How the BBC has killed TV comedy

How the BBC has killed TV comedy: Bland, timid and predictable, there's little to laugh at on the box

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UPDATED:

00:12 GMT, 28 September 2012

Whenever I’m asked to review the state of television comedy, I find myself thinking of Wolfgang Dircks.

This lifelong viewer of German TV was found in his Hamburg flat, in front of a flickering screen, his bony hands clutching the TV listings in which he had circled all the comedy programmes.

All perfectly normal, you might think, except that the date on the magazine showed that he had been dead for five years. Presumably, a diet of Teutonic one-liners had sapped his will to live.

Cloying: Michael McIntyre (centre) and his crew tell gag after inexorable gag without shade or insight in Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow

Cloying: Michael McIntyre (centre) and his crew tell gag after inexorable gag without shade or insight in Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow

I fear a similar fate whenever I turn to a BBC channel these days, because the organisation that once produced so much original comedy is now a timid place, where the bland lead the bland.

This once-brave broadcaster no longer has the confidence to take risks, and the dismal results are smeared like treacle across our screens on a daily basis.

Satirist Armando Iannucci pointed this out in a recent Bafta lecture, while claiming exemption for his own work. But you only have to compare the 1980s classic Yes Minister with Iannucci’s The Thick Of It to see that the criticism applies equally to him.

Where Yes Minister skilfully demonstrated that it’s the unelected Establishment figures who hold the reins of power, Iannucci simply portrays MPs as idiots.

He ignores the malign influence of
the Establishment, and he does it so completely that they’ve given him a
reward. Take a bow, Armando Iannucci, satirist and OBE. Now that really
is funny.

If The Thick Of
It is the Mensa of BBC comedy, the ‘Densa’ is Michael McIntyre’s Comedy
Roadshow. He and his spivs in suits tell gag after inexorable gag,
without shade or insight. Watching it is like eating too many
chocolates, or being tickled for hours on end.

Satirist Armando Iannucci said the once-brave broadcaster no longer had the confidence to take risks which can be applied to his classic 1980s classic Yes Minister with The Thick Of It (pictured)

Satirist Armando Iannucci said the once-brave broadcaster no longer had the confidence to take risks which can be applied to his classic 1980s classic Yes Minister with The Thick Of It (pictured)

The irony is that, by trying so hard not to cause offence, the BBC ends up producing the most offensive comedy of all — simply because it just isn’t funny.

Ever since the Hutton Inquiry, which was heavily critical of the BBC’s reporting of Labour’s ‘sexed-up’ Iraq dossier, morale has been hanging around the Corporation’s ankles. And when fearful BBC executives commission programmes not on the basis of whether they’re likely to be funny, but on whether they’ll upset the BBC Trust and its chairman Lord Patten, it’s small wonder the results are so dire.

Greg Dyke was the last Director-General who tried to energise the place. Since then we’ve had Mark Thompson, that half-man-half-desk who (as sure as Clegg’s love bites match Cameron’s dental records) has prostrated himself before Patten.

Thompson has encouraged a sclerotic
culture of compliance forms and endless training — and the new DG George
Entwistle has spent so long as a BBC executive that he’s unlikely to
reverse the trend.

As for
radio, Broadcasting House has often been described as a ship, sailing
majestically along Portland Place; but given the absence of comedic
talent on Radio 4, I can only presume that the ship in question is
something in between the Marie Celeste and the Titanic.

For
decades, Radio 4’s 6.30pm slot has been frozen in the 1950s, making a
noise that sounds like comedy but, on closer inspection, contains no
genuine edge or wit whatsoever.

The
BBC not only affects comedy directly, it also has a deleterious
indirect effect on its competitors. ITV has virtually abandoned the
genre, and Channel 4 is too busy with vain tellychefs to offer more than
a few panel shows.

Lord Patten

Greg Dyke

BBC execs: BBC bosses are commissioning programmes based on whether they'll upset the BBC Trust and chairman Lord Patten (left) while Greg Dyke (right) was the last Director-General to try to energise the place

Sky’s Stuart Murphy boasts about poaching talent from the BBC or, worse, accepts ideas that have been rejected elsewhere. He has reached rock bottom and is starting to dig.

Recently, after watching McIntyre’s Roadshow, I had a nightmare about a nation with no outlet for hard-hitting comedy, and woke up shouting ‘Establishment Club!’. This was the satire club opened by the great Peter Cook in the 1960s. So I phoned his widow Lin, who told me that Peter had been planning to re-open it shortly before his death in 1995.

Destiny seemed to be calling. So now I have decided — along with a few others — to bring the Establishment to life again. It’s early days yet, but we’re staging very edgy comedy, and streaming it live online to circumvent Ofcom’s censorship.

As for mainstream TV, I realised years ago that great comedy doesn’t rely on gag after gag. It relies on contrast and insight, which is why you’re more likely to find great comedic moments in drama and documentaries than in light entertainment.

Indeed, those ancient Greek masks — Tragedy and Comedy — form the world’s oldest double act. Yet commissioning editors recognise the former as rare and precious, but assume the latter can be turned on as easily as a tap.

Worse, while drama is largely uncensored (on the grounds that it is ‘high’ art), comedy has to justify itself because it’s seen to appeal to the baser instincts. Yet surely the best comedy should be just as thought-provoking and as liberating as the best drama. And shouldn’t Ofcom and the BBC Trust allow comedians the same freedoms given to dramatists

Until they do, it’s inevitable that comedy will continue to be the poor relation. The result being that what our comedy departments produce nowadays is chiefly tragic.