Hunt for sitcoms is not a laughing matter

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a story, only possibly apocryphal, of the old actor on his deathbed. His friends ask him how it feels to die. "It's hard," he whispers, "but comedy's harder."

That sentiment is constantly echoed in the highest echelons of broadcasting. Sir John Birt, who has developed a taste for comedy in running the BBC, recently said: "It remains a challenge to develop new comedies which strike a chord with audiences for our main channel."

Well, not really. Hasn't he heard the one about the international broadcasting corporation and its farcical handling of the appointment of a new director-general, with candidates having to give false names and climb fire escapes to be interviewed? Throw in party political contributions, covert campaigning and smearing, and the winner being smuggled into Broadcasting House through a wartime tunnel. It would make a smashing sitcom.

Over at Channel 4 they have decided that if the people won't take to new sitcoms, they'll take new sitcoms to the people. Over three weeks they are staging potential new sitcoms at a London venue in front of live audiences. Or to put it another way, any viewer in possession of a "smart" bomb might care to consider that most of Britain's situation comedy writers are gathered at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. I went this week to try to learn all about the seemingly impossible art of comedy writing and commissioning.

Watching the performances themselves, it was well to remember the words of one writer who told me: "I've been given 12 complimentary tickets, and I'll be bringing friends with good lungs."

That shows a genuine understanding of television commissioning. The Sitcom Festival is attended by all the comedy commissioners in television, and decisions are partly based on the amount of laughter from the audience.

The Sitcom Festival aims to encourage writers who are new to the genre. So the likes of the erotic novelist Sue Welfare and the stand-up comedienne Gina Ryan had half-hour playlets alongside those of more established writers. Ms Ryan's Ladies Of The House is a subject ripe for comic treatment. Take three Blair babes sharing a luxury flat in Kensington and getting very bored by the House of Commons.

Other writers had clearly taken on board the plea of the BBC1 controller, Peter Salmon, to "tear down the net curtain" and get away from cosy comedy. Nothing cosy about the Porridge for the Nineties, Tooled Up, by Stephen Powell, which had the avuncular Brian sharing his cell at Brixton prison with a pornographer, a Russian asylum-seeker and an aristocratic coke head.

The most surreal comedy on offer this week was God's Toilet by Ben Cooper, by day a jobbing writer for Casualty, EastEnders and The Bill. His often brilliant and hilarious sitcom contains the memorable line by one character explaining sadly why he is out of work: "I did have a job once. I had to give it up. I kept coming home all tired."

There is talent and fevered imagination at work here, but the new wave of comedian hopefuls bring another problem to the television commissioners. The language and seduction scenes are so far beyond the watershed as to be unprogrammable.

But maybe that shows naivety about Channel 4. Cheryl Taylor, deputy commissioning editor for entertainment, says: "We had a lot of discussions about the level of outrageous behaviour and actually it has been toned down. We don't want the traditional sitcoms. We want the quirky and the surreal, things like Father Ted and Drop The Dead Donkey."

According to William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of the Riverside Studios, and comedy impresario at the Edinburgh Fringe, the trouble is there is no investment in comedy writing. But that's where the Sitcom Festival can help.

"It brings writers into contact with good directors. There should be workshops. Comedy writing is bloody difficult. I picked the ones on at the festival from 120 scripts I was sent and some of them were awful."

None of the channels seems to have the answer. The BBC is looking to the American approach, developing a couple of team-written shows, the first time a British broadcaster has tried that method of making people laugh.

Meanwhile, in the frenzy to find the surreal, the quirky, the ratings winners, it is sobering to contemplate the fact that some of the legendary sitcoms would never get through the pilot stage today. Till Death Us Do Part would be too politically incorrect; Steptoe and Son too classist and lacking in female parts.

I once attempted to co-write a sitcom myself and had my eyes opened to the commissioning process. The head of comedy at one of the country's best-known networks ran through the script's pros and cons before concluding: "Of course, if you can get Rowan Atkinson I'll put it on tomorrow." Sadly, he was otherwise engaged.