Peter Fincham is having a laugh
Another day in lockdown, another tricky decision – what to watch tonight? When you’ve gorged on Ozark, swooned over Normal People and slogged your way through Narcos Mexico (never as good as the higher grade original from Colombia), what next? The schedules of the traditional broadcasters, starved of new productions, are already starting to slow down like the blade of a lawn mower when the engine is switched off. A summer of repeats looms.
One option is to dip into the past and revisit the classics of yesteryear. But are they still any good? TV dates in a way that music, for example, doesn’t. You can listen to a favourite album from the 1980s and, in terms of production values, imagine that it was recorded yesterday. It’s different with television. The slightly fuzzy picture immediately tells you that you’ve time-travelled to a foreign country. Costumes, hairstyles, lighting – they all make it seem more remote. And the attitudes. My family watch a lot of Friends, which looks these days like a reasonable approximation of the modern world. But why don’t the characters have a Whatsapp group? And what is the ludicrously over-excited studio audience doing, laughing at these dated jokes about sexuality? Who wrote them?
All the same, I would guess that if you were a space traveller heading to galaxies unknown in a yet-to-be-made episode of Star Trek, and were forced to jettison all genres of TV except one, it might be comedy. Comedy dates the quickest, but lasts the longest. Production values aside, a fifty-year old episode of Dad’s Army is well worth watching today, whereas a successful drama from the same era would just seem creaky. Why?
Veteran comedy producer Jon Plowman and I set about answering this question, and many others, in a new series for Radio 4 Extra called What’s Funny About? which is about to pop up in old-fashioned linear schedules before settling down for the longer term on BBC Sounds. If you’re looking for something to listen to while baking banana bread, do give it a spin. Jon is a legend in the comedy world and his credits alone would fill up a lockdown hour or two. He is also the author of the excellent book How To Produce Comedy Bronze which I’m happy to recommend, not least because I get a mention.
Making comedy for the BBC is, we learned, a no frills experience. There was frequent talk of the privations involved – improvised locations, non-functioning toilets, draughty rehearsal rooms in Acton. If comedy was an airplane (remember those?) you definitely turn right when you’re working for the Beeb. Hugh Bonneville revealed that after one series he told the producers of WIA that he didn’t want to continue. It was a bluff, but he just wanted to make sure that next time round they got a proper lunch break. On Blackadder, famously, the budget was cut in half after season one because, despite featuring the cream of UK comedy talent, it wasn’t deemed funny enough. Fortunately, the ruse worked and it subsequently turned into one of the all-time greats.
The homespun, make-do-and-mend approach extended to our own efforts – we made the recordings for What’s Funny About in a shed, in a pre-coronavirus world where we all huddled around a cheap trestle table that was unforgiving if you accidentally brushed it while someone else was speaking. Prepare for unexplained bumps and crashes. Our producer, Owen Braben, frequently couldn’t find a chair and squatted in the corner on a wooden step.
But no one seemed to care. We were lucky with our guests, and the conversation flowed. Jennifer Saunders turned up first, to talk about her classic fashion and PR sit com, Absolutely Fabulous. John Lloyd and Sir Tony Robinson dropped by to chat about Blackadder. Richard Curtis and Dawn French had such fond memories of The Vicar of Dibley that you found yourself wishing you were on set when they made it. We spoke to Meera Sayal and Anil Gupta about the ground-breaking Goodness Gracious Me, Armando Iannucci and Rebecca Front about their coruscating political satire The Thick Of It, and writer John Morton and the aforementioned Hugh Bonneville about WIA.
The phrase WIA has entered the BBC lexicon. When you turn up for a meeting in a room that might, for instance, be called ‘Ronnie Corbett’ – yes it’s true, they do exist – people will this say, “Sorry, this is all a bit WIA”. It might seem odd for a satire to be so enthusiastically embraced by the institution it is satirising, but we found no exceptions to the rule that the person laughing loudest is the one who’s being made fun of: politicians and politico junkies love The Thick of It, the Church of England were delighted with The Vicar of Dibley, and after the final, First World War-based series of Blackadder, at one point half the regimental goats in the British Army were named Baldrick.
Dim-wittedness was a frequent theme, and the British love of characters with low mental wattage – Baldrick in Blackadder, Jane Horrocks’ Bubble in Ab Fab, Emma Chambers’ Alice in The Vicar of Dibley. For some reason, when you match a moderately stupid character with an even more stupid one, you hit comedy gold. For Blackadder and Baldrick, read Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, or my old partners Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones.
