FEATURE: Putting the ‘Cape’ into Capers: The Rarely-seen Superheroes of British Sitcom

The cape, not to be confused with its longer length kin, the cloak, is a versatile item of comedy clothing with a long and storied history. Depictions of cape-wearers go back as far as 300 BC to the nomadic Pazyryk culture of Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The blue, geometric designs of the capes characteristically worn by Aztek kings were made with intentionally laborious dyeing techniques to create a symbol akin to the difficulty in forging a great katana in feudal Japan. And most famously and popularly, the cape is a powerful symbol associated with 20th century superheroism. British comedy, perhaps unsurprisingly, has made use of the myriad cape tropes for its own hilarious ends, but not as frequently as one may imagine for such a popular device.

Credit: BBC

One of the most iconic moments in Brit-com history comes in the form of Del Boy and Rodney dressed as Batman and Robin, emerging from the adumbration of misty darkness, just in time to save the flailing councillor Murray from being robbed on the street. It is as iconic as the very same Del boy falling through that bloody bar over and over again, or Basil Fawlty giving his 1967 Austin 1100 Countryman estate a “damn good thrashing” with a tree branch – the iconic nature of the latter now iconoclastically destroyed by John Cleese’s decision to rekindle it for a goddamn Specsavers advert. And the crucial aspect of this legendary Only Fools scene is the capes worn by Del and Rodders.

The capes in the “Heroes and Villains” (Christmas Special 1996) episode of Only Fools and Horses demonstrate the versatility of the cape as a comedy prop and as a more potent symbol. On the one hand, Del and Rodney look ridiculous as they turn up to a party expecting it to be fancy dress, only to find out it is not fancy dress at all. And on the other hand, along the more traditional lines of cape-wearing in film and TV, they are transformed into superheroes ready to save the world’s innocents from the banes of society. The cape in this case is an oxymoron; a symbol capable of representing both ludicrousness and heroism simultaneously.

The cape is a symbol of capability – perhaps due to its association with the upper echelons of society and the mad notion that being born with a silver spoon up your bottom somehow makes you better than everyone else – adds an instant air of superiority and, for the same reason, eccentricity. Overt British upper-class eccentricity and supposed superiority are funny for their almost self-parodying pompousness. But the social mobility of the upper-classes reigns the ludicrousness in with almost invisible and unacknowledgeable certainty. We don’t want to acknowledge the upper-classes as superior, yet there they are with all the good stuff. The pricks.

The cape and its associated ‘superhero’ trope is a subject seldom seen in British comedy, perhaps for good reason, and perhaps thankfully – low quality effects in superhero outings are rarely watchable or forgivable (see both versions of Zack Snyder’s Justice League), and low budgets insist generally in low quality. Yet, given the global popularity of superheroism, and the British comedian’s love of pardody (particularly intentionally low quality parody), one may expect to see more parody of it in a country with such a prolific output of comedy, but it just isn’t the case. And there are some glaring reasons as to why…

Firstly, the concept of a superhero is not very British – it is incredibly arrogant to assume one woman or man or thing could be responsible for saving everyone and everything else, singlehandedly. It’s pure fantasy-land business, verging on propaganda a lot of the time, which is why the American studios love it. Marvel Studios is basically the creative arm of the military industrial complex. However, it is still a shock to find such a lack of superhero movies made in Britain. The only bona fide one I could find after a quick surf on the web is SuperBob (2015) – a tale of a Peckham postie who gains superpowers in a meteor storm and then tries to pluck up the courage to go on a date. Thanos must be pooping his big pants. But that is what a British superhero looks like: a normal bloke or female bloke who, even though they have otherworldly powers, is still preoccupied with sorting out the absolutely mundane existence they have stumbled into.

Secondly, the Del Boy and Rodney caper form ‘96 was so expertly crafted by John Sullivan that any attempt thereafter would have been futile. It wasn’t as if you could escape that particular episode of Only Fools; it was broadcast on Christmas Day and was watched on 21.3 million TVs, which, when you consider that most of those TVs would have had the whole family around them, amounts basically to the whole bloody country. You cannot match that kind of totality. The comedy cape was essentially retired in Britain after that episode (it actually wasn’t but it should have been).

