Monday 21 April 2014

The Rise of the Writer-Performer Sitcom Part 2

This post follows on from the previous one about sitcoms by writer-performers. Read that here.

About ten years ago, the BBC made a big fuss about which sitcom was the best. After quite a lengthy survey, the top ten was announced. In fact, they published a list of the top hundred but let’s focus on the top 10. In fact, let’s stretch to the top 15. They were: Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Vicar of Dibley, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister, Porridge, Open All Hours, The Good Life, One Foot in the Grave, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Last of the Summer Wine, Steptoe and Son.

Now, it’s not an infallible list, obviously. These are not necessarily the 15 truly greatest. There’s no Hancock’s Half Hour, Reggie Perrin, Bread or To the Manor Born (the latter two racking up truly stunning TV ratings that make Jack Whitehall look like a small town in Surrey).

But of all those shows just mentioned, how many were written by writer-performers?

Go on.


I’ll tell you. Precisely one and a quarter. Fawlty Towers, obviously, and the first series of Blackadder (conceived by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis before Ben Elton was brought in for series 2-4).

Now hold on there. This does not automatically mean that writer-led shows are better, funnier and/or more successful than shows by writer-performers. But it’s worth noting most shows of serious of quality that have stood the test of time, and born much repeat viewing are written by writers. Porridge is so enduringly popular that, when you Google it, it comes up first. Ahead of actual porridge.

The Faceless Megastar
But there’s something else. Let’s bear in mind that John Cleese, a comedy giant, literally, wrote 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers. Compare him to the writer who sort of wins on that list: Roy Clarke, who is on the list 3 times. He’s written 26 episodes of Open All Hours, 44 episodes of Keeping Up Appearances and 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine. (Okay, point taken. But I couldn’t even type that many scripts in a lifetime, let alone put jokes in them.)

Sulilvan's sublime Dear John - Pic from BBC here.
John Sullivan’s on that list with Only Fools and Horses (63 eps). He also wrote the hugely popular Just Good Friends (22 eps) and Citizen Smith (30 eps) and the little gem, Dear John (14 eps). Plus the spin-off show, Green Green Grass.

Carla Lane, who wrote the Mrs Brown’s Boys of the late 80s, Bread (74 eps), also wrote The Liver Birds (86 eps) and Butterflies (30 eps).

Esmonde and Larbey who wrote The Good Life (30 eps), also wrote Ever Decreasing Circles (27 eps) and, among other things, Please Sir! (55 eps), Brush Strokes (40 eps). Oh, and Bob Larbey also knocked out 4 series of A Fine Romance and 9 series (yes, nine) of As Time Goes By.

And we’ve barely even mentioned Marks and Gran (Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman, Harvey Moon), Clement and Frenais (Porridge, Likely Lads), Perry and Croft (Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Are You Being Served, Hi-de-Hi), Eric Chappell (Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh, Home to Roost, Duty Free) and the godfathers of sitcom, Galton and Simpson (Hancock, Steptoe & Son).

The point I’m making is simple. Great writers can really deliver big. Not just big hits, but hits that run for 4 or 5 series. And then repeat that a few times. Writer-performers struggle with volume, not least because of the immense pressure of doing both. And they have other calls on their time, like 100 date tours (extended because of the success of their TV show) and books, ads, voiceovers, panel games, movies… Being famous is exhausting.

But writers aren’t famous. No-one wants come to the O2 to watch us bitch about the BBC for two hours. No one wants us to write our autobiographies, sell weed killer, appear on Would I Lie to You? or make a British film about a wedding. So we’re free to knuckle down and create the one thing you need for a sitcom. Funny scripts. Loads of them.

So what?
So, I’m not saying that the rise of the Writer-Performer show is a bad thing. Not at all. What I am saying is that channels, corporations, commercial networks and providers of satellite TV services need to take the long view. It’s fine to have shows by popular comedians and performers that run for a couple of series. But they tend to stop doing them. And you can’t keep launching new ones. You need some shows to run and run – and a show that an audience truly takes to its heart is a wonderful thing. And the Brits do that. We will watch shows again and again. It’s just a shame that the shows on in bulk, now, tend be Americans ones like Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. We could produce shows like that in the UK. But that would mean handing some power to writers. Is that really such a bad thing given what they can do? Why is only American writers who are trusted with this level of responsibility? (I have some thoughts on this. For another time.)

The fact is comedy controllers need quantity as well as quality. And you can have both, especially when truly great writers are writing for truly great comedy actors - like Briers, Barker, Eddington, Hawthorne, Kendall and Keith. Really big name actors wanted to be in sitcoms in the past. And they regularly were. Even John Thaw. Today, when two great actors like Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellan want to do a sitcom (Vicious), it’s a big news story.

Do great actors lack confidence that they’re going to be given great scripts? Most big names would probably rather be a TV detective, which is understandable. For a start, critics don't disportionately pour vitriol on these.

If we want those great scripts, we need to nurture writers. Are we doing that? Now, the industry, even the BBC, doesn’t owe anyone a living. But if we’re taking the long view, maybe going ‘all in’ on the Edinburgh Fringe, where writer-performers are kings, isn’t the way to go. Maybe some more money for scripts from out-and-out writers. And hey, some rooms to plot, plan and write the actual scripts in. Just a thought.


  1. Brilliant article, articulately put without any arty-farty attitude ;-)

  2. Brilliant and (biased as I know I am) totally right. Only thing is, to reach the audience that really needs to hear it you might have to do it as a one man Edinburgh show...

  3. Excellent as ever James - and I'd include the golden era of US sitcom in the 90s - Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends, the Simpsons, with a score 0.5 out of 4. However, I would also say... lots, so expect a blog response from me in the next couple of weeks.

  4. Great post. I love your blog. Just a very pedantic note that John Cleese did not write Fawlty Towers alone. Connie Booth wrote half those scripts. Sorry, I know this is an annoying note even as I write it.

  5. Good entry James, always good to be reminded of how consistent and prolific the best British sit-com writers of the past were. Unfortunately it's the performers who get most of the credit for successful shows, and even if they are not writers themselves, their choices of script can have a disproportionate amount of power when it comes to determining which new shows get commissioned.

  6. An issue I've been struggling with as a novice and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on why more sitcoms can't be team written with more than the obligatory 6-8 eps I'd also like to hear Dave's thoughts due to his experience on Not Going Out. If a show is established and is bringing in the ratings why not invest and consolidate that popularity as oppose to investing in multiple projects that could potentially fail? Furthermore, it would provide jobs for existing comedy writers and create a terrific in-house unofficial school for burgeoning writers looking to hone their craft.