Ian Burrell: Ensuring the comedy revolution will be televised on BBC3

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The Independent Online

Did you ever wonder what became of Heydon Prowse? He was the prankster who filmed the Conservative frontbencher Alan Duncan on the House of Commons terrace claiming at the time of the Westminster expenses scandal that MPs "have to live on rations and are treated like shit".

Since then Prowse and his sidekick Jolyon Rubinstein have continued making films lampooning the powerful, in collaboration with Don't Panic magazine. And now they have their own show on the BBC. In one previous stunt, Prowse and Rubinstein dressed as fashionistas and tricked staff at Topshop's flagship London store into installing a window display espousing "The Monaco Look", a mannequin in a T shirt advising passers-by of Sir Philip Green's fondness for the tax haven.

In a film made during the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest last year, they provocatively mingled with the docile crowds by posing as a film crew from "Fox News UK" in helmets and flak jackets. "They are weed-smoking, anti-capitalist, lunatic fascists who hate Princess Diana," Rubinstein shouted into his microphone. "I feel threatened, it's total chaos, total anarchy, we've just got to get out really fast." The humour is in the way the well-meaning protesters and police officers are outraged by the coverage.

These films caught the attention of Zai Bennett, controller of BBC3, who has commissioned Prowse and Rubinstein to make a six-episode series, provisionally-titled The Revolution Will Be Televised, to be broadcast in May. "They have both got the most huge balls, they're nuts – but in a good way," says Bennett. One of the star young executives of the British television industry, he has been in charge of the BBC's youth channel for a year after being poached from ITV. He earned his reputation by bringing a young audience to ITV2 for shows such as The Only Way is Essex. But it is the genre of comedy that dominates his thoughts at BBC3. "I can't overstate the importance of comedy," he says. "If you get comedy right it can define your channel and build you beyond the hours that it's on."

He picks out two more of his commissions as examples of "where I want BBC3 comedy to be". The Californian actor Andy Samberg has been cast as the lead in Cuckoo, playing the idle hippy who a British girl introduces to her parents as her new husband, as she arrives home from a gap year. The ensuing tension between Samberg's character and an over-protective father played by Greg Davies (the head master from The Inbetweeners) sounds like rich comedy material.

Then there is Bad Education, a school-based script starring comedian Jack Whitehall, 23, as a highly immature teacher. Whitehall, who has been a regular performer on Channel 4, has co-written the show. Bennett says he is not in the business of spending the licence fee in competing with other broadcasters for talent. "We are not in that competitive market because most of the people we are taking are new or they are already known but doing something new," he says. "Jack has never written before so it's a punt on our part."

BBC3's share of the budget has frequently been questioned. It took a 20 per cent cut before Bennett joined and he is implementing a further 15 per cent saving which will see the channel concentrating on two genres; comedy and factual. When it gets factual shows right, BBC3's 16-34 year-old audience responds enthusiastically. It scored the highest AI (Appreciation Index) figures of any BBC channel, for shows such as last year's Alex: A Life in Fast Forward about a 21-year-old with bone cancer. Notable among upcoming shows is My Murder, a drama-documentary about the "honey trap" killing of Shakilus Townsend, 16, who was lured to his death by his girlfriend. The film is narrated by John Boyega (who starred in the film Attack The Block) as the voice of Shakilus. The show will be part of a Criminal Britain season starting this month. Bennett plans further seasons on body image and mental health. BBC3 factual shows should not be worthy, he says. "You don't want them to watch it and think 'Oh I learned something there', you want them to think it was riveting and enjoyable."

BBC3 is one of only two BBC channels designated to show the Olympic games. Its coverage will have a more youthful tone, fronted by Jake Humphrey. Bennett realises it's his chance to show a wider public that the channel is worth keeping. "We have an opportunity with a lot of people who have not watched the channel before. We want to convince them it's a good thing for BBC3 to exist." He no longer has to make that argument with many younger viewers. "In television as a whole, youth audiences are extremely unhappy with the way they are portrayed," he says, quoting new research. "BBC3 is one of the few exceptions to that."