Have I got news for you . . . cheap TV comedies are a joke gone too far

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The Independent Online
Would you watch a show about four comedians discussing the wacky world of antiques? Or perhaps a comedy quiz-show about health and hypochondria? If not, then maybe four lads and a quiz master ad-libbing at the worlds of cookery or gardening?

Those are some of the proposals being put to the makers of BBC2's Have I Got News For You in what was described this week as the boom in "smart- assed television".

And while the march of the comedy-quiz show format was criticised for elbowing out traditional comedy writers, Hat Trick Productions - makers of Have I Got News - announced that it is planning a comedy-quiz about advertising for later this year.

Veteran humorist Alan Coren and his partner on BBC's Call my Bluff, Sandi Toksvig, have criticised the dominance of the schedules by what are described as "show-off shows" such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks and They Think It's All Over (both also BBC).

"I'm very bored with smart-assed television," Ms Toksvig told Radio 5 this week. "Four people in suits with no scripts making it up as they go along. I can't be doing with it any more; it's cheap and nasty. It's a notion that we can get rid of writers in this country and the crafted project. It's a conveyor-belt approach to making television."

The modern panel-game boom started with production companies such as Hat Trick lifting formats from Radio 4 shows such as the News Quiz and Just a Minute and creating programmes like Who's Line is it Anyway? and They Think It's All Over. Before that television had to rely on Call My Bluff.

Today, while television churns out shows like Space Cadets on Channel 4 and Shooting Stars on BBC2, Radio 4 is looking for new games. A recent attempt was And I'm The Queen of Sheba, which is about lying and stars Labour MP Ken Livingstone.

"There is still plenty of old-fashioned scripted comedy on television," Mr Coren said yesterday, "But it's crap. Things like Chalk, which was set in a school, or The Peter Principle, which is set in a bank, could have been made 30 years ago and would have been made better."

Mr Coren, who appears regularly on the News Quiz, believes quiz-comedies are made partly because they are cheaper than situation comedies. "You couldn't afford the script development or to fill a sitcom with the stars who are happy to go on the quiz shows. It's probably a quarter to a third cheaper to make these shows."

Jimmy Mullville, joint managing director of Hat Trick and the first producer of Have I Got News, admitted yesterday that the format had probably run its course: "It's a worry. The topic of the show has to have some kind of national import and I think we're coming to the end of topics that touch the zeitgeist. Some of the suggestions we've been offered following the success of Have I Got News have been ridiculous - even a funny panel game about antiques. People think you can put anything through this sausage machine."

Mr Mullville believes the format is popular because it is an efficient use of comedians: "It's just a question of creating a structured conversation. Stand-ups behind a mike struggle a bit on TV, and it uses up all their material."

Mr Mullville said he did not believe the rise of the format was putting writers out of work because many of the newer shows employ writers.

Geoffrey Perkins, head of comedy at the BBC, denied that comedy quiz- shows were pushing out scripted material. "There is an enormous amount of scripted comedy here and we are always looking for new sources of comedy talent," he said.

"There will be at least 12 new scripted comedy shows on the BBC in the next nine months. There is a danger that you can do too many of these and for some channels they are cheap fillers, but no one can describe Have I Got News as cheap filler."