It doesn't pay to be funny on screen: Why comedy is the poor relation

Studios rarely back British comedy films because, despite past success, they don't believe in it, says Geoffrey Macnab

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The Independent Culture

It is one of the paradoxes of the British film industry that it has never taken comedy seriously. The Brits are generally acknowledged to excel at comedy. Charlie Chaplin, still one of the world's most recognisable film stars, was a British comedian. The Monty Python team, who are collaborating on the new Terry Jones directed comedy feature Absolutely Anything, retain their global appeal. The Inbetweeners Movie (2011) was a huge hit in Britain. The Mr Bean films have made hundreds of millions of pounds internationally as have Working Ttitle's romantic comedies and yet comedy is still regarded by funders and critics alike as a bastard form.

"I do feel that more comedies need to be made," says producer Nira Park, the founder of Big Talk Productions and the producer of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Sightseers, The World's End and the forthcoming Cuban Fury among other films." If you go on IMDB and look at the comedies made, there are so few [British] comedies."

If you want to understand why the Brits shun film comedies, it is instructive to read reviews of the Norman Wisdom films made by the Rank Organisation in the 1950s. Wisdom's box-office success helped keep Rank afloat in a period when the British film industry was struggling. Wisdom's producer Hugh Stewart (who had worked with Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger) used to talk about the diminutive British comedian in the cloth cap as British cinema's' answer to Buster Keaton. Critics, though, gleefully skewered Wisdom whenever he went near a camera. They wrote about his "odious sentimentality," his "gags, grimaces and goo".

"How can we accept as sympathetic a clown who is presented as not merely awkward but an ignorant and offensive nuisance? How can we side with a comic who is shown to be a semi-literate moron?" Tribune magazine asked of Wisdom.

Outside the Ealing films of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it is very hard to find any British screen comedies that weren't similarly mauled by the critics.

British TV comedy continues to thrive but the film industry still struggles to harness the talent that is so obviously there. As Nira Park puts it, "There is a lot of talent and there are also some fantastic directors, but it is very hard to get people to believe that those TV directors can make the leap to film."

Paul King, director of TV's The Mighty Boosh and of low-budget feature Bunny and the Bull (2009), recently began work on a big-screen adaptation of Michael Bond's Paddington, which is being produced by David Heyman of Harry Potter and Gravity fame. King, though, is an exception – one of the few small-screen comedy directors who has been trusted to make a big budget movie.

Relatively few writers are working on scripts for big-screen comedies either. They know that it will be an uphill struggle to get such projects funded and therefore stick to TV comedy, which is far more straightforward and lucrative.

In the summer of 2012, in the wake of the success of The Inbetweeners, Film4 committed £1 million a year to developing British film comedy under Channel 4's then head of comedy Shane Allen. However, Allen subsequently moved to become the BBC's comedy controller.

British big-screen comedies that are made are rarely treated with the same respect as dramas, thrillers, or even horror films. They tend not to receive awards nominations. Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa generated plenty of enthusiasm when it was released in August but has been largely ignored in awards voting whereas the more sombre Philomena, which he co-wrote and co-starred in, is seen as an Oscar contender.

Funders are wary about investing in British screen comedy. They still have painful memories of Sex Lives of the Potato Men (2004) which had been backed by the UK Film Council. The chorus from critics deploring its deficiencies could have been taken straight from Norman Wisdom reviews half a century before. "Shamefully inept, witless and repulsive," wrote one paper. "One of the worst films ever made," echoed another.

In spite of its grim reputation, Sex Lives of the Potato Men didn't do that badly at the box-office and it sold briskly on DVD. The critics were far harsher with it than they would have been on an art-house drama that had gone awry. Producers and distributors reacted defensively to the brickbats. It was telling that the recent Harry Hill Movie (released by the same company) wasn't even shown officially to the press.

There is clearly still a sense among funders that comedy is a populist form and therefore doesn't deserve public backing. It is no help either that most script-development executives lack specialist knowledge of comedy. The net result is that the British still don't make very many comedy films. They continue to shy away from the one genre in which they might be expected to thrive.