The accidental humorist

His name will be on the credits of Steve Coogan's new show tonight. Lucky Coogan: Geoff Posner is Britain's most successful comedy director. By Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
Posner, you're probably saying... why does that name sound familiar? The answer is that you have seen his name on the credits of countless television comedies. What Ken Morse is to the rostrum camera, Geoff Posner is to directing comedy.

It's not an exaggeration to say that he is the most successful comedy director in Britain; a glance at his cv will confirm that. Starting with Not the Nine O'Clock News in the early Eighties, he has directed practically every key comedy programme of the past 12 years - The Young Ones, Carrott's Lib (a Bafta), Saturday Live (and its companion show Friday Live), almost everything Victoria Wood has ever done (three Baftas), the early series of The Lenny Henry Show, French and Saunders, the first ever Reeves and Mortimer show for Channel 4, Steve Coogan (another Bafta for last Christmas's Pauline Calf wedding video)...

Along the way, he's been in on the ground floor of the TV careers of Harry Enfield, Ben Elton, Julian Clary, Fry and Laurie - the list drags on. His latest project is Coogan's Run - six playlets featuring Steve Coogan doing his "Man with a Thousand Faces" act. If there is such a thing as a comedy establishment, it was largely Posner who established it.

Posner himself, while hardly shy and retiring, is modest about his achievements, talking about them in terms of chance. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time. For instance, he only got drafted into doing the final series of Not the Nine O'Clock News because a shift of department heads pushed Bill Wilson on to something else.

While working on that series, he just happened to hear a horrifying shriek in the editing suite next door. Checking on what was going on, he found Paul Jackson at work on the first episode of The Young Ones (the shriek was Rik Mayall doing Rik Mayall-type comedy). "Fancy a go?" asked Jackson. Posner leapt at it, launching himself squarely into the Eighties alternative comedy scene.

There is clearly something more than luck at work in his career, though. For one thing, there's sheer tenacity. He was at the BBC for about seven years, working his way up from floor assistant, before he got to be a director. He had decided that directing was what he wanted to do when he was 12, and spent his evenings at home in Finchley watching Top of the Pops to check the editing and the camera angles. "I set myself a target when I was 13," he says. "By the age of 30 - which when you're 13 is like one step from the grave - I wanted to direct, I thought. I made it by about three days."

When he was 16, he wrote to the producer of Thank Your Lucky Stars to ask the best route into TV. The reply was that he should go to university first; he slogged off to Essex to read sociology. This was possibly the one shaping coincidence of his career. Granted, there wasn't the big Oxbridge comedy tradition to help him, but it may well have been the radicalising influence of Essex in the Sixties that prepared him for working with the alternative comedians of the Eighties.

Certainly, he has always tried to work within guidelines (non-racist, non-sexist) which have put him at odds with more old-fashioned comics. One of the main reasons for his leaving the BBC and setting up his own company, Pozzitive, was his frustration at being forced to work with a comedian who didn't follow those rules.

The other factor you have to bring into the equation is talent. His fellow professionals speak of him in terms tinged with envy. John Lloyd, co-producer of Not the Nine O'Clock News, talks of his "finely tuned taste". "He's just incapable, given a good script, of doing it badly. Look at things like Acorn Antiques - it's faultlessly shot and put together. Also, you would have to be an idiot not to get on with him."

Paul Jackson, the man who introduced him to The Young Ones, and now a managing director of Carlton Television, calls him "the most inventive, challenging picture director in British television. He works well with actors, story and technical team, but so do half a dozen other people. What they can't match is the sheer verve of his visual flair."

He recalls seeing Posner directing live music for Saturday Live: "He would call 50 or 60 shots for a two- or three-minute musical number. People spend four days in editing to get it right - Geoff did it live. Frame- accurate is one 25th of a second; I don't suppose Geoff was ever more than four frames out."

Is there anything this wonderman can't do? Be funny, perhaps? Posner says: "Everybody assumes that just because you're in comedy, you must be hilarious. Well, we're not. That's the reason why we're producers and directors and not appearing in front of camera, I guess." You suspect this is modesty again - isn't he really a funny person manque?Quick as a flash, he retorts: "Don't you call me a manque." This is the true secret of his success - above all, he's a man who knows his own weaknesses.

n 'Coogan's Run' starts tonight, 9.30pm BBC2; 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' is running on Fridays, 9pm BBC2; 'Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV', Sunday, 9pm BBC2; 'The Young Ones', Thursday, 9.30pm BBC2

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