Most mornings I wake up needing a humour fix, and turn to my favourite newspaper sketch writer to make me chuckle. By evening a bit of BBC Radio 4 comedy helps.
So it was a surprise to learn that ITV’s director of television Kevin Lygo has decided sitcoms are to be dispensed with as far as the main channel is concerned. Benidorm has been cancelled, Birds of a Feather retired all over again and Jack Dee’s rural-life comedy Bad Move sent back to the smoke.
Coronation Street has been ordered to stir more gags into its drama to fill a laughter gap. To be fair, ITV2 still has Plebs, a rude riff on the life of lower-class Romans, plus the blokey cartoon Family Guy. I’m not quite sure where to put its revived Cold Feet, which ended season eight last week. It is a comedy drama of manners, mixed with heart-breaking moments. James Nesbitt’s character Adam, played with a touch of middle-aged vanity, is my favourite.
The role of comedy on television has been a talking point at the television previews I’ve attended since Lygo’s decree, where actors, directors, producers and agents mingle with journalists. The interesting psychological ITV drama Cheat, which starts soon, was written by Gaby Hull, who learned his trade at Benidorm, rising from runner. Over 10 series, it was a training ground. What did he think of the decision? He was bemused and surprised.
‘The traditional half-hour sitcom is risky compared with reality shows’
The most welcomed new comedy in 2018 was probably Channel 4’s Derry Girls, helped by an unusual setting, nostalgia for the 1990s and strong female characters. Series two is about to start. ITV would have loved it, but it took writer Lisa McGee dedication, supportive commissioners and a flop to get to this sweet spot. Channel 4 may have another hit with Home, a comedy about an illegal immigrant who stows away in a family’s car boot. It is written by actor Rufus Jones, who stars in it, but this also started as an idea in 2015 before Channel 4’s head of comedy fostered it.
Scripted comedy requires honing through rewrites. This costs money. Every comedy needs a commitment to a second series in order to familiarise viewers. John Cleese’s Hold the Sunset for BBC1 was no Fawlty Towers, but the BBC is going again with it. Channel 4 has a useful development tool in Comedy Blaps at £50,000 a pop, which trial an idea.
But the traditional half-hour sitcom, (24 minutes after ad breaks), can be difficult to schedule. They are also not always easy to sell internationally, though they can be remade. They are risky compared with reality shows and for ad-funded channels the genre usually fails to make money.
But above all, they lay bare the fear that stalks all television executives. No one knows for sure what will be a hit. The failure rate is so high. Yet the rare classics – Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses, The Inbetweeners, Gavin and Stacey and The Vicar of Dible – tantalise, and viewers fall in love with them. Comedy can be gold.
Maggie Brown contributes to the Guardian, Observer and the Media Podcast and is the author of The Story of Channel 4. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/maggie-brown