Rich in laughs: how Sky took over British comedy

Why is all the good new comedy on satellite? Sky's Lucy Lumsden explains her masterplan

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Rich in laughs: how Sky took over British comedy
Written By
Jack Seale

Name your favourite new comedy series of 2011. Twenty Twelve on BBC4? Friday Night Dinner on Channel 4? Mrs Brown's Boys on BBC1, for those with specialist tastes? It's hard to do a top five that isn't dominated by three or four of Spy, Trollied, This Is Jinsy, The Café and Mount Pleasant - and Stella is sure to be in everyone's 2012 list.

All these shows aired on Sky, a broadcaster that 18 months ago had essentially no track record in original comedy. Now Sky1 has won channel of the year at the annual Broadcast Awards - largely because in comedy, Sky has leapt from nowhere straight to the front. 

In 2012 and 2013, second series of all the above, plus new shows by or with Chris O'Dowd, Charlie Brooker, Joanna Page, Matt King, Kathy Burke, Sally Phillips and Julia Davis, will all be on Sky.

The woman behind this startling charge is Lucy Lumsden, who in 2009 left her post as the BBC’s controller of comedy commissioning to become Sky’s first ever head of comedy.

“It's great to see comedy having such an impact,” she says, in a conference room in Sky’s impenetrable west London HQ. “We're thrilled. Properly over the moon.”

Paid in full

So how has Lumsden done it? The obvious answer, and the one for which Sky’s bitter rivals at terrestrial channels will reach first, is that Sky has bought success. A concerted drive to move away from the old image of game shows, US imports and documentaries with Ross Kemp in them has meant throwing cash at new comedy. Right?

“Money helps,” Lumsden freely admits. “There's a tradition with other broadcasters that comedy costs this and drama costs that. I arrived at Sky and said: please don't do that to me. It's not the poor relation of drama.”

Lumsden is quick to add, however, that Sky’s comedies have been produced in an atmosphere of uncluttered creative freedom - something that money can buy, but not something that follows automatically or is guaranteed to produce results. 

Working closely with writers and directors - “At the BBC it was a bit arm's length, being very magnanimous to everybody, giving everybody a go. At Sky I'm much closer to every show, feeling that it really matters to me that they succeed” – Lumsden’s been keen to splash cash where it’ll really count.

The first example she cites is The Café, Ralf Little and Michelle Terry’s seaside comedy. The script was almost apologetically low-key - too much so for many critics. But the show had a lyrical, expansive shooting style courtesy of director Craig Cash. “Craig was very determined that The Café should be shot on 35mm and look a certain way,” Lumsden says. “The Café is not a three-wall set with an audience. It's about saturating yourself in Weston-super-Mare, that evocative feeling of gorgeous films like Wish You Were Here.” 

Lumsden moves on to her first big hit, Trollied: a fractured sitcom set in a supermarket, which was produced by Ash Atalla (The Office) and debuted to a spectacular 1.2m viewers on Sky1 in August. “Ash said, if this supermarket doesn't look real, we might as well give up. That costs money. It's a sharp intake of breath. I was shocked when I first went round the set: 'What have we done?' But I did feel Trollied was gonna run. It paid off.”

At the BBC, where there are target budgets for every type of show, this flexibility wasn’t there. “We can look at a show and what's important for it, and have a proper discussion about whether it's worth x or y. If you're rigid in your structures and say it has to cost this amount, you're shaping your show to fit your slot.”

Modern in the middle

Finance wasn't the worst crimp on Lumsden at the Beeb. “When I was at the BBC, I was frustrated that BBC1 and BBC2 seemed miles apart. There was clever-clever comedy on one side and broad mainstream on the other. [When I joined Sky] I kept thinking, surely we can get bright people with something to say - that BBC2 trick of having a new lens on something - but in a way that didn't feel like it was preaching, or working too hard at a comedy that would take three series to connect with a broad audience. We phrase it as 'smart mainstream'.

