Friday 20 September 2013

There is Plenty of Decent Comedy on Radio 4

So, Liam Mullone has written an article about Why there isn't Any Decent Comedy on Radio 4? in Spectator. And I'm quoted in it a few times.

Which would suggest I think there isn't any Decent Comedy on Radio 4.

Which isn't, of course, true. Not least because I've written some comedy for Radio 4 recently which is, I hope, decent.

Moreover, anyone who's read my blog will know that I'm a huge fan of BBC Radio and Radio Comedy - and only last night was urging people to write for Newsjack, which is a brilliant way of getting started in comedy writing. And why writing for radio is just a great thing to do (see here).

I spoke to Liam about radio comedy because I like Liam and find his comedy voice interesting and subversive as far as the comedy scene goes, so we had a nice chat. And also I'm passionate about Radio Comedy and want it to be as good as possible. So when we were talking, it was more in a context of reasons why it sometimes isn't good, or why particular choices are made.

So let's nuance this all a bit. I said something along the lines of:
The BBC is desperate for new comedy voices. That’s why it returns to the Fringe each year. But because getting on to Radio 4 is an achievable aim for a Fringe performer, many shows, perhaps subconsciously, are written for radio. They’re made to be picked up and slotted in without anyone having to rethink them. So a lot of things sound like Radio 4 even before they get aired.
And I think that's true - although it sounds a little negative. Because BBC Radio 4 (and 4 Extra) puts out more original comedy content that pretty much all other TV and Radio comedy combined, there's a realistic chance that if you're a good writer (and performer), you could land a slot on radio 4. And if you're trying to be seen and progress your career in Edinburgh, you might be aiming for one of those slots. So subconsciously, you could end up writing a show that can be adapted for radio quite easily, which may inhibit creativity and originality. Having said that, most of the shows I saw at Edinburgh this year were not very 'radio-ish', so maybe people are good at avoiding that.

Comedian Talking
Another thing that can happen is that when an interesting comedy voice is found, the rush to get them onto the radio might also lead to a 'comedian talks about stuff for half an hour on a theme' radio show. There are lots of them about - and some of them are great (eg Jeremy Hardy Speaks the Nation among others). I've co-written several series of Milton Jones's show where we've tried to avoid that, and written a Ripping-Yarns-meets-Goons-style story so that show is greater than the sum of its parts. That's the idea, at least. Mark Thomas's Manifesto is another decent twist on 'Man talks for half an hour' and Mark Steel's In Town.

There is also the issue that vast majority of comedy is made for a Radio 4 audience, who are not, by and large, a Radio 1, 2 or 3, Five Live or 6Music audience. So if you're after Radio comedy and aren't a regularly Radio 4 listener (which I am) there way well be a similarity in tone or style. But that's not always the case. One of my favourite shows of recent years is Bigipedia - which somehow manages to sound like the internet. It's brilliant, full of jokes and ideas (and I don't think is returning for a third series, sadly. No idea why).

Religion, Radio and Comedy
Moving on, I also said something like: 'Radio 4 won’t have religion in its comedy.’ I'm not sure I said it exactly like that, but religion and comedy together is something that Radio 4 audience tend not to like and complain about most vociferously. And so producers are rightly nervous about tackling religion with comedy.

There are reasons for this.

Religion is very personal and so the chance to offend is high. That is not to say it should be done, but you have to know why you're doing it. In my experience, comedy people tend not to be religious. And religious people tend to have a tin ear for comedy. So this is not a happy relationship. I've written lots of this subject in other places since I'm an unusual case being a comedy writer and a professing Christian. Given the number of people and ideas competing for Radio 4's comedy slots, it's probably easier to pick someone that tackles subjects other than religion - because we all want a quiet life, right? Which brings us to:

And Finally
I said "And everyone’s terrified of being fired. So nobody wants to shake things up much." Firstly, it's hard to shake things up when Radio 4 Comedy is one part of one station's output which has a particular audience. But secondly, this statement is true of most people on salaries in most organisation in most walks of life. If you're paying off a mortgage and have to provide food for you kids, your main aim at work is to do the best you can without being fired.

Why would people working at the BBC be any different? We have incredibly high expectations of the BBC - because we're proud of it. We hold anyone who works there to a higher standard, which is not entirely fair because it's one of the most recognisable and trusted brands in the world. And its ours.

And despite the constant barrage from self-righteous MPs and tiresome Daily Mail columnists, the BBC continues. And BBC Radio 4 keeps putting out scripted comedies gems like Cabin Pressure, Bleak Expectations, That Mitchell and Webb Sound, Bigipedia, Giles Wemmbley-Hogg Goes Off, Old Harry's Game, Party, In and Out of the Kitchen, Elvenquest, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, Nick Mohammed in Bits to name but a few - as well as the stalwart institutions like Just A Minute, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, The News Quiz and The Now Show.

In short, Radio 4 Comedy has a pretty decent hit rate and have a profoundly beneficial effect on the British comedy scene. But then, no-one's going to print an article about that, are they?


  1. There was that R4 sitcom about the female rabbi with Tracy-Ann Oberman in it, but that's quite a few years ago now.

  2. Shocked that Bigipedia not coming back, excellent comedy. Lots of good stuff on R4, but that was a favourite.

  3. There are no decent comedies on Radio 4! Come to that, there are no decent comedies on the BBC. There hasn't been a funny sketch show since Alas Smith and Jones, or a funny sit-com since BlackAdder Goes Forth! Mrs Browns Boy is okay, but they depend too much on swearing and smut, Miranda is simply terrible.
    Bluestone 42 is a rip off of BBC Scotlands Gary: Tank Commander!
    Perhaps, "Comedy" has changed so much, that it has a different meaning, today!

  4. I agree, there is plenty to love about Radio 4 comedy and the ones you have listed are all worth hearing by anyone (they are also repeating a certain, excellent code-breaking based sitcom at the minute).
    I find the idea of the 'Radio 4 audience' a curious one. I think that plenty of younger people (such as myself in my 20s) listen to the comedy output on radio, helped by the accessibility of the internet and iPlayer. I initially stumbled across Old Harry's Game and Think the Unthinkable back in my teens and from those two shows, have been hooked ever since. It shouldn't be dismissed by any means.

  5. Hey Paul, many thanks for your thoughtful comments on BBC Comedy, my work and your allegation of plagiarism. You've really understood what we're trying to achieve here on this blog.

  6. James

    Whenever I hear someone say "there hasn't been a funny X since Y" I always assume they mean "that's when I was 20 and discovered comedy for the first time".

    No contemporary show however good can compare to the feeling of discovering something you found brilliantly funny the first time, especially when those characters have become so familiar now that you just have to look at them to smile. But some of us can grow and appreciate other stuff too. And others... well... :)

  7. my limited experience of radio 4's sitcoms is that they're a little twee and i can see the jokes coming. im thinking specifically of the one that has roy's mum off corrie in it, which i think has run for ages.

  8. cabin pressure is awesome!!!

    1. you missed the oportunity to say "brilliant"