Producer Norma Burke recalls her time at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival to reflect on what the future holds for comedy on British television.
For the final session of last weekend’s Edinburgh TV festival five intrepid industry execs and presenters were given the task of trying stand up comedy for the first time in front of their peers. Such was the enormity of the task Jon Snow pulled out and Stuart Murphy when asked said he’d “rather have diarrhea for a week”. Apparently that has now been arranged.
Somewhat unbeliveably they all did a great job, leading host Mark Watson to declare it “nothing short of a miracle”. The winner was Outline Productions managing director Helen Veale who had the good fortune of being mentored by comedian Shappi Khorsandi.
It was a weekend when comedy could do no wrong as many of the controllers waved a flag for the genre with gusto in their sessions.
Sky led the charge talking up the channel’s first attempt at comedy in a decade. In the Sky world, big and bold are key that means talent need to be comfortable with their face “on the back of the bus” as Stuart Murphy, director of programmes at Sky, pointed out in his session, conjuring up for me the infamous image of Carrie Bradshaw in SATC - but with Rupert Murdoch driving the bus.
With a 90% subscriber and 10% ad sales model, they have an emphasis on less shows of a higher quality as the focus is more on Sky Plus and “must watch television” that delivers genuine value to subscribers. US shows are a key part of the DNA of the channel and with their new show Modern Family stealing the top awards at the Emmys this week it looks like a great start.
Big names are the focus at present including a new comedy drama from Ruth Jones and a christmas series called ‘Little Crackers’ featuring ten minute shorts with household names including Stephen Fry, Catherine Tate, Bill Bailey, Dawn French, Jo Brand and Victoria Wood.
In factual, big comedy names also feature with a new 8 x 1-hour series featuring Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington - An Idiot Abroad -starting in the autumn.
BBC4 are also using the draw of big comedy names in factual with Stephen Fry hosting a programme on Wagner and Paul Merton fronting one on Alfred Hitchcock as well as a season on the history of variety. The final rulings of the BBC Trust could mean the channel will have to focus less on comedy in the future so they may have to content themselves with exploring this area.
Not so for BBC3, where comedy continues to be central. Controller Danny Cohen said “the key in comedy is always to have range as “comedy splits people more than any other genre”.
BBC2 are also commissioning five new comedies this year, more than they have done in a while. Janice Hadlow also made a commitment to women on the channel announcing shows such as Fast and Loose from makers of Mock the Week, billed as a female friendly format, less combative than the traditional panel show.
In the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, also last weekend, female talent was also rewarded with Roisin Conaty winning best newcomer and both Sarah Millican and Josie Long being nominated for the main prize.
Channel 4 are backing new talent with a new commission from a taster tape going straight to series with unknown Morganna Robinson. With a Big Brother-shaped hole of 200 hours of primetime to fill, controller Julian Bellamy said the channel will be taking “huge and seismic risks in comedy and entertainment”.
BBC1 controller Jay Hunt also stated a commitment to new talent as “the stars of the future” on the back of the massive success they have had with the shows of Michael McIntyre and John Bishop on the channel. Hunt also announced Graham Norton in the Friday night 10.35pm slot as their “commitment to a big comedy offering for Friday nights”.
ITV controller Peter Fincham also said he wanted to increase comedy in prime time on ITV1, although noted it could be a “tough launch” on mainstream channels. He said comedy had migrated to channels such as BBC3, but that there was a tradition of mainstream broadcasters doing comedy and he wanted “more of that”. So good news all round it seems.
However, a note of caution echoed from the Richard Dunn memorial lecture when Jimmy Mulville of Hat Trick warned of the pervasive fear that can exist in the industry and the stink that can remain when someone has a failure. He cited the example of the creators of breakout hit Father Ted, who only twelve months before had a series called Paris that had totally tanked. His message was simple: you must keep backing the talent.
So congratulations to the brave warriors who got up to tell jokes in front of their peers, faced fear head on and vanquished. Though as any stand up comic knows, dying on your arse from time to time is inevitable - failure is an inherent part of comedy.
To the brave warriors making a big noise about backing new talent at the broadcasters let’s hope you too can vanquish - with a string of hits and the fearlessness to meet any failures with a commitment to fail again and to fail better next time.