Monday, 14 March 2016

The Danger of Constantly Celebrating the Past

I was on the Today programme on Friday. It's here (about 2hr47mins in) but don’t bother listening unless you really want to. Clean your ears out and you'll miss me. I was on after some package that Justin Webb had made about the dangers of rugby crowds singing the song ‘Delilah’ that clearly had to be played out before the weekend.

What's not to like?
The reason for this was some idle speculation about a BBC celebration of classic sitcoms from the past called ‘The Landmark Sitcom Season’. There will be new episodes of Are You Being Served?, Porridge, Keeping Up Appearances and, erm, Up Pompeii! There will be recreations of lost episodes of Hancock's Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe And Son on BBC Four. There will be a documentary called British Sitcom: 60 Years Of Laughing At Ourselves. A panel game called We Love Sitcom. A live episode of Mrs Browns Boys. (And five new sitcom pilots for BBC2 that you rather hope they would have done anyway.)

You can understand the reasoning. People love sitcoms. They’ve historically done very well and commanded massive TV audiences. They’re not doing very well at the moment (more of which below), so let’s make a lot of noise about the old ones that will be a ratings smash.

I get it.

Nostalgia. Easy promotability. A blend of old and new. Low risk. Lots of press. And a brand new half hour to be written by Clement and Frenais, writers of the near-perfect Porridge. What’s not to like?

As a consumer of comedy, I’m fine with all of the above obviously. As a writer of comedy, my feelings are slightly more mixed. We already live in a world in which:

Kevin McNally as the very late extremely great Hancock

  • Two of the biggest sitcoms on at the moment are the revived sitcoms: Still Open All Hours and Birds of a Feather.
  • One of the biggest non-terrestrial sitcoms is Red Dwarf on Dave.
  • BBC1 recently remade Reggie Perrin.
  • BBC2 keep broadcasting repeats of Dad’s Army (and made a drama about it) which gets more viewers any other sitcom on BBC2 or Channel 4 practically every single week. 
  • ITV3 are showing every episode of Rising Damp (a truly brilliant show), and making a documentary about it.
  • UKTV recently made more episodes of Yes, Prime Minister.
  • There’s a Some Mother’s Do Have ‘Em sport relief sketch coming. There was a Vicar of Dibley sketch in the last Comic Relief.
  • Radio 4 have already been remaking lost Hancock episodes (see pic). 
  • Almost any evening, you can find an episode of Father Ted or Blackadder somewhere on Freeview.
  • Any of the above are available on DVD, iTunes, the BBC Store or BitTorrent.
  • I could go on.

We are not in danger of forgetting great sitcoms. It makes business sense to promote these shows. We can’t get enough of them. That much is clear.

The question is whether the BBC should be piling in on this. Is the Landmark Sitcom Season a good idea? Comedy writer, Jason Hazeley (Newswipe, Mitchell & Webb, Ladybird books etc), recently said this in the Express, and it is hard to disagree:

Ouch. Now, the BBC would obviously argue they make more original comedy than anyone. In the grand scheme of things, they are not really the bad guys here. They do develop new writing with The Writers Room and I pointed out on the Today programme that there was a new sitcom pilot on BBC1 after the news called Stop/Start (written by one of my comedy heroes, Jack Docherty, about whom I wax lyrical here). The Comedy Playhouse season – which produced Are You Being Served? among other hits – is, without doubt, A Good Thing. (That said, I believe they really didn't like Are You Being Served? and it was shelved, only to be played out to fill dead air because of the Munich Olympics massacre.) More pilots are coming to BBC2. But I share the frustration that money being spent on projects looking back is money taken away from projects looking forward. There is a limited pot. Now more than ever.

Learning Lessons
I have decided mixed feelings on this subject, then. I suppose I’m fine with a one-off lavish celebration and recreation of old comedy hits as long as we learn the right lessons from them. And we need to learn those lessons fast because in this golden age of TV, comedy is losing serious ground to drama. Look at the ratings.

Slightly and briefly more popular
than Mrs Brown, apparently.
In the week ending Sunday 6th March 2016, Call the Midwife got 9.2m, Happy Valley 6.37m, The Night Manager 6.19m and Grantchester 5.3m. That's four dramas topping 5m. The highest performing comedy show on any channel that week was a repeat of Mrs Brown’s Boys, which got 2.82m, putting it just behind Monday’s 1 O’Clock News. The next highest comedy was a Dad’s Army repeat getting 2.05m. Obviously that’s just one week, but if you look at previous weeks, comedy – and sitcom in particular – is not delivering anything like the ratings Drama and Entertainment are getting. Sometimes a sitcom special like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys wins Christmas, but this isn’t happening week in, week out. (There's a bit more on that here.)

I’m not saying that popular sitcoms are better sitcoms. As it happens, I tend to enjoy mainstream comedy more than offbeat ones. But let’s at least note that the seven sitcoms being honoured by the Landmark Sitcom Season were monstrously, and sometimes pub-emptyingly, popular. There were fewer channels back then, yes, I know, but may I remind you that the Bake Off gets more than 10m+ views, and Doctor Foster was getting 7m? And Countryfile is huge. Yes, Countryfile. Big ratings are out there. Our sitcoms are, by and large, not getting them.

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
So, if we’re going to revisit Steptoe and Son, Hancock, Porridge, Til Death Do Us Part, Are you Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances and, erm, Up Pompeii!, let’s not only enjoy them, but learn the right lessons from them. As we look back, rather than conclude ‘Ah, they don't make 'em like that any more', let’s try and figure out why. And as we do that, we’ll see that the BBC has an awful lot more to celebrate and be proud of than it first appears.

