Only When I Laugh (1979–1982 United Kingdom)

If you are on the wavelength of classic, delightfully dated, superbly acted, situation British comedy then check this TV series out. You can purchase the four disc package off Amazon for a reasonable price. 28 memorable episodes from the reliable quill of Eric Chappell. Supremely irreverent, with virtually no political correctness to spoil the viewer’s enjoyment. They don’t make em like this anymore because the Bolsheviks have taken over western entertainment… anyway, the confines of a hospital ward actually enhance the chemistry and camaraderie of the cast, as well as the varied, yet silly, storylines. It’s so whimsical!

Some comedy shows don’t stand the test of time, but happily Only When I Laugh is not one of them. The writing is inspired, and the actors are not the slick two-dimensional characters seen so often on TV now, but are equally convincing racing around the ward hiding from an outraged husband or discussing the end that comes to all of us. Three hypochondriacs take up space in Ward 3, also known as Jack The Ripper ward. James Bolam plays Royston James Figgis, a lorry driver who’s wife “can’t stand illness.” He takes refuge from his unhappy marriage by forever staying in an NHS hospital bed. To his right is middle class mummy’s boy, Norman Binns, (Christopher Strauli) and to his left, by the window, lies Archie Glover (Peter Bowles): an upper class lover of fine wines, poetry, pretty women and daffodils.

This threesome are thrown together, almost instantly starting a love-hate bickering relationship with one another – initially over who gets the bed by the window but usually about more or less anything, ranging from attractive nurses to jealous Greeks. The only thing uniting them is their mutual nemeses, the ward doctor, Gordon Thorpe (the performance of Richard Wilson’s career) and the Indian orderly, Ram Gupte (Derrick Branche, who disappeared from the final season). I like so many episodes that it’s too hard to pick a favourite. Some of the humour is quite dark, dealing with illness and mortality, and as with all good comedy it’s driven by believable characters. Much of its humour is in their nuances and behaviours; Archie’s simpering when his ego is deflated, Norman falling in love every week, Figgis and the medical dictionary…it’s keenly observed human pathos.

If there is an irritation, its James Bolam shouting his dialogue. Other than that I think this comedy is unjustly forgotten – and much superior to Fawlty Towers. Maybe the medicinal setting puts people off. There is no swearing and most younger people who missed it the first time around would find it old fashioned and boring. My favourite character would have to be Archie, closely followed by Dr Thorpe.  I’ll end this with some quotes: “Solitary? Did he say sol-i-tary? You don’t get put in sol-itary for defacing library books, Norman.” “Gemini! The dreaded twins, the split personality! I’m not satisfied doctor, I want a second opinion.” “Well, as there appears to be two of me I can give you that as well!” “She has to keep reminding herself that she’s a nurse, not some cheap and ready thing!” “Alright, I’m a hypochondriac. I’ve never denied it. But I’m a sick hypochondriac, that’s the difference!” “I tried it with a book once!” “That’s the trouble, Norman. You’re supposed to do it with a woman.” 🙂



  1. This review is absolutely perfect, ‘Only When I Laugh’ is criminally underrated and I hope that it resurfaces one day as a cult classic. I recommend that anyone in the mood for a gentle comedy, with some acerbic wit thrown in, should check this out immediately!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes Yes Yes! 🙂


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