No laughing matter: BBC faces comedy crisis as rivals lure talent with big budgets

BBC boss says writers can't handle the pressure of a mass audience and are pitching ideas to other channels

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The Independent Culture

As the nation's favourite channel, BBC1 ought to have the wittiest laughter merchants beating a path to its door. But the corporation has warned of a comedy crisis because the funniest writers are choosing to take their shows elsewhere.

BBC1 could miss out on the next generation of classic sitcoms like Only Fools And Horses because talented writers can't handle the pressure of parading their wares in front of a mass audience, a leading executive said.

Cheryl Taylor, BBC Controller of Comedy Commissioning, said the channel was facing a sitcom shortage because the best ideas were now pitched to rivals ITV, Channel 4 and BSkyB, which has vowed to invest £600m in original British programming. Ms Taylor said producers shrank from having their work "in the spotlight" of BBC1. "Comedy is the genre du jour – ITV, Sky, everyone is coming to the party," she told Broadcast magazine.

"But because it's a small gene pool for talent, on and off screen, that puts pressure on the biggest, brightest, shiniest shows. It's a sellers' market in comedy at the moment, which has impacted the number of scripts we are getting. But we are still committed to finding sassy, witty, pre-watershed programmes."

Ruth Jones – Nessa in Gavin & Stacey – took her new sitcom, Stella, about a fortysomething single mother in the Welsh valleys, to Sky 1. Jones received a Bafta nomination for her performance and the series will return. Sky poached Ms Taylor's predecessor, Lucy Lumsden, and has given her a multi-million-pound budget to lure writers and performers to the channel, which next week premieres Starlings, produced by Steve Coogan.

Zoe Wanamaker, star of My Family, the BBC1 sitcom which entertained millions of viewers for a decade, said the corporation had "shot itself in the foot" by axeing one of its most popular shows for being too more middle-class.

Ms Wanamaker noted that Miranda Hart, one of BBC1's comedy successes, "is not exactly working-class".

Other writers prefer the path taken by Tom Hollander, who launched his acclaimed religious comedy Rev on BBC2, where it was able to build an audience.

Channel 4 found success with Friday Night Dinner, its sitcom written by Robert Popper, set in a London Jewish household, which is being remade by NBC.

Danny Cohen, the BBC1 Controller whose £25m gamble on The Voice talent show appears to have paid off, is hoping to revitalise comedy on the channel.

Mrs Brown's Boys, a family sitcom filmed before a live audience, written by and starring Irish performer Brendan O'Carroll, has been nominated for a Best Situation Comedy Bafta.

This autumn, Cohen will unveil Citizen Khan, a sitcom set in Birmingham's Sparkbrook, "the capital of British Pakistan", about a self-appointed Muslim community leader (Adil Ray).

Hartswood Films, the company behind Sherlock, is making a new sitcom, Me & Mrs Jones, starring Sarah Alexander as a woman balancing boyfriends, parenthood and an ex-husband.

Not Going Out, Lee Mack's sitcom, which returned to BBC1 last month, has proved a modest success after increasing its audience to 4.5 million viewers.

But BBC1 sitcoms will inevitably be overshadowed by Only Fools And Horses, which attracted 24 million viewers at its 1996 peak.

Who's laughing now? best of the Beeb – and their rivals

The classic:

Only Fools And Horses, 1981-2003

Commissioned by John Howard Davis, BBC Head of Comedy, who offered Del Boy role to Jim Broadbent, who was unavailable. David Jason took the lead but the series still took years to build big ratings. Voted Britain's Best Sitcom in 2004 poll.

Miranda 2009-

Developed from a Radio 2 series, Miranda Hart's joke shop owner transferred to BBC2 and then to BBC1 after audiences of 4 million.

The slow burn:

Not Going Out, 2006-

Friday night vehicle for deadpan comic Lee Mack's quick-fire gags, the series about a lovable loafer achieved moderate ratings and was cancelled by BBC1 Controller Jay Hunt in 2009. Revived by Danny Cohen, a believer in studio-based comedy, ratings have risen to almost 5 million viewers.

The competition:

Starlings, 2012-

Produced by Steve Coogan and starring Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey) and Lesley Sharp (Scott & Bailey), Starlings is Sky 1's attempt to create a mainstream Royle Family-style hit.

Friday Night Dinner, 2011-

An offbeat C4 sitcom the teen audience for The Inbetweeners could watch with their parents. Set in a Jewish household, it stars Simon Bird.