In 1995, the number of TV programmes in Britain watched by over 15 million people was 225. By 2004, this had fallen to six. That’s an astonishing decline, which cannot be explained by the multiplicity of channels. But what do I know?
I left university in 1973, with probably the worst 3rd in the history of the Cambridge law faculty. My tutor wrote me a congratulatory note. He was astonished I’d got any marks at all. With two friends, I moved to London. One of them had an aunt with a two-bed council flat in the woefully misnamed Golden Lane estate near the Barbican. The other two were bankers with proper jobs. I was a would-be comedy writer, so I slept on the floor. I gave myself a year to “make it”. After that, I’d give up and accept my lot as a solicitor in Dover, where I was born.
Less than six months later, I was offered a job as a BBC radio comedy producer. I didn’t want to do it, but I was starving. Within weeks, I’d found my vocation. I’d produced 100 radio shows before they sent me on a course to learn how to do it, and 400 more before I left to go to television. I went there in 1978, hoping for a job as a floor manager. I was told I was mad: at 26, I was too old. In fact, the BBC offered me six shows – as a producer. There was no pilot. And that was the genesis of Not the Nine O’Clock News – which kick-started the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson.
My boss, the head of BBC comedy, was John Howard Davies, a former child actor (the original Oliver Twist in David Lean’s movie). He went on to produce Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and many others. His boss was the head of light entertainment, James Gilbert, who had started The Frost Report in 1966. Jimmy reported to Bill Cotton, controller of BBC1, himself a former head of BBC light entertainment, who’d created the hugely successful Billy Cotton Band Show. These people were demigods to me. They’d made the programmes I had loved as a teenager.
In 1983, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis and I made the first series of Blackadder. It was known in the BBC bar as the show that “looked a million dollars, but cost a million pounds”. Michael Grade, MD of BBC TV, scrapped it. But (by taking out the expensive bits) we convinced him to give it another chance. Which he did – and the rest is history.
In 1984, with Roger Law, Peter Fluck and Jon Blair (who later went on to win an Oscar) I started Spitting Image. At its peak, it was getting 15 million viewers on Sunday night – one and a half million more people than it had taken to elect the government in 1983.
If the programmes are good, the audience is still there. After all, in 2012, 23 million people both watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. Here’s the difficulty. The people in charge of television haven’t actually made any television. Most of them haven’t produced, directed, written, edited, designed or acted in a single programme. This is not a BBC problem. It’s endemic to the whole of television, not just here but all over the world.
In comedy, the situation is acute – because only people who make comedy understand how comedy works. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Danny Cohen should be a woman. Don’t write in, it’s a joke.
As I write this, I’m sitting at a table with five comedy writers and three QI researchers. Two of the researchers have come up with a brilliant idea for a new kind of TV sketch show and the writers are riffing on it. Hilariously.
We’re about to change the way television comedy is made, setting the clock back to when it wasn’t broken, when the comedy makers were in charge. We’re going to make telly that everybody – regardless of age, race or gender – likes. And someone, somewhere is going to give us the money to do it. That was the way it was.
John Lloyd is the creator of QI. His South Bank Show profile is available on Sky On Demand.