If I ruled the airwaves

in which independent producer Mick Pilsworth has his own way with the tv schedule

SUCCESSFUL sitcoms attract huge loyal audiences, but untested sitcoms remain the riskiest genre for broadcasters and producers alike. The problem is that the very feature which pulls in big audiences, the attractiveness of the characters, is extraordinarily difficult to communicate within the first, or "pilot" episode. We don't know the characters and we have to know the characters to understand the jokes. It's comedy's Catch-22. Many series take years to catch on. Recent "slow burns" include Last of the Summer Wine, Men Behaving Badly and One Foot in the Grave.

For a sitcom pilot to hit its target immediately is very rare. My theme night would feature those first episodes which not only achieved high ratings, but also ran for years.

A good sitcom pilot has to have a great "hook" - an intriguing situation which sets up a strong plot and sets the characters against each other. Each line of dialogue has to do three jobs: it must advance the plot, give us background to the character, and at the same time be funny.

The premise of the show must also hit a nerve; it must be contemporary and fresh, and in tune with what's happening in society. Few writers achieve this.

My theme night is made up of some of the best sitcom pilots ever made, and all illustrate the brilliance the writers have shown in getting around the sitcom Catch-22. They will air chronologically, in historical order, and will be introduced by Clive James, the former Observer television critic and international television guru, .

Kicking off the evening, the first-ever episode of the hit US series The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which has a cracking premise and the added advantage of a well-known character. Mary Tyler Moore had already been in a hit sitcom, The Dick van Dyke Show, for many years and her character in her own show was an evolution of her character in van Dyke's.

Newly single, she moves from New York to Minneapolis, to a new job in an all-male local TV newsroom, headed up by a patriarchal Lou Grant. The conflict between the liberated young cosmopolitan career woman and the misogynistic middle-aged provincial news chief provides plenty of conflict in the office scenes. The writers also created conflict in the domestic scenes by having Mary attempt to move into an apartment which turned out to be occupied by someone else.

The Likely Lads, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, was another classic pilot episode. The conflict in this series was based, unusually, on the internal conflict within Ian La Frenais' own psyche: the character of Bob in the show was the aspiring middle-class boy that La Frenais' mother wanted him to be, whilst Terry was the solid working-class lad that Ian imagined himself to be.

Birds of a Feather, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, kicked off with one of the slickest pilot episodes ever written. It featured a bank robbery which went wrong, a car chase, a separation, the discovery by the sisters Sharon and Tracey that their husbands were bank robbers, a sex toys party, and a climactic courtroom scene in which the husbands were sent down for seven years.

It achieved an audience of 13 million, one of the highest ever ratings for a sitcom pilot, and is still on the air 90 episodes later.

My other choices, Drop the Dead Donkey, Porridge and I Love Lucy, also show that by hitting the zeitgeist, building in plenty of conflict and creating strong, clearly defined characters, writers can overcome the sitcom Catch-22. But then not many writers can do it. Those who can, and are prepared to live in a mansion in Bel Air, earn upwards of $1m a year. It's a tough job... a really tough job.

Mick Pilsworth is Chief Executive of independent production company Chrysalis Visual Entertainment. He is executive producer of a new ITV sitcom, Babes in the Wood.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea