Can TV’s biggest names make sitcoms cool again?

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As the latest Ricky Gervais mockumentary approaches, key players in TV comedy tell Gerard Gilbert why British shows lost their mass appeal and how they aim to regain it

Back in the 1990s, I tried to write a sitcom. A friend and I would meet weekly and brainstorm (brain-ache?) our idea for a workplace comedy set in the world of... I can't remember what. But I do recall that inventing believable characters and making them say organically funny things proved less of a steep learning curve than a brick wall. We did get one thing right, however – the working title for our comedy was The Office.

Last month brought the 10th anniversary of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's stratospherically more brilliant version of The Office. July 2001 now seems like a watershed moment for the British sitcom – Gervais and Merchant's single-camera mockumentary presaged those other fluid classics of the Noughties, Peep Show and The Thick of It. Gone, largely, were studio sets and studio audiences, and viewers were treated as adults who didn't need to be told when to chuckle.

However, a sizeable chunk of the audience either refused to grow up or just didn't "get it" – The Office was nearly cancelled because of poor ratings.

"The Office was a media darling," Gervais recalls, when I meet him on the set of his new BBC2 sitcom, Life's Too Short. (Another mockumentary, it is about Warwick Davis, the Star Wars-to-Harry Potter actor). "It found a niche audience that grew... it won awards, but even by the end it wouldn't compare with Only Fools and Horses. They were getting 15 million [viewers] when we were getting six."

We had witnessed the birth of the boutique sitcom – or, in the case of The Office, the super-boutique sitcom. And in the 10 years since, we have been living through a golden age for a certain type of British comedy. Innovative and often dark shows, as varied as Peep Show, The IT Crowd, Nighty Night, Green Wing, Black Books, The Inbetweeners, The Thick of It and The Trip, have dragged delighted viewers out of their comfort zone. But where are the crowd-pleasers that dominated before the advent of The Office – shows such as Only Fools and Horses, The Vicar of Dibley and One Foot in the Grave?

"I think there is a disconnect between the shows that get huge ratings and the shows that critics and programme-makers like myself gravitate towards," says Ash Atalla, who produced The Office. "Benidorm, I think, has easily the biggest comedy ratings on television at the moment, and yet it rarely gets mentioned in any 'pick of the day' and it never gets near an awards ceremony. The same with My Family. Those shows have become watch-words for things that aren't cool."

"I've never ever heard anyone talk about My Family," says Gervais. "I don't know anybody who's watched it. And yet it gets ten million."

My Family, which will come to an end next Friday (just as its boutique equivalent, Outnumbered, returns), has often figured in the National Television Awards – the ones voted for by the public – but it hasn't had much more than a sniff at the peer-judged Baftas. Baftas were won this year by a little-watched BBC2 sitcom about an inner-city vicar, Rev, while Steve Coogan and Jo Brand won the best comedy actor awards for the boutique BBC sitcoms The Trip and Getting On.

"Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's The Trip is a very nicely observed in-joke," says Atalla. "I don't think the world of the restaurant critic particularly comes into the consciousness of most people in this country."

Atalla chose the more demotic setting of a supermarket for his latest venture, Trollied, which is the first salvo in Sky's campaign to produce British counterparts for American hits such as The Simpsons and Modern Family. Other Sky sitcoms in the pipeline include The Café, directed by Early Doors' Craig Cash and featuring one of his Royle Family co-stars, Ralf Little, and Stella, a "British Roseanne" written by and starring Ruth Jones, of Gavin & Stacey fame.

Sky are not alone in deciding to enter the home-grown market – ITV's director of television, Peter Fincham, recently declared that it was a genre ITV had neglected for too long. But the biggest player in sitcom is still the BBC, whose controller of comedy, Cheryl Taylor, has no doubt about the sorts of script that are not landing on her desk.

"Sometimes I get the sense that everybody in the country is writing a sitcom," she says. "Other times, when we're talking about good mainstream sitcoms for BBC1, there seems to be a real lack of enthusiasm. We had a heyday with the Richard Curtises of this world and the David Renwicks but for us it's harder and harder to find BBC1-type sitcoms in the pile. People are quite snooty about new mainstream comedy."

