My personal highlight of the recent BFI & Radio Times Television Festival was getting to meet a comedy hero – the fish-slappingly wonderful Michael Palin. As a child, I would listen to my older brothers’ Monty Python albums (remember when comedy came on LPs?) via an old mono record player, and used to laugh helplessly while never quite knowing why – probably because my brothers did.
I was about eight and too young to grasp why “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise etc” was so funny, but I knew it was something powerful – and barking mad.
Cut to 2017 and I’m meeting Cardinal Ximenez in the flesh – and the cheese shop owner and the parrot vendor and the world’s greatest lumberjack. I’d love to tell you that in person, Palin was tetchy and difficult and smelt strongly of rum, but no, he was charming – and full of shrewd insights.
Among other things he told us how straightforward it was to get the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus commissioned. The relevant BBC department head simply told them, “I’ll give you 13 shows, and that’s all,” then left them to it.
In conversation with Eddie Mair at the Radio Times festival
Hard to imagine today. Creative types always whinge about the indecision and control-freakery of TV executives: it’s like farmers talking about the weather. But when it comes to comedy, there does seem to be a crisis of confidence right now, a dread of taking risks. “They want to know what you’ll do before you’ve done it,” Palin observed.
Hence, while British TV drama bestrides the world, our comedy wallows in a lull. The thin trickle of new sitcoms and sketch shows coming through – particularly at the BBC – is starting to be an embarrassment.
There’s the odd mega-hit like Mrs Brown’s Boys and currently there’s the warm and wonderful Car Share. (You might think a Peter Kay sitcom was a safe bet for whoever commissioned it, but as Sian Gibson has pointed out, a story set mostly in one car, and co-starring an unknown like her, was a gamble.)
Shows like Car Share and the less trumpeted but equally fab This Country are lighting the way, but you could argue the sign of the system working is the unsuccessful sitcom. For instance, I don’t think Hospital People (Fridays BBC1) is terribly good, but I’m delighted it exists. Its mix of broad character comedy and mockumentary never quite gels, but the fact that it got made at all means someone was prepared to take a punt. Commissioning new comedy is a leap of faith – like a bungee jump where the elastic of the audience’s goodwill can easily snap.
Unless comedy departments step into the unknown more often and risk the kind of uniquely bitter criticism new comedy gets from people who don’t like it, we’ll never enjoy the spark of the new. And the potential Pythons of tomorrow will busy themselves doing panel shows and stand-up tours instead.