Tuesday 25 January 2011

Give 'Em What They Want: Sitcom

So, lots of media pundits are reacting, or being paid to react, to the news that BBC1 would like a 'blue-collar' sitcom. It isn't clear exactly when, where and how Danny Cohen said this, although he's made no secret of this desire over the last few weeks. But rather than fly reporters to North Africa and report on armed uprising, our media has decided to talk about situation comedy.

Why wouldn't Danny Cohen want a down-to-earth working class sitcom? Another Only Fools and Horses, Bread or Royle Family. Let us not forget that at its peak, Bread pulled in about 22 million viewers. Let us also not forget that To The Manor Born pulled in 24 million viewers. Was it the same 20-odd million watching both programmes. Probably. I used to watch both of them. I didn't care. They were both brilliant.

And this is point that rings loud and clear from all the media chats and discussion: as long as its funny, no-one much cares where the comedy is set, and how rich our characters are. So far so predictable.

Moreover, Danny Cohen isn't proposing to jettison middle-class settings for comedies too. He's not going to commission a factory canteen sitcom by Harry Northerer and not commissioned a boutique hotel sitcom by Harald South-by-South-East. But here's the thing. There's so little situation comedy on television that he may have to chose between.

I find this whole area very hard to understand. The audiences love sitcoms. They adore them. It's interesting that Miranda won the King/Queen of Comedy award at the comedy - against Harry Hill, stadium-filling Michael McIntyre and ever cheeky Ant & Dec. And David Mitchell is probably more associated with being a panellist and all-round good egg than Mark in Peep Show. But from almost a standing start Miranda Hart went and won.

Sitcoms sell DVDs - and decent ones continue to sell years after transmission. People are still buying Blackadder, Yes Minister and Porridge. They are not buying '1994 Compilation Have I Got News for You', or 'Call My Bluff: The Arthur Marshall Years - Uncut and Uncorked'.

And yet, the TV channels seemed determined not to make scripted narrative comedy - even though there are endless other scripted narrative things like soaps, hospital 'dramas', detective shows and those things that aren't really anything (I'm thinking Hotel Babylon?).

Let's look at the evidence. BBC1 tonight showed no comedy at all. None. Or last night. On Sunday night, there was a repeat of Gavin and Stacey at 10.30 (how many repeats, now?). And repeat of My Family at 4.25pm. On Saturday night, Come Fly With Me - a repeat from Thursday. On Friday night, a panel game and a chat show. On Thursday, Not Going Out. That's not a lot of comedy - and I wouldn't be able to tell you when I could regularly tune in to a sitcom. It used to be Friday night at 8.30. Not now. So when?

Over the same time period, BBC2 have finally repeated the wonderful The Great Outdoors from BBC4, and launched a new panel/improv game and shown a new series - Episodes. And that's it. And Buzzcocks on Wednesday.

So, between BBC1 and BBC2, in the last week, new episodes narrative comedies are: Episodes and Not Going Out. And Come Fly With Me (which is more of a sketch show in one setting)

Come on, BBC. More sitcom, please. I love cooking shows as much as the next man, but I'm pretty sure that everyone who wants to learn to cook has learnt by now. Can we have some funnies now?

Maybe I'm just being overly biased in favour of narrative comedy and want everyone to like what I like. But let's not forget that on Saturday night, after a repeat of Dad's Army, BBC2 also repeat a retrospective of Allo Allo - for an hour and three quarters. Now, I love Allo Allo. All 80-odd episodes of it. But I continue to be staggered at the sheer number of documentaries, re-enactments and pickings overs the bones of old sitcoms like Allo Allo. It reinforces my point about sitcoms being what people really want, since they are so powerful and memorable.

So my plea is not for more working class comedy, or middle class comedy - but more comedy. It really is what the viewers want. It's why they made Miranda their comedy Queen. And why they'd rather talk about Del Boy and Steptoe than uprisings in Tunisia.


  1. I think part of the reason for the lack of sitcoms is the risk attached to them. There have been far too many poor or mediocre ones over the last twenty years and so we venture back to the safe territory of the golden oldies.

    We went to the filming of the first ever TV recording of Miranda and were genuinely surprised about how good it was. This was even with the knowledge that (a) It had worked well on Radio 4 and (b) Miranda Hart had great potential. What made it was the quality of the writing (doff cap).

    I can imagine that they're not cheap to commission, so TV people retreat to the safe haven of cheap popular telly- be it repeats or reality/cookery shows. They need to put their faith in good quality writers and allow them to write great comedy. If you invest in quality people who are excellent in their field this generally will breed a quality business- and class, sex or ethnicity simply don't enter into it.

  2. Re. repeats: My DVD choice for a desert island (assuming I could plug the player in somewhere) would be the complete box set of 'Frasier'. I could happily watch that show over and over again until I got rescued or died. That series included great characters from a range of classes but great writing made them all hugely enjoyable to watch.

  3. Seinfeld! How did I forget Seinfeld?! Frasier AND Seinfeld DVDs on the desert island. Phew!