Let’s have a think about these seven shows and what unites them. There are obviously some titanic central performances by some of our best comedy actors, with the likes of Tony Hancock and Ronnie Barker, plus some big hitting actors with plenty of acting chops like Routledge, Corbett, Bramble and co. And there’s the superb Frankie Howerd holding the fort on Up Pompeii! But what do we notice here? None of them are writer-performers. Sure, Barker could write. But he didn’t write Porridge. Frankie Howerd was a superb performer who looked like a comedian. He didn't write his material. It was a writer wot did that.

What this landmark season teaches is that writers are the key mainstream success. Writers. Not comedians. Not writer-performers. Writers. Ugly, awkward, eye-contact-avoiding writers.

It's All About Writers
I don’t need to burble on about the comparative merits of writers here. I’ve done so here, here and here. Writers can normally manages runs of more than six episodes at a time. And they come up with ideas that are not tied to a central performance – so you can employ the very best actors, like they do in drama. Imagine only commissioning drama written by actors. Stephen Berkoff would get a lot more work. (Now a Berkoff sitcom I would very much like to see).

There must be something wrong here. We’ve got some brilliant Emmy-winning writers like Andy Riley & Kevin Cecil, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, Simon Blackwell and more besides, but the problem is they’re winning Emmys for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Not Baftas. (For whom writing is a craft award. I know. Baffling)

Young Talent
And there’s plenty of young talent out there too. If only the BBC could find a way of bringing on comedy writers… Apart from that huge cultural behemoth known as BBC Radio. Wait a minute!

You get the idea. The BBC already has a jewel in its comedy crown. BBC Radio, the original home of Galton and Simpson and too many other comedy writers to mention (myself included), is a powerhouse of comedy. Not that you’d know, but recent successes like Count Arthur Strong, Citizen Khan and Miranda have passed through BBC Radio, which has a track record of finding hits, as well as a mandate to encourage new writers. Stop/Start, the comedy playhouse show I mentioned earlier, began life on BBC Radio 4.

Don't they look smart?
Almost every week for decades, there has been a topical comedy show on air that literally anyone can have a go at writing for. Currently that show’s Newsjack. In the past, it was Weekending and The News Huddlines. Through shows like this, writers with no contacts or performing ability – just pure comedy writing talent – can get a foot on the comedy ladder. Shows like these have been key to the career dozens of well known comedy writers (as well known as comedy writers ever get). I always suggest rookie writers get involved in those shows. (As I did here)

Unsung Success
BBC Radio’s comedy successes are rarely heralded or appreciated. Radio 4 has three comedy slots. Three. RAJAR figures are hard to get hold of, but 6.30pm shows probably get more listeners than all but a couple of TV comedies get viewers. Seriously. Radio comedy is huge. So huge, that they’ve stuffed another channel with radio comedy, Radio 4 Extra – which is now an even bigger station than BBC 6Music, with its quasi-hipsters 40somethings constantly playing music by bands you’ve never heard of. (Cheap shot. I’m sure 6Music is great. I just don’t listen to it.)

The BBC occasionally runs radio trailers on TV, when it tries to advertise all of radio in 30 seconds with some Ludovico Einaudi in the background. But couldn’t we have something more ambitious?

My worry is that BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky, C5/Comedy Central and UKTV are scouring the Edinburgh Fringe and Youtube for the TV stars of tomorrow, when under the noses (or whistling past their ears) is a writing academy and hit factory that’s been running for decades.

Singing Success
See? Benedict Cumberbatch really is in it.
So when this Landmark Sitcom Season is done, maybe we could plan a new season of TV specials of radio sitcoms being written, rehearsed, re-written recorded and/or revived like Fags, Mags & Bags, Elvenquest, Ed Reardon’s Week, Shush!, Old Harry’s Game and a lovely show by Will Smith that really should be on TV called Mr and Mrs Smith. Or even a special episode of the Best Sitcom of the Last Ten Years That Most People Haven’t Heard Of Even Though It Stars Benedict Cumberbatch (It Really Does): Cabin Pressure.

In my opinion, comedy is not the poor relation of drama on radio. Far from it. Comedy is the prime time favourite on Radio 4, and the bedrock of Radio 4 Extra. The writer of Cabin Pressure was John Finnemore who was just named Radio Broadcaster of the Year for John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, a truly brilliant sketch show, who, for some reason, isn't writing a sitcom for television.

It seems a shame to be going back to the Greats again and again when there’s some really good stuff already kicking around the BBC that could be great given a decent nudge in the right direction.

Incidentally, this is why I'm excited to be at the Craft of Comedy Writing Conference on 8th & 9th April. There are lots of radio people there, including Sioned Wiliam, Commissioning Editor for Comedy at BBC Radio 4, who probably commissions more comedy than every TV controller combined. Her predecessor, Caroline Raphael, now i/c audio at Penguin Random House will also be there. Dave Cohen and I will be doing a live podcast and there’ll also be Jason Hazeley (from the Express quote above) and Joel Morris kicking around along with some other tremendous and delightful folk.

This blog post wasn’t written to plug that conference. I’m just genuinely excited about it, just like I’m genuinely excited about comedy. I’m really looking forward to a new episode of Are You Being Served?, a reboot of Porridge, a reshoot of Hancock and even some more Up Pompeii!

But because I’m a sitcom fan, I just want people to realise that Radio Comedy isn’t just the past. It’s the present. And it’s the future. It frustrates me that the BBC don’t celebrate and champion this anywhere near enough.


For more of this sort of thing, listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here. And/or buy Writing That Sitcom by James Cary, part how-to guide, part-intervention for those wanting to write sitcoms, available for Kindle/Kindle App.