Friday, 7 March 2014

What To Do With Thirty Million Quid

A few thoughts on BBC Three, situation comedy and how to spend £30 million. It seems to meander a bit. And it’s nearly 1500 words. But stick with it.

I have quite a lot of Gardeners’ World on VHS video in my loft. There is a reason for this. Back in the 1990s, it was on BBC2 at 8.30pm on Thursdays or Fridays (I forget which), and at 9pm there was comedy. And I was taping it. After all, comedy was my favourite thing in the world. And BBC2 had loads of it.

It certainly seemed that BBC2 was the home of new comedy. I was only seven when The Young Ones charged onto our screens, and, naturally, it was on after my bed time. But I grew up with BBC2 being my channel. Aged thirteen or so, I stumbled across a gem about three losers on a giant space ship called Red Dwarf. When they were joined by a droid called Kryten, it became proper funny. I’ve still got the tapes – with the last couple of minutes of Alan Titchmarsh giving advice on growing brassicas. (Yes, he used to be a TV Gardener. Now he’s… well… Alan Titchmarsh). I also found a sketch show by a guy called Harry Enfield. And another one by two men called Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

Of course there were few alternatives to BBC2 for non-mainstream comedy. Just Channel 4, which, of course, had comedy too. And I watched all of it, from Desmonds to Absolutely. But ultimately, Channel 4 was home to The Tube and The Word and was far too cool for me. BBC2 was my channel.

I wonder if the thirteen-year old me feels the same way about BBC Three.  Maybe he’d shrug and say he watches all the good stuff on iPlayer anyway. Now I actually work for BBC3, writing Bluestone 42, I happen to know that only a quarter of our weekly watch the show when it airs at 10pm on Thursday. Another quarter watch repeats through the week and half watch it on iPlayer. Or so I'm told.

Now, I don’t propose to bang on about BBC Three. For me to argue in favour of keeping it would clearly sound self-serving. And to perversely argue it should be booted off terrestrial television and turned into an online-only channel would be disloyal. I’m very proud to be in the BBC Three stable. Sure, it is the home of some programmes that at least sound rather, well, tabloid – which are usually far more sensitive, responsible and interesting than the title suggests. But it is also a channel that has spawned plenty of hits and acclaimed shows, ranging from programmes I haven’t seen - like In The Flesh, Bodies, Being Human, Torchwood, The Fades – to programmes I have like Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain.

While I’m pleased that the salami slicing of programmes is apparently over, I share Ben Gosling Fuller’s concerns about online TV budgets in the future. Will BBC really stump up the £250k+ it costs to shoot 28 mins of decent comedy? (Actually indecent comedy and quite bad comedy cost just the same). Somehow, I doubt it. Some argue that this online model works just fine for loads of viewers, like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, or whoever. But bear in mind – we have no idea how many people actually watch House of Cards. Or Orange is The New Black. Or the new episodes of Arrested Development. It seems like a leap into the unknown. Which is not always a bad thing, mind.

But this article is not about the fate of BBC Three. It is, as the title suggests, about what to do with £30 million. It is puzzling that the BBC has to cut costs but is proposing spending this money on drama for BBC1. Apart from anything else, there seems to be quite a lot of drama on BBC1 already. Why is not being spent on comedy? I’m not saying that BBC1’s comedy is tanking and needs tens of millions of pounds thrown at it. I’m partially responsible for some of that comedy, having co-written a few episodes of the first two series of Miranda (although it was on BBC2 at the time). But Miranda is unusual. It’s a mainstream sitcom, filmed in front of an audience, that people seem to be really fond of. So why am I arguing that the £30 million, if it is to be filched from the pockets of BBC Three, should go to BBC1 Comedy? Stay with me.

Watch TV Like it’s 1999
Allow me to go back to the thirteen year old me, and fast-forward to the twenty-four year old me. Confused yet? Okay, it’s 1999. That’s the year I’m trying to break into comedy, and writing Infinite Number of Monkeys, a comedy sketch show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I want to get a show onto BBC2. Of course I do. It's my channel. Plus it’s still pumping out some brilliant comedy. The Fast Show and Shooting Stars have just finished (1997). The new kids on the block are League of Gentlemen. There is also the forgotten gem Hippies by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, starring the brilliant Simon Pegg who has also been in Spaced that year on Channel 4. (Correction: I'm told it was just written by Arthur Mathews. Apols) It’s the final series of This Morning with Richard Not Judy, with Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. And we've just had Series 1 of the brilliant mockumentary People Like Us, by John Morton – a show which paved the way for The Office two years later.

