Media: Serious about funny business

Is BBC comedy stale? No, says its new head, Geoffrey Perkins. Well, he would, wouldn't he? By James Rampton
The walls in Geoffrey Perkins's office display posters from some of the BBC Comedy department's greatest hits - Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, The Liver Birds, Steptoe and Son. They are the burden of history, a constant reminder to Perkins, the new head of comedy, of high standards he must live up to. Reviewers like nothing better than wailing "Why aren't sitcoms as good as they used to be?" Perkins's task is to disabuse them of the notion.

Six months into his job, he is well-versed in the fine art of defence. "I find it depressing the way people hark back to 'a golden age'. That's false memory syndrome. When I worked in radio, people used to say, 'Why aren't there programmes like Round the Horne, The Goon Show and Hancock's Half Hour any more?' - conveniently forgetting that those shows spanned a 20-year period.

"Also, the shows we remember as classics were not necessarily the most popular at the time. When Rising Damp went out, Tom, Dick and Harriet and The Gaffer were getting twice the audiences. But who remembers them now?

"Look at the three nominations for Best BBC Sitcom at the British Comedy Awards - One Foot in the Grave, Absolutely Fabulous and Men Behaving Badly. That is as healthy as I can remember sitcoms being."

At the age of 42, Perkins has the deeds to back up his words. His CV reads like a citation for the Comedy Hall of Fame. After Harrow County School for Boys, where he ran the debating society (with Clive Anderson), and Oxford University, he had a brief spell investigating waste timber in Liverpool for the Ocean Transport and Trading Company, before joining BBC Radio Light Entertainment. In six years there, he made more than 200 programmes, including Radio Active (which became television's KYTV) and The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy.

He went on to become a director of the leading independent, Hat Trick Productions, responsible for, among others, Have I Got News For You, Spitting Image, Saturday Night Live and Friday Night Live, Norbert Smith - A Life, Ben Elton - The Man from Auntie, and Game On. Just two weeks ago, Perkins had a writing credit for Coogan's Run on the Friday, and a producer's and actor's credit for A Very Open Prison on the Saturday.

A thoughtful man in a black roll-neck jersey and black-framed glasses that say "TV exec", he is a catch for the BBC. LWT was reported to be interested in luring him - a report he denies - and he took a salary cut to join the corporation from Hat Trick. (He has resigned as a director there. Ideas from his previous employer pass across another commissioning editor's desk.)

Harry Thompson, the producer of Have I Got News For You and They Think It's All Over, says: "It helps enormously that Geoffrey comes from outside. Traditionally at the BBC, the accent has been on progressing by doing other people's jobswithout ever having to make a comedy decision. In the independent sector, Geoffrey was making comedy decisions every day. He brings a lot more experience than an older person from within the BBC could have done."

Perhaps the powers-that-be also hope that the man behind such shows as The Harry Enfield Television Programme and Father Ted could help wean the BBC off what critics see as the safe, white-bread diet of three-piece- suite warhorses like 2.4 Children, Next of Kin and Down to Earth.

After several years of standing outside, you wonder if Perkins might feel uncomfortable sitting inside the establishment tent. He admits to being worried about coming into such an unwieldy organisation, but claims not to have "come up against a wall of bureaucracy. As an independent, you're actually more bogged down in bureaucracy, because you pitch shows and they disappear into the system. Now I'm at the heart of the broadcaster - that's the reason I came here."

It is part of Perkins's contract that he continues to produce programmes. It is unusual these days for heads of department to soil their hands on the shopfloor. One advantage, Perkins says, is that you can't be at all those meetings with, say, the Head of Carpets. His latest production, Ben Elton's police sitcom, The Thin Blue Line, has been a ratings hit, consistently netting more than 11 million viewers, but critics are less enthusiastic.

It's a touchy subject. "The first thing I did was dig out reviews of shows that are now considered classics. Fawlty Towers was taken apart to begin with. It got 1.5 million viewers and reviewers said, 'Long John, thin on jokes'. One Foot in the Grave was also hated when it started. One reviewer said it should have been called, 'One Script in the Bin'. Now previewers are saying that The Thin Blue Line is getting better. It's not. They're just getting used to it."

Perkins's sensitivity shows what an easy target he is; everyone has an opinion about BBC comedy, particularly as Christmas looms and the BBC and ITV schedules groan with 60-minute versions of long-running, half- hour comedy hits. With the responsibility for 90 hours a year of original programming covering everything on BBC1 andBBC2 and an annual budget of pounds 30m, he has the difficult job of keeping both trendies and traditionalists happy. With The Thin Blue Line, he is hoping to blend the two.

"Pre-nine o'clock needn't be bland. There are people like Ben Elton, who might be regarded as non-mainstream, who are very interested in doing mainstream shows [Jack Dee and Paul Merton are also said to be considering sitcoms]. There are compromises to be made, but that's not like selling out.

"It's the most difficult challenge to try to get an audience of 10 million. You're juggling elements that are contradictory. It's got to be something familiar and different at the same time. But you can't have a set formula. Dennis Main Wilson said to me, 'Hopefully, you're one of those people who knows the basic rule of comedy -there are no rules'."

Still, some have pointed to the number of long-in-the-tooth shows in the BBC sitcom stable. They say Last of the Summer Wine is fit only for the knacker's yard. Though he's a new broom, Perkins is adamant that he's not going to sweep away all traces of previous regimes (the last two incumbents were Martin Fisher and Robin Nash). A script by David Nobbs, The Legacy of Reggie Perrin, is lying on his coffee-table, and Perkins is also developing ideas with David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave), Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly) and John Sullivan (Only Fools and Horses) as well as working on an update of Carla Lane's Liver Birds.

"I'm extremely happy with shows like Last of the Summer Wine," he declares. "I'll keep on top of the scripts and ensure they don't become too complacent, but you'd be mad to start by saying, 'We'll get rid of these old shows'. At Radio 4, a new controller came in and axed a load of programmes - including Desert Island Discs - and then said, 'Let's have these new shows'. But they got jumped on. That's remained with me."

At the same time, he's eager for fresh talent. Budding Ben Eltons should note that he reads 30 new scripts a week and has two dozen in development at any one time.

Unlike the commercial channels, Perkins can let sitcoms "find their audience. You can't assume that in their first or second series they're going to be ratings winners. The debate about nurture or euthanasia is difficult, but comedy needs more nurturing than anything else. It would have been easy to drop Only Fools and Horses. It had three series before it took off."

That doesn't mean he's in favour of a more recent trend: episodes just plopping off the script-factory production-line. "I'm wary about comedy as fodder. It's very difficult to go the American route of 25 episodes per year and keep quality up. Seinfeld is great, but they have the equivalent of John Sullivan, David Renwick, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis all writing for the same show."

Perkins looks down at his watch and asks, politely, to be excused for a meeting with BBC2 Controller Michael Jackson. Busy, busy, busy.

Despite the large target on his back, Perkins has the track-record for success. Thompson has no doubts: "With John Lloyd [Not the Nine O'Clock News, Blackadder], Geoffrey is the young comedy producer of the last 20 years. He has that important but frequently overlooked quality of actually knowing what's funny. He can spot a good joke - not everyone who works in TV comedy can."

Thompson pauses and ventures a joke of his own: "Of course, if he doesn't commission loads of programmes from me, I'll happily retract everything I've just said."