Thirdly, the unfolding of cape-wearing superhero shenanigans are not particularly easy plotlines to write into situation comedy. It’s easier to write it into a sketch show, because you would just write a superhero sketch and stick it in. But given that most sitcoms are based around the situation of ‘a family lives in a house…’ where exactly does one fit ‘and then superhero stuff happens’ into that?

Having said all that, there have been a few high-to-highish-profile occasions on which the old fantastical cape has come out to play in comedy British. So, let us look at some of the interesting ways these super-arrogant garments have been used in the self-deprecating world of British comedy.

The Mighty Boosh (S3, E4 – ‘The Strange Case of the Crack Fox’): The cape in this Boosh episode is a powerful symbol of kindness, which some (sickening) folks might call the ultimate human superpower. Vince Noir has acquired a magnificent, shiny cape which midway through the episode he offers to a homeless man as a demonstration of his on-the-rocks friendship to his life-partner, Howard Moon. The homeless man is so affected by Vince’s kindness that he sacrifices himself to save him in the climactic scene with the evil crack fox. The cape in this example is multifaceted as it often is: it is an initial symbol of Vince’s eccentricity, and later of kindness, and latterly of bravery. The cape here is as transformative as its effect on the people who wear it.

My Hero (2000-06). The cape worn by Ardal O-Hanlon’s ‘George Sunday’ (aka ‘Thermoman’) in My Hero is quintessentially superheroey – atypical of British capes. He is, after all, an actual superhero with real superhero powers trying to fit in on earth, so it makes sense that his cape is representative of a more American form of cape. Interestingly, My Hero was written by a team of writers – this is a distinctly American way of writing a sitcom, opposed to a single writer or duo of writers as is more traditionally British. I’m not saying the team aspect to the writing of My Hero was the catalyst for the American-style Thermoman, but it is interesting that the tow things coincide.

Famalam (2018-. ‘Black Superhero Problems’) In this sketch from BBC III’s Famalam, the cape is used as a poignant inverted symbol of the strength of prejudice. Famalam’s superhero, styled on a mixture of Black Panther and Blade, has just busted a big-time drug deal and kicked the bad guys’ bottoms. But when the police show up, they see nothing more than a black guy surrounded by drugs and unconscious bodies, and arrest the hero on suspicion of everything. The cape in this scene is a pertinent device for demonstrating the potency of systemic racism and racial profiling. So set is the negative stereotype of a black man connected to drugs and violence, that no consideration whatever is given to the idea he might have just saved the day.

Big Train (1998-2002 – ‘Tyrant at Home’). From superheroes to supervillains, the cape retains its power of transformation – usually changing its colour or collar style to suit its whereabouts on the spectrum. Big Train’s portrayal of the iconic, cult supervillain, Ming the Merciless, at home doing the hoovering and watching Telly Tubbies offers a different perspective of the cape. In this mundane setting, the cape reveals itself as nothing more than a symbolic prop that gives the illusion of power: it is only within the setting of the wearer’s powerbase that makes the cape so seemingly powerful. Underneath the cape, there is only ever just a guy who needs to feed the cat and put the bins out.

That Mitchell and Webb Look (2006-10 – ‘The Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar’). As an extension on the last ‘cape theory’ (a powerful tool of illusion), the cape adorned by Robert Webb’s ‘Sir Digby’ is completely illusionary. Sir Digby is a drugged-up, drunken homeless man who smokes fag butts off the floor, but his cape (in the style of Sherlock Holmes’ Inverness cape with matching deerstalker) convinces him that he is some kind of amazing crime fighting genius. The cape in this instance takes on the quality of strong alcohol or mind altering drugs, leading the cape wearer to believe they are infinitely more capable than they actually are. Of course, in Sir Digby’s case, that state of delusion may have nothing to do with the cape at all, but that doesn’t fit into my narrative, so whatevs. The cape, along with all other desired clothing, does have the power to enhance the confidence of the wearer to the extent of perceived invincibility – add that to actual mind-altering substances and you have a cocktail for disaster.

In all of the above instances, the cape separates the wearer from the general population, affording them a mysteriousness which can either lead to mockery or admiration – as per all instances of ‘being different’. Del and Rodney’s cape caper conjures up both the image of a couple of prats looking silly, and a couple of prats who have transformed into heroes while looking silly. How you wear the cape and what you do in it determines the power afforded to the cape itself. As with all items of clothing, it is the ideas we attach to them that give them their true power – without those associated ideas we are left with a meaningless piece of cloth which keeps us warm and nothing else.

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