You'd forgotten about this, hadn't you?
It’s worth noting that over on BBC1, French and Saunders have just had a go at a new period sitcom called Let Them Eat Cake which was definitely worth a go. 1999 also saw the second and final series of dinnerladies, which gets 15.3 million views on December 30th. Three days earlier, 14.3 million people watch Alice and Hugo’s new baby get christened on Richard Curtis’s Vicar of Dibley. Two Point Four Children, by Andrew Marshall, is getting around 9 million viewers (the sitcom cut short by the tragic terminal illness of Gary Olsen). A sixth series of One Foot in the Grave is being written by Marshall’s erstwhile writing partner David Renwick ready for broadcast in 2000.

I know. There was less competition back then. Fewer channels. More communal watching. I know. But there were some big audiences out there for big shows. And top-flight talent like Victoria Wood, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Curtis, Renwick and Marshall were going after them. All of these names ended up on BBC1 having cut their teeth on BBC2 sketch shows and knocking about on the equivalent of BBC3. There they learned their craft, and developed into BBC1 writers and performers.

Fifteen Years Later
Fifteen years on, it’s 2014. The new BBC talent is writing for BBC3 – partly because it’s in the remit of the channel. But also because the people who were on BBC2 fifteen years ago are still there.

Let's be clear about this. As a viewer and comedy fan aged 38, I have no problem with this. But these top-flight names you’d expect be entertaining the nation on BBC1 by now are not inclined to do so. The League of Gentleman are back on BBC2 with Inside Number 9, having given us Psychoville. Stewart Lee is back with his Comedy Vehicle. Vic and Bob are back with House of Fools. Graham Linehan is working on a new series of Count Arthur Strong. The brilliant John Morton has given us 2012 and is poised to give us W1A. James Corden, who has had no lack of mainstream success in Gavin and Stacey, co-wrote and starred in The Wrong Mans with Mathew Bayton. On BBC2. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are big stars – and they are coming together to make another series of The Trip. On BBC2.  And they don’t come much bigger than Harry Enfield – and his last sketch show with Paul Whitehouse was on BBC2.

More recently, big name stars that you might expect to find on BBC1 have had shows on BBC4 that have moved over to BBC2. Like Jack Dee with Lead Balloon and Jessica Hynes with Up the Women. Ricky Gervais made The Office, Extra and then Life’s Too Short for BBC2. And is now making Derek for Channel 4. Jo Brand's Getting On stayed on BBC4. The astonishingly talented BBC4/2’s Thick of It writers aren’t busy writing big hits for BBC1. They’re all working on Veep for Sky Atlantic/HBO. As would I, given the chance.

BBC1 is not devoid of comedy, as I’ve said before. As well a few popular sitcoms, there’s Graham Norton, and the joyous Would I Lie to You? But it doesn’t seem that the big hitters are queuing up write or star in BBC1 sitcoms. Granted, Peter Kay’s Car Share is heading our way. As is another series of David Walliams’ Big School and Matt Lucas is bringing us Pompidou at some point. Ben Elton had another go recently. And I’m sure Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin will come up with another gem now that Outnumbered has run its course.

So maybe I'm overplaying it. Maybe it's all fine. I hope it is. But sitcoms don't just happen. And the really big ones are usually written by people with experience of TV, comedy and life in general. Where are the old pros? David Renwick is making comedy dramas like Jonathan Creek and Love Soup. Moffat and Gatiss are making programmes about time travellers and detectives. Richard Curtis is making movies and saving the world. And there's currently no sign of Victoria Wood or Simon Nye. And John Sullivan, David Croft and John Esmond are all dead. Where are the new Dibleys and Good Lifes going to come from?

I don’t offer any solutions to why the mainstream sitcom has been such a tough nut to crack – and why it is such an unappealing prospect for the seasoned professional. But I tell you what might help fix it. Thirty million quid.

Since the above was, hopefully, not completely self-serving, here are the plugs. Bluestone 42 is on BBC Three at 10pm on Thursdays. I also co-write Thanks A Lot, Milton Jones which is on BBC Radio 4 at 6.30pm on Wednesdays. And I run comedy writing workshops with Dave Cohen. The next one about Writing Sitcoms is on Friday March 21st and there are couple of places left. Sign up here.


  1. Very interesting - all points well made. It feels as if with so many channels and "outlets" they're dropped the ball a bit in talent development. Maybe? I dunno.

    Small point of order: Graham didn't write Hippies, it was just Arthur.

  2. Excellent points, as always James. Though I would add that one of the major problems with the way comedy has developed is that so many of the people who should now have a host of successful sitcoms under their belts instead ended up writing (very good) gags for all the panel shows that now fill slots which would once have been occupied by sitcoms, one-off plays and the like. Also, do try and see The Fades and In the Flesh. They may sound like standard genre fare but they contain some of the best dramatic writing of the past 10 years.