Sitcoms used to be a staple part of British television; from the very start, stars of the day entertained millions on a weekly basis. The BBC in particular has a long line of smash-hit comedy programmes. Many of the most successful sitcoms managed to unite the whole family around the television set by offering something for everyone. Only Fools and Horses, Hi De Hi and The Vicar of Dibley were all so popular in part because they appealed to many generations; yes, they were rather ‘safe’, but they were also truly funny.
Unfortunately, perhaps through want of trying, broadcasters haven’t managed to find a new hit comedy show for years. Last week, the most-watched BBC comedy programme was a forty years old episode of Dad’s Army. We have seen a gradual shift away from British comedy production, especially the traditional sitcom format, towards drama, which is increasingly successful around the world. Triumphs such as Sherlock and Happy Valley have shown that UK TV can compete with big American networks. The move towards more profitable dramas has left the comedy department being rather neglected, but surely there is space for both?
Just think about it for a moment. What is the most recent comedy success? BBC3 have made several efforts, yet none have really broken into the mainstream and the channel is soon to be closed anyway, probably. Bluestone 42 is perhaps the best example of this; despite relative critical acclaim, it’s never had more than one million viewers and may soon only be available online. BBC1 is designed to be the centrepiece of the British Broadcasting Corporation; a channel that shows the best the corporation has to offer, with something for all license fee payers. However, in terms of comedy, the channel is looking increasingly empty. Miranda was launched on BBC2 in 2009, and has now finished. Mrs Brown’s Boys now only does Christmas specials. Citizen Khan has been re-commissioned, despite fewer than three million people watching each episode (which perhaps indicates quite how desperate they are). The only real ratings success for the channel has been the revival of the 1970s sitcom Still Open All Hours.
Only a few years ago, the BBC had a collection of sitcoms that would regularly return for a new series (My Family, The Green Green Grass, After You’ve Gone, Last of the Summer Wine). It would be untrue to say that these were critical successes; they were frequently mauled by newspaper critics for their “middle-of-the-road” approach to comedy. But they entertained millions of viewers every week. They were considered to be running out of steam when they were cancelled, which is fine, but they weren’t replaced with anything else. At least it demonstrated a variety on offer.
It has been argued that the rise of Netflix, online streaming and BBC iPlayer has made basing the success of a programme on its ratings redundant. This ignores the fact that popular dramas attract seven or eight million viewers. If they can still do it, why can’t comedies? The answer is perhaps that the current meagre offerings simply haven’t been good enough. After all, Still Open All Hours was viewed earlier this year by around seven million people. So it is possible. Despite the financial pressure currently upon it, the BBC needs to try harder.
One of the main problems facing comedy producers and commissioners (once minor things like scripting and casting are out of the way) is the distinct lack of affordable filming facilities. The BBC used to own several studio complexes around London, which were in constant use for many years. Producers could book one of the BBC’s own studios to film a show, hereby minimising cost by keeping everything “in house”. As television changed, the studios were gradually sold off to developers. The most damaging sale for comedy production occurred in 2012 when Television Centre was sold; resulting in the destruction of many key studios. TC8, the studio where Monty Python, Little Britain, Mock the Week, Morecambe and Wise, Not Going Out and One Foot in the Grave were recorded, is now empty and awaiting the wrecking ball. TV Centre was the heart of British broadcasting for sixty years, but it wasn’t just nostalgia that angered fans and former employees when it was sold. It was economic madness to move to a newly renovated headquarters (at the cost of £1 billion), rent commercial studios (including, ironically, ITV’s London Studios) and sell off a studio complex that had been under continual refurbishment for decades. Sadly, it’s now too late to do anything about it.
It is a matter for another article, but it is worth briefly considering the role of executives in the commissioning and production process. According to its own site, the BBC has, amongst many others, a Controller of Television Comedy Commissioning (annual salary: £207,000), a Controller of Comedy Production (£200,000), a Controller of Business, Comedy & Entertainment (£180,800), a Head of BBC1 (£264,000) and a Head of Television (£320,000). The number of people supposed to commission comedy is simply not matched by the dreadfully low outcome. What are they doing to earn their salaries?
However, it isn’t all bad news. ITV’s sitcom Vicious, with Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen, returns in a few weeks, whilst the BBC has commissioned a few new programmes to be aired in the autumn. A press release issued last month gushed about a “raft of new comedy commissions”. This proved to be a slight exaggeration, given how few programmes were actually ordered, but one or two shows seem to be noteworthy. The Tracey Ullman Show “will feature Tracey Ullman portraying a multitude of diverse and distinct characters living in, or visiting, the busy global hub that is the UK” after decades on US television. While the team behind The Worst Week of My Life have been reunited for I Want My Wife Back, which will star Ben Miller as Murray; a nice guy who is shocked when his wife walks out on him at her 40th birthday party.
I may well be wrong, it is hard to tell what a programme will be like from a press release, but neither description inspires much confidence. They appear to be shows designed via a focus group to target specific audiences, which may well be a successful approach; although it didn’t work for Big Top (the disastrous 2009 sitcom with Amanda Holden). I do wonder if any of these shows will have the staying power of the programmes we now consider to be “classics”. In forty years’ time, will people be sitting down to watch a repeat of Citizen Khan? Somehow I doubt it.
The task ahead for all broadcasters, especially the BBC, is tricky. There is increasing competition to commission the next ‘hit’. Finding a successful comedy show is notoriously difficult, but they could do more to exploit the wealth of comedy talent evident online, in theatres and in comedy clubs across the country. It doesn’t help that many execs are more economically than creatively minded. Yet, it’s time for them to earn their money and go out to find a variety of new shows. I Want My Wife Back may prove to be a turning point for BBC comedy. If they manage to develop a continual process of nurturing new talent while supporting existing programmes, the quality and substance of television comedy would be substantially improved for us, and for future generations, to enjoy.