose quick thinking and courageous scrappiness help her to become the first female copper (or ‘lady filth’ as she calls it) despite her father, Chief Inspector Wisbech (Alun Armstrong, Breeders) insisting that “women can’t be police.”
Chuck in an exceptionally funny supporting role of David Dawson (The Last Kingdom) as the camp and slightly terrifying Elephant Man, a clever series story arc involving Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard) as a deliciously ruthless baddie, a cameo from Oscar-winner Taika Waititi (Our Flag Means Death), and an unforgettable sex scene featuring EastEnders’ Jill Halfpenny and a meat pie, and you’ve got a recipe for a truly outstanding comedy that should never have been cancelled.
When flatmates Leanne and Rhona witness a gangland shooting, they find themselves thrust into the witness protection scheme, forced to adopt new identities and live in less-than desirable new digs in Swindon. This is bad enough, but there are also two bloodthirsty-but-inept young hitmen (so young they should really be called hitkids, but that’s an understandably problematic term) hot on their trail.
Zoe Boyle (Downton Abbey) and Kerry Howard (Him & Her) play the leads with a natural chemistry that makes them lovable as well as very funny, and taking matters into their own hands helps the plot to twist and turn in a pleasingly absurd but still gripping way, with some of the more brutal moments catching you off-guard.
Witless ran for three excellent series from 2016-2018, all of which are available on BBC iPlayer.
While the BBC’s The Gold is a true-crime retelling of the infamous 1980s Brink’s-Mat robbery – in which a gang unwittingly pulled off the biggest gold heist in history – The Curse is more loosely inspired by the real events. It centres on cafe owners Tash (Emer Kenny, Pramface) and Albert (Allan Mustafa, People Just Do Nothing), a couple down on their luck who – along with equally ineffectual mates including a very funny Tom Davis (King Gary) as Big Mick – decide to rob a warehouse when they discover Tash’s brother (People Just Do Nothing’s Steve Stamp) is the security guard there.
It’s very silly, but the characters are portrayed warmly enough to make you really care what happens to them, leading to an excellent second series set on Spain’s Costa del Crime, which aired on Channel 4 earlier this year. Both series are available on Channel4.com.
Created by Danny Boyle (director of Slumdog Millionaire) with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and his Peep Show writing partner Sam Bain, this 2014 comedy drama about London’s Metropolitan Police has a hugely impressive cast, including James Nesbitt (Cold Feet) as the Police Commissioner, Paterson Joseph (Vigil) and Nicola Walker (Unforgotten) as Assistant Commissioners, and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as a police documentary filmmaker.
The series cleverly blends issues faced by front-line police workers with the higher-ups trying to manage the Met’s public image, creating a biting commentary on some very real problems about modern-day policing that remain timely almost a decade after Babylon first aired. It also has some seriously funny one-liners, making it well worth a watch. That last part is tricky in that Babylon is not currently available on any streaming services, but the DVDs (remember those?) are out there and worth tracking down.
The most recent example on this list, Black Ops gets the balance of comedy and drama just right, and provides an exhilarating blend of high-stakes action and a constant stream of laugh-out-loud jokes to keep you hooked.
Created by Famalam’s BAFTA-winning duo of Gbemisola Ikumelo and Akemnji Ndifornyen, it follows two inexperienced Community Support Officers – Ikumelo plays Dom alongside The Wheel of Time’s Hammed Animashaun as Kay – who get recruited into a perilous undercover Met Police operation infiltrating a London drug gang (whose terrifying leader, Tevin, is played by Ndifornyen).
The lead characters are instantly lovable, and the excellent supporting cast includes Doctor Who’s Jo Martin as Dom’s stepmother Julie and Harry Potter’s Zoë Wanamaker as the mysterious Celia. If that isn’t enough to keep you hooked, the fast-paced, brilliantly twisty plot certainly will. The whole series is available on BBC iPlayer, and we’re hopeful for a series 2.