Channel 4 comedy boss Phil Clarke wants more nuance...and a new Peep Show
Phil Clarke reveals why he wants more scripted sophistication in his channel's comedy - and why Frankie Boyle doesn't fit the bill but David Baddiel and a show called Scrotal Recall just might....
“Keep it clean” says the sign on the desk in the conference room of the third floor of Channel 4’s Horseferry Road headquarters, imploring users to throw away rubbish like used paper tea cups.
Good luck with that. This is office space used by Channel 4 comedy, and there is clearly a joke at play here.
C4, after all, is the place that has given us some of the most cutting edge and brilliant comedy ever, like Chris Morris’s Jam and The Brass Eye paedophile special, and in more recent years crackers like Matt Berry’s Toast of London, university comedy Fresh Meat and Greg Davies’ anarchic Man Down.
But the channel is still on the look out for new things and is aiming to treat us to something a little bit different as part of its annual £30m spend on potential laughs.
In an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com, Channel 4’s relatively new head of comedy Phil Clarke (the 53-year-old started at the beginning of last year after a lengthy and successful career at the coalface of comedy production) says he is on a mission. His task? To complement the current output with comedy which is less “big joke” and has nuance and subtlety.
This week, as RadioTimes.com revealed, the channel ordered a full series of the Caitlin Moran autobiographical comedy Raised by Wolves (the one which is heavily based on the journalist’s early life when she and her siblings were home educated in 1980’s Wolverhampton).
Described by Clarke as “a sort of Benefits Street meets Caitlin Moran”, Clarke is hopeful that the warm reception that greeted the pilot episode when it aired late last year will help make for a successful series.
But it is perhaps the other commission he made this week that indicates the new kind of comedy he is after. A full series of another pilot, the evocatively titled Scrotal Recall, has been ordered. Dustin Demri-Burns, best known as one half of the Cardinal Burns sketch show duo, plays Dylan Witter who discovers he has the sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia.
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Each episode finds Dylan visiting a former sexual partner to tell her that she may be at risk of contracting the disease, which can cause infertility. The plot episode, which co-stars Misfits actress Antonia Thomas as Dylan's friend, will air as part of the series.
“This is an adult piece about sex and love. It is probably not laugh out loud but it is witty and acerbic ,” says Clarke who punctuates our chat with many a chortle about the output of a channel which he clearly loves.
He says he also has high hopes for two other pilots from last year’s 4Funnies season which are awaiting a commissioning decision.
The first, Flack, stars Sheridan Smith as a morally-compromised PR woman.
“She is good at her job but some of the things she does are not moral but you end up rooting for her,” he says.
The second, Catastrophe, has been written by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who play a couple experiencing relationship difficulties.
Says Clarke, “[Greg Davies comedy] Man Down has brought the big joke to Channel 4 and it is a brilliant show. I also want it to be in known that we also do witty and subtle, densely written and knowing shows.
“Catastrophe, for example, is a grown up sophisticated piece – it is very funny, if a bit excruciating at times.”
Clarke also has high hopes for David Baddiel’s family sitcom Sit.Com, which focuses on our obsession with social media. It has also been piloted but not yet commissioned.
“It gets to the heart of the issue – what it does is hold a mirror up and say 'this is how we live nowadays'.”
Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain's well-loved comedy Peep Show is to end next year (although the channel is still waiting for scripts) and its imminent departure leaves a “gap”.
“I feel we have seen those shows come and go and we need a couple more of those kinds of shows now," says Clarke.
Of course, variety is the key and he will not be eschewing big joke shows from the repertoire. He is also aiming to focus on E4's output and is piloting more comedies for that channel.
But the new accent on nuance also means the final nail in the coffin for Frankie Boyle, the controversial comedian who keeps getting C4 in hot water and has not been seen on the channel since 2010.
“We are going in a different direction… we are after wittier pieces, and he is not really narrative comedy,” says Clarke.
“People are used to being shocked. If you try and shock people you are on a hiding to nothing. There are some things in our comedy we want to say 'Can they do that?' but it is not about shocking for its own sake.
“You can make a joke about anything, is the first question. The next question is, why are you making a joke.”
Also coming up is the return of Charlie Brooker’s dark comedy Black Mirror – made by the comedy department even though it often feels like a drama. Clarke says he is hoping for a trio of films next year if Brooker finds time to deliver the scripts.
“That is definitely the hope, though of course a lot depends on whether Charlie Brooker finds the time to do them,” Clarke concluded. "Charlie is in massive demand."
“The kind of things we used to do on Channel 4 can be found on BBC3 or Sky Atlantic. The big question is what can we do that provides an alternative. It is something HBO does all the time.
“There is an opportunity for us to do witty, clever stories that other people aren’t doing.”