TV comedy in crisis: why class snobbery is leaving audiences alienated in 2020
If it wasn’t for Scotland I wouldn’t have a career, so why am I being asked to take my Scottish comedy credits off my CV, asks Joe Hullait.
By Joe Hullait, creator of BBC One Scotland sitcom Scot Squad
Last month I was accepted as a member of BAFTA and was pleasantly surprised to discover I’d been given full UK membership, not just branch membership in Scotland, where the bulk of my work is produced.
Not that there’s anything wrong with “just” BAFTA Scotland. I’m soon to become a father but until that baby is in my arms, winning a BAFTA at the Scottish awards for a comedy series of my creation will be the proudest moment of my life. That night is full of cherished memories and warm feelings. One particular highlight was shouting “F**k off” in the style of Brian Cox’s character in Succession while standing three urinals over from Brian Cox. Little Baby Hullait, you’ve got a lot to live up to.
I might be an Estuary Englishman but cut me and I bleed blue and white ones and zeroes crisscrossing into tiny saltire television signals. If it wasn’t for Scotland I wouldn’t have a career. I love it and I’m lucky to play a small part in its TV comedy culture.
This pride exists in opposition to a snobbiness that pervades British television. I’m sure it can be applied to many genres but it’s through my work in comedy that I’ve witnessed it up close. Sadly, these experiences have conditioned me to view programmes and personalities forged outside of the London media bubble as somehow lesser productions.
A few years ago I had a meeting with a senior figure at a major channel. Broadcasters go through recurring periods of soul searching during which they try to address race, class or regional diversity without doing much to change the status quo. In these times it’s easier for mixed-race-council-house-raised creators of television shows to get responses.
I’d barely said hello before being asked where I was educated. This was because “scripted commissioning tends to be very Oxbridge.”
I was also advised by this same person that I should take my Scottish comedy credits off my CV if I wanted to get people to take me seriously. No thought was given to the fact that I wouldn’t have been in the room without those credits. If any commissioner reading this is on the hunt for satirical novels they can adapt and update for modern audiences, I suggest bringing cameras into meetings like this might be a way to give viewers a brand new take on Catch-22.
For the record I didn’t quite make it to Oxbridge but I did go to Queen Mary, a University of London college and member of the elite Russell Group of research institutions. If my uni is what the executive creative class categorises as slumming it then what must these people make of those without formal education? I can only assume that in the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge future six-salaried-earners were tutored in the art of underfunding the development of television comedy that people “out in the provinces” might actually enjoy.
This superior attitude wasn’t new to me but it was a shock to hear it voiced aloud. I’m used to more subtle but no less condescending comments from industry figures when it comes to Scottish shows.
I once asked the producer of a London-made comedy broadcast on a digital channel (one that had attained only a fifth of Scot Squad’s regular BBC Scotland comedy audience, while being available in 10 times as many households) whether the crew were enjoying working on the series. He told me “No. Our crews don’t laugh. They’re professional.” I’d kill for the confidence of a TV exec who can brag about the lack of laughter on a comedy set. I doubt you’d hear this attitude much in Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff or Belfast either. It’s the behaviour of a certain type of media character whose success is built on shows with many times the marketing spend of these “smaller” productions but a fraction of the heart.
Limmy, the surprisingly down to earth and very funny Scottish comedian, describes a similar moment of dejection in his excellent autobiography, when a BBC commissioner told him that his accent was difficult to understand. There’s a hint of regret as he notes that he should have made the case that accents will always be difficult to understand if you don’t put them on TV.
This hindsight argument will resonate with many viewers who don’t see the Britain they know reflected in television. If commissioners only showcase worlds they recognise then people will always feel alienated by what they see on screen. It has implications for gender representation too. In my experience there’s a natural bias in comedy against women already. If this is how the men are treated then you can bet it’s definitely much harder for a woman from the same background to get their work made.
This country is full of people who enjoy laughing. It’s a trite observation because really, who doesn’t enjoy laughing? Yet in recent years comedy on screen has tended towards shows that can make disaffected audiences feel like the wry titters of the chattering classes are being prioritised over the guttural belly laughs that most people outside of the bubble want to experience.
This cultural alienation is as true of a low paid Londoner as it is of your typical Scottish viewer. It’s not really a North vs. South, London vs. everyone else situation. It’s about sensibility. It’s a crisis of imagination at the heart of a creative elite that doesn’t understand its own audiences. There are comedy producers and performers struggling to catch a break with channels because they don’t represent the monocultural worldview of a set of people whose souls have not been nourished by the breathless ecstasy of watching a man falling off a chair.
Scot Squad series six is currently in production and will be available on the BBC Scotland channel and iPlayer later this year – check out what else is on with our TV Guide