Ian Burrell: After a year of falling ratings, Channel 4's head of comedy is banking on a series of new commissions to revive the broadcaster's fortunes
Channel 4 is in need of some decent public relations, after a year in which its ratings have suffered more than those of any of the other major broadcasters.
With its audience down by more than 11 per cent on 2012, the organisation's bosses are looking to Phil Clarke, its head of comedy, to deliver original hits to lift Channel 4 out of an alarming downward spiral.
He has identified the world of PR as a source of laughs – just as it once was for Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and the BBC. Absolutely Fabulous began in 1992 and, although it recently emerged for some 20th anniversary specials, it was from another PR era, before the advent of social media. Flack, Clarke's new pilot for C4, will star Sheridan Smith as a celebrity PR facing up to moral dilemmas in her own life, as well as those of her famous clients.
Clarke, the producer of Peep Show, is under pressure to commission the right projects – but without the budget of rich commercial rivals ITV and Sky 1, which are both impressing advertisers with improved audience figures this year. His response has been to turn to David Baddiel, actress Sharon Horgan (star of the BBC hit Pulling), and, perhaps most interestingly of all, Caitlin Moran, columnist with The Times.
Raised by Wolves is Moran's television depiction of her West Midlands upbringing in Wolverhampton with seven siblings. The popular columnist and TV critic was educated at home from the age of 11 and has previously likened her childhood years to The Hunger Games. Her pilot will be shown at Christmas with a view to a full series being commissioned.
Baddiel's new project Sit.com deals with the impact of technology on social interaction in the British family. "It is a million miles from My Family," says Clarke. "It will be challenging for people."
Clarke arrived at Channel 4 nine months ago in the wake of Shane Allen's departure for the BBC, and comes with a strong pedigree. He joined the BBC as a producer in 1990 and was later in charge of comedy at independent companies Talkback and Objective.
He is also banking on Catastrophe, a relationship comedy which stars Horgan alongside Rob Delaney, one America's most successful comedians on Twitter, representing a coup for Channel 4 – if the pilot works.
With Sheridan, Moran, Horgan and Jessica Knapp (writer of new C4 series The Drifters) all to the fore, Clarke is supportive of female comedic talent. "I have not forced that at all and it was not a strategy per se," he says. "But I think women are coming into their own comedically."
Away from the main channel, The Guardians for E4 follows a group of small-town British vigilantes who dress up in superhero costumes as they try and clean up the streets. "It's also about their personal lives," says Clarke. "A man who lives with his mother, a woman whose sex life is going a bit stale, a man who is homosexual but doesn't know it." The show has been written from a London kitchen by Jack and Harry Williams of the "Two Brothers" production company.
He divides Channel 4 comedy into three categories; the original "auteur's voice" of someone like Noel Fielding, the "big jokes" approach of a writer such as Graham Linehan of The IT Crowd, and finally the "acerbic narrative" of a Peep Show. It's this latter approach – which he acknowledges that the BBC has done well in shows such as The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve – that he wants more of.
Among the returning series in the C4 stable is Derek, Ricky Gervais's bleak portrayal of a worker in a nursing home. C4 was pleased with its initial 2 million audience and the 1.3 million it attracted for Man Down, starring Greg Davies (the headteacher from The Inbetweeners). "The thing that everybody knows about comedy is that it's a slow burn," says Clarke. "You can only really tell once you've done two series."
Let's hope C4's advertisers share his patience.
Appetite for success
If there's one show that never seems to be at risk of being removed from the Channel 4 schedules it's Come Dine With Me. But this is an ITV Studios production – that outfit's biggest success story. The amateur cookery-based reality show is now in 36 countries with the latest version, Come Dine With Me India, having been commissioned for a run of 40 editions on the Star Network. Come Dine With Me also goes out in special editions for Turkish and Iranian audiences.
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