The majority of BBC2’s half hour comedy narratives have been by writer-performers: The Trip, Inside Number 9, Count Arthur Strong, House of Fools and The Wrong Mans. Tom Hollander has more than a hand in writing Rev. And let’s not forget Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House and Sue Perkins’s Heading Out. And Paul Whitehouse’s Nurse is to come (having done Bellamy’s People, Help and the much-forgotten but brilliant Happiness). And going back a little, there’s Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon, which started on BBC4, a channel which is also giving us Jessica Hynes’s Up The Women. Episodes, W1A and Hebburn are writer-led, but they are the minority on BBC2.
You might expect BBC3 to have gone down this route – having made it big with Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain, but they haven’t so much. Clearly one of the channel’s biggest hits at the moment is Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education. But the rest of their sitcoms - Uncle, Bluestone 42, Pramface - are writer-led, as was Him and Her. And Channel 4 currently has Toast of London, Man Down and Derek in the writer-performer department.
Now, writers normally have a chip on their shoulder about writer-performers, as I’ve said here. (In fact writers have a chip on their shoulder about everyone so don’t take it personally) I think it’s something to do with not respecting people who seem to want attention. Writers avoid the bright lights, like the undead and the lycanthropes. (Does that work? I’m not up on my horror, I’m afraid). So my instinct is to decry this inexorable slide towards to writer-performer-led shows, but let’s look at the facts.
All of the shows mentioned above are decent shows. They are not all to my personal taste (NB: Critics, if you don’t like something, it doesn’t mean it’s bad) but most of these shows found an audience and didn’t create calls for public hangings, which is increasingly rare for the BBC in these troubled times.
Dazzled By Stars?
It’s not as if a commissioning executive was all starry-eyed and let someone famous make show that turned out to be nothing but a horrendous Battlefield Earth-type vanity project. All of the above are by experienced comedians with a proven track record of making audiences laugh time after time for years in a variety of formats and settings. If Paul Whitehouse, one of the great writer-performers of our age, wants to do a show on your channel, you’re going to need a good reason to tell them he can’t. (Although the Paul Whitehouses of this world would probably argue execs are very creative when it comes to reasons why they can’t.)
When you think about it, commissioning shows from writer-performers makes a lot of sense. Writer-performers have lots of first-hand experience of what works for their persona. I’ve written with Miranda Hart for television and Milton Jones for radio, and both of them have an instinctive sense of what will work for their onstage character, and what won’t. They’re almost always right. And it’s not really a surprise, given this talent has come through years of playing that kind of character. My job as a writer is to help them generate new ideas or help them to get their ideas to work with their persona.
It's All About Tone
Because the writer-performer has often played this kind of character, or version of themselves, there’s a consistent comedy voice from Day 1. That’s a big plus. When you’re writing for others it can be tricky. Richard Hurst and I on Bluestone 42 took a long time to establish a tone, a house-style and ways of talking. And we had to shoot 8 episodes not fully confident that we’d got it right or even consistent. Writer-performers are at advantage here, I think.
Writer-performer-led shows tend to revolve around one big central character like Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Edina, Miranda, Mrs Brown. Just reading those character names you know exactly who they are. You can picture them and know how they’d react in any given situation. And you probably understood the characters having watched them for about ninety seconds.
Having a character like this means the audience can relax because they know what the show is about, who the important person is and where the jokes are coming from. Putting your audience at ease is critical in comedy, and a show with a network of characters can be off-putting or feel like homework. Maybe that’s why the mainstream audience never took Arrested Development.
From a commissioning point of view, the writer-performer makes sense too. The TV channel forking over the money for the show already know roughly what they’re getting. They’ve seen this character on stage, or in a sketch show. They know what the comedy sensibilities are – and how to promote it.
Plus, there’s sometimes a ready-made fan-base too. Jack Whitehall can tweet when his sitcom is on BBC3 – and immediately get through to over 2.3 million fans (the population of Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow combined). What channel wouldn’t want a piece of that?
And what writer-performer wouldn’t want a bit of telly? It means that they can play big arenas on tour, sell out in minutes, add extra dates, sell books, do adverts and start making some serious money. Everyone’s happy: The channel; the writer-performer; the writers that help the writer performer; and the audience – who simply don’t care whether the show is written by the star or two over-educated misanthropic men in a largely defunct BBC building (or an expensive new building which doesn’t have enough rooms to work in.) Why would they care?
So. Long live writer-performer shows, right?
Can we take the long view?
Come back tomorrow for the next post.