There’s a new sitcom on BBC3 on Mondays called Gary: Tank Commander. New to BBC3, but not brand new: written by and starring Scottish comedian Greg McHugh and made by Scottish production company The Comedy Unit, Gary: Tank Commander previously aired on BBC1 in Scotland only. BBC3 viewers are, in fact, seeing the second series.
BBC3 evidently aren’t too confident that Gary will cross over to a national audience: it’s been scheduled at a quarter to midnight. In truth, Gary – the adventures of a dim army corporal who is incredibly unsuited to his job – is a loose and at times slightly baffling mash of sitcom, mockumentary and musical spoofs. It’s fairly weak but it’s good-natured, well performed and certainly no worse than a lot of more famous sitcoms. There’s no reason why English, Welsh and Northern Irish viewers couldn’t latch onto it.
Gary: Tank Commander is part of a strange phenomenon in British comedy. If you’re not resident in Scotland, or clued up enough to hunt down Scottish programmes on iPlayer or DVD, you’ve not been getting the whole picture. Gary is only the start: Scotland’s been sitting on the two best sketch shows of the past five years.
This autumn, network BBC2 viewers get a chance to see Robert Florence and Iain Connell’s brilliant Burnistoun for the first time, with a best of series one followed by five episodes from 2011’s series two. Not quite straight sketches, not quite spoofs, not quite satire, Burnistoun is a gurning loon of a programme that’s always surprising and sometimes downright disturbing – Florence, in particular, often comes across as a wild-eyed madman just barely keeping a lid on himself. Yet its familiar sketch set-ups and essential frivolity make its excellence accessible. It’s no cult curio.
BBC2 are rumoured to have Burnistoun lined up for a post-11pm slot.
There’s more. The peak of this Scottish new wave is Limmy’s Show!, which also completed its second run this year. Entirely the twisted brain-wrong of Brian Limond – he writes, directs and stars, often as the only person in the sketch – Limmy’s Show! benefits greatly from being an auteur piece. It’s whatever has recently seeped from Limond’s brain: observations, characters, honest ruminations on the black futility of living that sneak up and punch you in the tear ducts, slapstick, silly throwaways, half-ideas, unbelievably dark jokes.
This splenetic sprawl makes Limmy’s Show the most original sketch show in recent memory. A common reaction is to watch each sketch in a mix of awe and confusion, then laugh yourself silly when it’s over. It’s out there. But as luck would have it, Limond knows precisely what he’s doing and how to make TV comedy, so everything’s well marshalled – distilled to maximum strength.
You want to see more of Limmy’s Show! now, right? So when’s the BBC network repeat? There isn’t one. Gary: Tank Commander is going out late; Burnistoun isn’t likely to be pushed very hard; Limmy’s Show!, which was considered alongside Burnistoun for a national showing, has been rejected altogether.
This surely makes little to no sense. Making good comedy is, notoriously, a difficult, nebulous business. Promoting three shows that are all, in their own ways, proven successes in Scotland to national prominence has to be a no-brainer, especially when the BBC is being forced to slash its expenditure. For most of the audience it’s a brand-new show (Scotland could receive a regional programme in the chosen slot anyway) that must be vastly cheaper than making a new one from nothing.
“No genre or channel can support every single series,” said a BBC spokesperson when asked by RT. “Decisions are made on what we believe will fare best across our different channels and it is not as simple as having repeat slots. Any scripted programme with performing talent carries associated costs.”
The Beeb also emphasise that these programmes were made specifically with Scotland in mind. But that’s the point: they may well have been, but they’re not impenetrable to everyone else. Far from it. They’re among Britain’s best comedies (not to mention the neat two-part drama The Field of Blood, which happily is lined up for a BBC1 network repeat this year) and they deserve to be celebrated, not sidelined.