As the ten million viewers who are watching Bodyguard will no doubt tell you, we’re living in a golden age of drama. Shows like Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale are beloved by audiences – and the commissioners who throw huge amounts of money at them.
But do they make you laugh? When was the last time you guffawed at something on the telly that wasn’t on a cheap repeat channel called Dave or Doreen or Spike?
I’ve worked on quite a few comedy shows, for example The Office, Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley, and writing my new book on my experiences brought something into sharp focus for me. The fact is that British comedy is no longer a priority for those who run the main channels – any of them – and it’s no longer the force for fun that it once was.
This is a pity because if we ever needed a laugh, it’s now. If new young writers don’t see good BBC1 or BBC2 comedy then they will never learn how to write it themselves. Actors never discover how to make an audience laugh, or how to create a character the viewers recognise and love. Playgrounds and canteens are denied catchphrases. This is a pity, and it’s self-perpetuating.
But why has this happened? Partly because channels want hits right from the off. It famously took Only Fools and Horses three series to be a hit, while The Office was only huge because BBC2 repeated the first series fairly quickly and the audience was reassured that it wasn’t a docusoap.
Controllers find it easier to say “no” to comedy because it’s risky, and “yes” to another procedural drama. An hour of drama costs around £1 million, whereas half an hour of comedy doesn’t get half that – it gets barely £300,000 or so if it’s lucky. It doesn’t make sense.
Why is laughter considered so much cheaper than tears? Because it’s all done in a studio by five people in two sets, isn’t it? Yes, if 1959 and Sid James ever come back! If we want comedy to look every bit as good as drama, and be on TV every bit as often, then it needs more financial support.
As we have seen with Vanity Fair, ITV’s current period adaptation that has been oddly scheduled against Bodyguard, dramas can struggle – although we’ll have to wait until the consolidated figures are in before deciding how well the period drama has done. But wouldn’t this have been an opportunity for ITV to have had a chuckle on the other side?
Channel 4 also likes to pride itself on its (often brilliant) edgy late-night comedies. But if it was really bold, it would try the ultimate challenge of a pre-watershed or studio comedy.
When viewers sit down for an evening’s telly, we must remember they might have had a hard day and just want to laugh. Make some comedy, because if you don’t the art will be lost. Spend some money on it, even if, as I kept being told, “the trouble is that British comedy is quite distinctive and it doesn’t sell abroad, so we can’t get any foreign investment for it”.
OK – end of moan. The good news is that there are still brilliantly talented people in the UK, making things like This Country, Upstart Crow, Detectorists, Inside No 9 and Witless, so I’ll shut up and let you get back to Bodyguard. And, if you must, Game of Bloody – sometimes very bloody – Thrones.