If there is one sitcom that has bucked this trend, perhaps showing ambitious writers that they can combine mainstream appeal with wit and originality, it is the BBC2 (now BBC1) show Miranda. Miranda Hart's comedy about a hapless singleton came from nowhere, it seems. Playing gleefully to the studio audience and through the "fourth wall" to the audience at home, Miranda has won over most people, although a large minority remain resistant to the show's unashamed slapstick and, well, poshness.

"I remember there was a sharp intake of breath when Miranda won at the RTS (the Royal Television Society)," says Lucy Lumsden, Sky's head of comedy, who commissioned the show when she was at the BBC. "I was on the panel as well. So many people thought that that sort of comedy doesn't win awards.

"I do think that Miranda and Mrs Brown's Boys (Brendon O'Carroll's BBC1 sitcom about a foul-mouthed Dublin matriarch, which is filmed in Glasgow in front of a raucous studio audience) is the direction now. When I was at the BBC I banged on about 'Where are the audience sitcoms?' and Miranda and Mrs Brown's Boys have definitely come out of that strategy. But there are lots of people who don't particularly like Miranda... they don't particularly like Mrs Brown's Boys."

Shane Allen, Channel 4's head of comedy, is one of those un-tickled by Mrs Brown's Boys, which he says is "for people who've been in prison since the Seventies... it's so old-fashioned". He is more appreciative of Miranda.

"The Office changed everything with its naturalistic, single-camera vibe and everyone felt studio sitcoms [were] redundant – people don't want to watch things with canned laughter any more," he says. "But I think if you get the tone right then there's something really joyful and not naff about it."

The idiosyncratic shows commissioned by Channel 4 are the antithesis of big studio shows – although The IT Crowd and Black Books were filmed in front of studio audiences, their creator, Graham Linehan, one of the minds behind Father Ted, bucked the trend of that respect. And it should be noted that in the latest round of Channel 4's Comedy Showcase, which begins next week, there is a studio sitcom, The Function Room, written by Dan Maier, one of Harry Hill's writers on TV Burp.

Other pilots include Coma Girl, about three old schoolfriends who have a monthly get-together around the intensive-care bed of a fourth (Lead Balloon's Anna Crilly); Chickens, reuniting Inbetweeners Simon Bird and Joe Thomas; and Vic Reeves in Fun Police, a knockabout comedy about health and safety officers.

"What are we looking for?" asks Allen. "Something that's never been done before. Most people tend to write about two blokes who've just moved to London and live in a flat, and we could never commission that because we've got Peep Show."

Allen is not looking for writer-performers, "the poor man's Curb Your Enthusiasm syndrome, where you ask talent what they want to do and they say, 'Well, it's kind of based on me...' So Jack Dee did it (Lead Balloon), Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan did it (The Trip), Matt LeBlanc did it (Episodes)... I think there is saturation there."

So if you are not an established comedian, what is the best way to get commissioned? Cheryl Taylor, points to the BBC's "writersroom", which guarantees to read every manuscript sent to it. Recently, she launched a week-long workshop called Laughing Stock 2011, in which eight shortlisted scripts and their authors earned close attention – "1,800 submissions were reduced to eight". For this October, Taylor has introduced the Salford Sitcom Festival.

"We've invited in-house producers and all the indie producers to submit shows that will be given a theatrical presentation," she says.

Channel 4, alongside its well-established annual Comedy Lab and Comedy Showcase initiatives, has launched Comedy Blaps, a scheme that will pilot 24 new comedies on channel4.com. After several false dawns, and thanks to improved download technology, internet comedy is beginning to emerge as a force.

"You've got to keep pace with the internet – there are lots of little niche things that are breaking in," says Henry Normal, Steve Coogan's partner at Baby Cow Productions, the company behind such comedies as The Trip, the Johnny Vegas pot-com, Ideal, The Mighty Boosh and Gavin & Stacey. Baby Cow also (in conjunction with Foster's lager) produces Coogan's internet sitcom, Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, which finds the downwardly mobile DJ working for an online outfit, North Norfolk Digital.

"There's a lot of innovation over loads of different platforms and channels," says Normal, who believes that the term "sitcom" no longer has any useful meaning. "Over the past 20 years I've started defining things as comedy narratives. Take Gavin & Stacey, for instance: was it a comedy drama or was it a sitcom? Was The Trip a comedy, comedy drama or a documentary?"

