I know that Bellamy's People is not a sitcom, and therefore slightly out of the range of this blog but there are some lessons that do carry over, since Bellamy's People is, ultimately, a character comedy. And I was surprised to learn that the BBC have not recommissioned it. Why was I surprised? Because it's studded with top comedy talent and the critics that I read seemed to love it. And sometimes, one feels, the BBC bloody-mindedly decide to recommission a series in order to prove the first series was not a failure or a mistake. That said, I can't think of that happening recently. The Persuasionists received very short shrift from BBC2 and was demoted twice during it's run. Perhaps also I thought the BBC would want to keep Whitehouse and Higson onside since they're clearly people the BBC want to continue working with. This is understandable, although a very expensive way of going about it.
There a few points worth making at the outset. And this is why analysing the failures of the mighty is worthwhile - because their talent is not in question. If one watches a new show from a new writer or team, one might think that the author has failed because he or she doesn't know what he or she is doing - and doesn't know how to write jokes. This is not the case with Higson and Whitehouse, who have been responsible for some of the great comedy characters in recent British comedy history. Their record speaks for itself. The show also includes lots of high-quality actors and actresses, including Lucy Montgomery, with whom I've worked on Milton Jones, and a failed sitcom on Radio 4 called The Pits. Lucy is probably the most talented voice-artist I've ever worked with. Comic talent is not the issue. So what is?
Firstly, was the programme a failure? In terms of ratings, yes. The plain fact is that people didn't really watch the show even though it was trailed quite heavily and reviewed in every newspaper, often favourably ('Sensationally good' - The Times) (which further demonstrates how hopelessly out of touch the critics are from their audiences). But by the end of the eight-part series, I believe the viewing figures were below 900,000, which, for BBC2, is simply not enough - especially when one bears in mind how much the series must have cost to make. And now the show has, apparently, been cancelled. Charlie Higson is, understandably, furious, according to his tweets. But what can we take away from this show?
It's worth asking the question 'Why didn't people watch the show?' The figures started low, but they could have climbed. Why didn't they? Having seen one or two, why did lots of people decide not to watch three or four more? Why didn't people tell their friends to watch it? Sorry to labour this, but it really does matter (in the context of this blog).
My own experience was this: When I watched it, I felt rather confused - and for the first few minutes wondered when the show was going to 'start'. And then it just kept on going as it was (I had the same experience watching Green Wing which, for me, felt like a trailer for itself), cutting from one character to another without any kind of storyline or spine. Higson or Whitehouse may argue that The Fast Show has no story, being a sketch show, but Bellamy's People, it turns out, did need one after all. The individuals characters had stories to tell, at times, but not every time. And ultimately, I wasn't hooked, which made me cross as I really wanted to like it.
But I think the main problem is that I didn't know what I was watching. Is this a format-spoof? A sketch show? What is it? The radio show, Down the Line, was simple since it was a near-the-knuckle parody of radio phone-ins. The premise of Bellamy's People, however, is rather curious and comes at the beginning of each show - Bellamy is telling us he did a radio show and now he's going round the country meeting all the people who used to call in, and find out what they think about different issues. Eh? Seriously? A radio DJ going round interviewing members of the public about issues doesn't happen in real life. So it seems odd to chose that as a basis for a comedy show.
Some would challenge that last statement and say 'Why be conventional? Why should the show be a parody of an existing format?' It doesn't always have to be, but it almost always should be, in this case at least. Comedy is hard because it depends on surprise and subversion, but also on not surprising or subverting things in other places. The audience needs to feel at home and comfortable - or at least like they know what's going on - before you pull the rug or throw them a bizarre character.
And that was ultimately the problem with the show for me. As Bellamy was interviewing these people, I couldn't helping asking myself 'why is he talking to this person?' and 'what is he hoping to get out of it?' and 'does he think they're mad?' and 'Am I meant to think that Bellamy is bad at his job?' and 'Why is Bellamy not really in this show?' I'm sure Higson or Whitehouse would yell at me for being such an idiot and asking such stupid and facile questions, but that was my experience when watching the show. And these are the questions that prevented me from enjoying the comedy performances and the jokes.
One of my big mantras in writing comedy is 'Confusion is your enemy'. The audience need to think everything is fine before you play with their heads and hit them with a joke. (it's why you try to leave the funny word of a joke to the end of the sentene). Maybe the format confusion ultimately drove people away from the show - or at least stop people from taking it to their hearts. I don't know. But it did in my case. And looking over the reviews, many of them said 'the format doesn't really work but at least the jokes are funny'. Turns out that the format not really working makes quite a big difference to non-reviewing audiences.
As I was watching Bellamy's People, I was reminded of People Like Us, which was a show that I first stumbled across on radio in about 1996 and couldn't get enough of. And then it turned into a wonderful TV show. People Like Us managed to give the impression of being nothing but a slightly tepid fly-on-the-wall documentary, but it drew you in and then gave you far better jokes, characters and ideas than you ever expected. Bellamy's People may have had all of those things, but I couldn't get past the format, my confusion and all my silly questions. I don't think it's just me those. Those chaps at the British Comedy Guide seem to feel the same way. If you don't believe me, have a look here.