“The show where I had to work hardest at that was Spy because it was 8:30pm, it was a family audience, there was nothing else that was British that was working for adults and kids, who are getting different things but watching it together. The inspiration was the mighty Modern Family. It has wit, but it's not too up its own a**e, it's not afraid to make you feel good about life at the end of a show.”

Lumsden happily uses the term “brands” to describe comedies that, being set in the present day in a supermarket or a seaside town, the Welsh valleys or affluent suburban Manchester, have “done a really good job of reflecting modern Britain”. Even Spy, with its playful inept-espionage hook, has the family problems of a shiftless 30-something man (British Comedy Award winner Darren Boyd) to give it an accessible emotional core. 

Lumsden thinks this boldness and contemporaneity are key. When I speak to her I’ve just finished watching a preview of The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, a wiffly whiskers-and-whimsy BBC2 series set in Dickensian times. I can see her point.

Although other Sky comedy execs have told me they're consciously “making shows the BBC should be making, but aren’t”, Lumsden rejects this. “I didn't know what the BBC were doing. They could have had a Stella on their hands! Maybe I've gobbled up all the talent.”

The BBC couldn't have had a Stella on their hands, because to make Stella, you need its creator/star Ruth Jones and nobody else. Jones is a special case: Stuart Murphy, the present controller of Sky1, used to run BBC3, where he (while working with Lumsden) personally commissioned Gavin & Stacey. That history must have counted for a lot. But Lumsden's convinced plenty of other talent to sacrifice high ratings and join her fledgling revolution.

People like Cash, Atalla and Trollied star Jane Horrocks are, you'd hope, more concerned with producing good work than pocketing extra cash by selling their souls to Sky. We're back to money enabling creative freedom.

"Charlie Brooker came to see us and said [Sky1’s upcoming Zucker brothers-style cop spoof] A Touch of Cloth is going to be 120 minutes - oh, my god! - and it's going to cost this much. It needs fight scenes and action sequences. We had a think about Charlie, the value for us and the freedom we can give him. The fact that the script was possibly one of the funniest things I'd ever read helped, but there just weren't any barriers to it. Talk to the writer about what they want to do, then find the money for it. There aren't the same rules and regulations [at Sky]. It's very simple, very direct."

Lumsden also says Little Crackers, the festive, autobiographical one-offs that were her first commission after joining Sky, were crucial to her efforts to present the satellite broadcaster as a haven for serious comic writers and performers. "It was a very easy conversation to have with big stars: do you want to have a go at this? It'll take three days and you can tell a story from your life. It was a great way of making people feel Sky perhaps wasn’t the place they thought it was. I'm proud that Moone Boy is now a series, Kathy Burke's has become a series, and we've got another in development."

All Lumsden's existing shows have been recommissioned, from big hits like Trollied and Stella to Sky Atlantic's fabulous cult curio This Is Jinsy. She insists that Sky goes through "the same rigorous measures at the end of a series" as any other broadcaster when awarding second series, but concedes that the channels' distinct tone "takes a while to establish in viewers' minds. A lot of them don't catch things on first series. There's something to be said for staying with a brand... I'm on the side of wanting to recommission."

Phase two

Now that brand is expanding. As well as a deluge of new shows coming to Sky1, there's a season of Comedy Playhouses on its way to Sky Arts 1 ("a playground for big-name talent to feel unencumbered and do their passion projects"), lighter fare being developed for Sky Living and darker for Sky Atlantic, as well as late-night commissions for Sky1 that will be "cheeky, mischievous, naughtier".

Nobody knows for sure whether any comedy will ever work - all those new shows could conceivably fail, even in the plush hothouse that Sky has become. But given Lumsden's more or less 100% success rate so far, it seems unlikely. Comedy commissioners at terrestrial networks must be watching each new Sky programme with envious dread.

"We've got broad shoulders now," Lumsden concludes. "We want to keep hammering home that we're in it for the long term, we really care, we want our stuff to feel different from other channels. Everyone's got a pioneering spirit.

"We're very lucky. We've been given a lot of money by Sky. We don't want to balls it up."

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