Sky's Lucy Lumsden recently commissioned a new family sitcom set in Derbyshire, Starlings, from Baby Cow. "'Sitcom' for me is a very broad description these days ," she says. "It's not as rigid as it used to be."

Be that as it may, most people know roughly what they mean by a sitcom, starting with its 30-minute episode length. So it is time for some crystal-ball gazing – what, apart from Miranda-style studio shows, are the sitcom trends for this autumn?

Lumsden says: "I do look at something like Horrible Histories (the BBC children's show that this year won an adult British Comedy award). I know it's not a sitcom, but my eight-year-old son absolutely adores it and I'm keeping my beady eye on that sort of humour... very silly and slapstick."

Allen thinks that sitcoms might be about to become more feminine and socially realistic. "In America there's a whole spate of female blue-collar sitcoms come along, like 2 Broke Girls – where they used to be more aspirational, like Friends. They're more gritty and I think they could reflect 'Broken Britain' a bit more."

Lumsden believes that the future of the British sitcom lies outside London, in the regions. "So we've ended up with an estate in Manchester (Mount Pleasant), a supermarket in Warrington (Trollied), a café in the West Country (The Café) and a family home in Derbyshire (Starlings). How we've treated those worlds will, I hope, be very interesting." For Lumsden, that means "warmer comedy... I suspect in times of recession – it's not rocket science – we don't need all our viewers leaning forward in their chairs scrutinising our comedy. They need to be laughing alongside us."

The end of cool, then, and the re-emergence of broad and popular? Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais believe that there is very little new under the sitcom sun – including the clever meta-comedy of Extras and their new offering, Life's Too Short.

"It goes back to the beginning of sitcom," says Merchant. "George Burns and Gracie Allen played George Burns and Gracie Allen in a 1950s show. They broke the fourth wall. He would go into a room and watch the show that was on that night and comment on it – it was very 'meta' before sitcom had even really begun.

"You must never think that you've invented something, because everything has been done. It's a closed art form."

SIX OF THE BEST: NEW SITCOMS THIS AUTUMN

Life's Too Short (BBC2)

In Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's first sitcom since 'Extras', the actor Warwick Davis plays a fictional version of himself, running a talent agency for little people called Dwarves for Hire. Those on his books suspect that Davis is more interested in taking the best roles for himself. Gervais and Merchant play themselves.

When? October

Chickens (Channel 4)

Simon Bird and Joe Thomas of E4's 'The Inbetweeners' write and star in a sitcom about three young men living in a sleepy English village while the First World War rages. George is a conscientious objector, Ivor would love to fight but has flat feet and Herb is a philandering scaredy-cat.

When? 2 September

This Is Jinsy (Sky Atlantic)

Piloted by BBC3, the first full series of this left-field sitcom (described as 'a malevolent League of Gentlemen') has been picked up by Sky Atlantic as its first homegrown comedy series. The Bafta-winning Matt Lipsey ('Little Britain', 'Psychoville') directs a bizarre comedy about the bizarre residents of the fictional island of Jinsy, written by and starring the newcomers Chris Bran and Justin Chubb.

When? September

My So Called Life (BBC3)

The excellent Sharon Horgan ('Free Agents', 'Pulling') plays Helen, a woman who is falsely imprisoned for the murder of her boss. Consequently, she has to deal with a rubbish lawyer, a tough prison governor and a sister who is happy for her to stay behind bars, because she has taken over her flat.

When? November

SPY (Sky1)

Aimed at the 8.30pm 'Modern Family' slot, 'SPY' (pictured above) stars Darren Boyd ('Saxondale', 'Dirk Gently') as Tim, a divorced father trying to win the respect of his nine-year-old son who accidentally becomes recruited by M15. Robert Lindsay, in his first comedy role since the demise of 'My Family', plays Tim's spy boss.

When? September

Pram Face (BBC3)

BBC3 will be hoping for another 'Gavin & Stacey' with this Edinburgh-set sitcom about two teenagers who, after a drunken sixth-form party tryst, end up having a baby together. 'Skins' star Sean Verey and Scarlett Alice Johnson –formerly Vicky Fowler in 'EastEnders' – play Laura and Jamie, while Angus Deayton and Anna Chancellor play Laura's parents.

When? January 2012

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