We wanted to get a sense of the different shows’ working methods and found – not surprisingly – that they varied. The Thick of It was semi-improvised, though under Iannucci’s firm editorial control. Armando explained that their only rule was a no-asshole rule – however talented, you weren’t allowed in the writing room if you were an asshole. Seems sensible. Blackadder sounded almost over-crowded with comedy talent, with every line of the scripts (by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton) being picked over and rewritten by the other mighty brains in the room – Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, producer John Lloyd and of course Rowan Atkinson being just a few. We had a distinct sense that Blackadder got harder to do as it went on, and there was talk of frayed relationships that had been patched up slowly over the years. By contrast, when we asked Dawn French and Richard Curtis if they could recall any flare-ups during the making of The Vicar of Dibley, all they remembered was sweetness and light. Meera Sayal and Anil Gupta spoke hilariously about the challenges of persuading the BBC – described around this time by its Director-General as ‘hideously white’ – that an Asian-themed sketch show might justify its place in the schedule. Jennifer Saunders frankly admitted that she started writing Absolutely Fabulous because she was unemployed, and that since she’d never written one before the BBC introduced to her to a sort of “head of sitcom writing” whose job was to explain to her how sitcoms worked. Very W1A.
W1A lies at the other one end of the spectrum from a semi-improvised show like The Thick of It. It is written, created and directed by John Morton, and its scripts are precision-tooled. As Hugh Bonneville explained, “there’s a difference in a John Morton script between a dot dot dot and a dash.” Heaven help any actor who mistook one for the other. This is odd because anybody less dictatorial seeming than the self-effacing Morton couldn’t be imagined. During our conversation John said, “I think generally comedy doesn’t last very long. I may be wrong about this, but I think it goes off faster than other things in the larder, as it were.” If he is right, we probably shouldn’t have made What’s Funny About? But to be honest, I think this is just an example of his self-deprecation muscle going into spasm. When we played in clips during the recording, he couldn’t bear to watch his own work. A shame, because it’s brilliant.
The world changes, and continues to change, and this gives old comedy series their charm – they exist in what we like to think was a more innocent age – but also leaves them detached from current events. In all four series of The Thick of It, which is far more recent than most of the programmes we featured, there isn’t a single reference to Brexit, not least because the word hadn’t been invented. But the enduring truths of character and conflict remain. The inspiration for The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker, played to peerless effect by Peter Capaldi, was always thought to be Alastair Campbell. Campbell has long vacated the political stage but, if you were making the same series today, you wouldn’t need to look much further than Dominic Cummings.
One question we asked all our guests, why did they stop when they did? Why aren’t we looking forward to series 26 of Goodness Gracious Me? Answers were varied. Growing up, and growing apart, was part of it – the close knit ensemble of like-minded people who embark excitedly on season one may have changed by season three into a swirling clash of out-of-control egos. The whims of commissioning editors who were looking to free up space in their schedules is another reason – some series end before their time because somebody in a position of power has decided they should. And then there’s economics. If any of the series we featured in What’s The Funny About? had been network hits in America, chequebooks would have been flashed, misgivings swallowed and the show would have simply gone on. Look at the difference between Ricky Gervais’ original version of The Office – two series of six episodes each on BBC Two, plus a Christmas special – and its American cousin which ran on NBC for nine seasons and over two hundred outings. Here in the UK, it’s normally the talent who decide and in many cases they decide early on to move on to pastures new. John Cleese made a grand total of twelve eps of Fawlty Towers.
That doesn’t mean that our interviewees don’t feel pangs of nostalgia. “I enjoyed doing it so much,” said Jennifer Saunders about Ab Fab. “I miss the rehearsals and the fallings over and the silliness. I really miss that.” When pressed on whether she would bring it back, though, her answer was more guarded. “I’d never rule it out, but I just wonder…. I don’t know if it would be the same.”
It probably wouldn’t be. The six shows we feature in What’s Funny About? are, on balance, best left where they are. Where they are isn’t a bad place to be, because in the age of Netflix, the BBC iPlayer, Britbox and the rest of it universal availability is the new norm. You can watch them whenever you like. When I started making comedy programmes for the BBC you had an original transmission, a repeat (if you were lucky, or pestered the scheduler enough) and then oblivion. Video cassettes came along – if you want see fuzzy pictures dig out one of those – followed by that unlovable format, the DVD. Sales of DVDs peaked every Christmas partly, it was said, because they were easy to wrap. Now we can have everything and anything, any time, any place, anywhere – like the old Martini adverts. That’s good, because as Jon and I discovered when researching for our series, classic comedies like these really are as funny as ever. Even if you don’t have time to listen to What’s Funny About? give them a try. They’re timeless.
What’s Funny About? starts Wednesday 13 May, 10.30 pm, Radio 4 Extra and BBC Sounds.
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.