While television has big entertainment shows that glue all ages to the sofa – the likes of The X Factor, Strictly and TV Burp – our old pal radio continually struggles to unite the whole family around the Roberts, something it used to be good at.
I have fond memories of listening to Ed “Stewpot” Stewart’s Junior Choice on Radio 2 on Saturday mornings, gathered “en famille” in our pyjamas on the end of Mum and Dad’s bed. We later graduated to Noel Edmonds’ wacky weekday breakfast show on Radio 1, with his universally appealing prank calls and misheard lyrics.
Such broad-based innocence has become unfashionable now. On TV, kids have their own channels; on radio, they’re the forgotten generation.
When Radio 4 pulled the plug on its young persons’ magazine show Go4it three years ago, it wasn’t because of the content’s overload of roughage and lack of fizz – not to mention its cringemaking name – but because only 20,000 of its 450,000 listeners were under 14. Most were between 52 and 55.
This echoes the niggling truism that Radio 1 misses its own target demographic, listened to by a much older audience than the 14- to 25-year-olds prescribed. When Go4it went, it marked the end of BBC children’s programming on the main terrestrial networks, leaving just the digital Radio 4 Extra (formerly BBC7, then Radio 7) accommodating younger listeners by remit, albeit with a much reduced output, following a BBC Trust decision last year.
The problem might well be that the kids of today aren’t drawn to the radio in the first place, unless force-fed it by Archers-following parents. Might it be better to stop wringing our hands about hitting targets and just make programmes for anybody who wants to listen?
I speak as someone who has accidentally created a family comedy for Radio 4, Mr Blue Sky. It’s about a mum and a dad and their kids – that part was deliberate – but as it returns for its second series, it turns out I have also created a “family comedy”.
That is, one that’s suitable to be listened to by all ages. This happened not by design, but by natural selection. No flipcharts were flipped in the making of this programme. A Radio Times colleague tells me that all three of her kids – aged 10, 14 and 18 – enjoy Mr Blue Sky, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Having co-written a lot of the early series of BBC1’s Not Going Out, which went out after the watershed but was – I know for a fact – watched by the whole of my sister’s family, this is the highest compliment.
Mr Blue Sky tackles subjects as grown-up as birth, marriage, death, infidelity and the myth of Sisyphus but framed in language suitable for anyone who might be near a radio at that time. Its references range from Twitter to fondue, grime to Michael Foot, Haribos to the children’s show How (ITV, 1966–81); if anything, it’s a demographic fever dream.
It might seem a bit uncool, trying to appeal to all ages, but the secret is not to try too hard. If you’re looking to find comedy in everyday family life, around the breakfast table, in the workplace, at social gatherings, on the grass verge of a motorway, you’ll want listeners to identify with the characters who are their own age.
The principals in Mr Blue Sky range from 16 (hyperactive teenage son Robbie, who this series experiments with drugs, older women and gambling) to 76 (widowed Nan Lou, who’s as fit as a butcher’s dog, but regularly complains about imaginary ailments).
At 47 I’m the same age as Dad, Harvey, an eternal optimist forever tested by the trials of everyday suburban life, so I identify with him – and to an extent with his wife Jax, the realist.
In many ways it has been easier to write the second series, as most of the cast are established and I had their voices in my head – Waterloo Road regular Mark Benton as Harvey, The Thick of It star and character comic Justin Edwards as Harvey’s best mate Ray, Phoneshop’s Javone Prince as “grimestep” DJ and future son-in-law Kill-R – but some re-casting was necessary.
As good fortune would have it, we secured no less than Claire Skinner and Tyger Drew-Honey for Jax and Robbie, already bonded on BBC1’s Outnumbered.
Young people, as you know, speak a foreign language. I hope I have caught the right tone with Robbie, 18-year-old Charlie (Rosamund Hanson) and 20-year-old Kill-R.
Tyger is 16, so he was a good judge in the studio, while Javone, although ten years older than Kill-R, is fluent in street vernacular. I relied upon listening to my nieces and nephews for the rest.
At the end of the day, my whole family will be the ones to judge whether I really can write for the whole family.
Mr Blue Sky is on BBC Radio 4 today at 11:30am.