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Documentaries to giggle at

TV chiefs have discovered that comedians can make serious programmes more interesting. James Rampton reports
Michael Palin has a lot to answer for. Thanks to him, comedians are the flavour of the month, nay the decade, with documentary-makers. Harry Enfield has warbled his praise of opera, and Pete McCarthy hosts Travelog. Terry Jones - on the Crusades - and Terry Gilliam - on the history of early cinema - have joined Michael Palin (preparing his third great journey show) as Pythons-turned-presenters.

Joanna Lumley was marooned on a desert island, Tony Robinson undertook a Great Journey to the Caribbean, where Robin Williams also frolicked with dolphins, Robbie Coltrane drove across America in a Cadillac, Billy Connolly travelled around Scotland and Clive James went everywhere - all with the compulsory film crew in tow.

In the near future, Angus Deayton is smiling his way through a series on happiness, Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, from Birds of a Feather, are trying out different professions in Jobs for the Girls, Paul Merton is making a show on the history of comedy, and Sandi Toksvig is taking a boat trip around Britain. These sort of "entertaining personality- based documentaries" were puffed in People and Programmes, last week's BBC programme strategy review document, as a sign of progress.

Last Friday, the latest comedian's documentary - or comdoc - plopped, spanking new, off the production-line. Our Man In ... is a series of six films about tourist paradises that have become troubled, fronted by Clive Anderson.

Urbane in a natty pink shirt, Anderson is unruffled by the suggestion that comedians are taking over television. "I've seen it written that comedians are everywhere now. But in a way it's not surprising. There's that old joke about a comedian doing a great turn in some club up north. Everyone is in fits of laughter. Then the chairman says [puts on lugubrious northern accent] `that's very good - if you like laughing'.

"Why shouldn't you have a comedian doing an ad which is going to be 30 seconds of cheeriness? If there is going to be a comedian presenting a programme, at any rate they're going to be funny. That may not be the only requirement, but it's something.

"You could argue that there are too many comedians, but what would you rather have? A tragedian going around saying, `this country is so dreadful, I hate the journey'? Because as a comedian you're basically saying that, you're just doing it in a funny way."

Comedians bring more to the party than just a barrel of laughs, however. Chris Pye, head of Independent Production at the BBC Entertainment Group, says that "for a long time, broadcasters weren't encouraging comedians to do things outside comedy. But we've come to accept that comedians are more than just laugh-machines, that they have a view which is quirky and unusual."

Guy Davies, director of development at documentary makers Folio, takes up the theme. "Comics are very good at communicating. There's a feeling that a comedian popularises a subject. They are used as ways of making quiet subjects noisier and sexier. Look at Terry Jones on The Crusades, not an intrinsically funny subject. Comedians add a lightness of touch that can make difficult subjects seem more comprehensible."

Paul Hamann, head of documentaries at the BBC, emphasises that "we're always looking for fresh ways to present familiar ideas". Comedians, he says, can reach parts that mere current affairs presenters cannot.

"Comedians have a less pompous, less assured approach. They're not afraid to be seen to fail or to make fools of themselves. They're less inclined to say, `this is the definitive point of view'. Most importantly, they know how to talk to people. They build up a chemistry between themselves and their subjects, drawing them out. They're less aloof, more self-effacing. Once you fail to be that, once you start thinking you've got nothing to learn, you're dead."

OK, so they have all these winning qualities but, lest we forget, comedians also deliver the Holy Grail to television commissioners: ratings. "There are some celebrities who draw viewers whatever they're in," Davies avers. "They unlock an audience that wouldn't necessarily watch a documentary. Commissioners say, `more of that, please'. I don't think it devalues the work. It can add to it. The obvious example is Jonathan Ross on Americana. Just because he's a celeb doesn't mean he can't have an informed opinion about something."

Hamann, too, sees "nothing wrong" with chasing ratings. "We owe a duty to the licence-payer to entertain and provide range." He also claims television companies are actually more choosy than they have been given credit for. "We would probably see more `funny people' if controllers thought more of them were bankable. A lot of agents offer documentaries fronted by B-minus comedians. I even turn down A-plus people with ideas that wouldn't work. Michael Palin has been such an influence that you get a lot of "son of Palin" and "daughter of Palin" proposals. Most people think they can do a Palin, but it's more difficult than it looks."

The key is to match the presenter to the subject matter. It is not enough simply to bolt on a spare Python to any rickety old documentary lying around the workshop. "You wouldn't want Benny Hill looking at Bosnia," Pye laughs. "If it's a serious matter, then you'd want the comedian's view to be journalistically sensible and cogent. Provided we believe that Clive Anderson has a rigorous approach to the truth in those resorts or that Billy Connolly has a love of Scotland, then the comedians and their subjects shouldn't be antagonistic. Robbie Coltrane is a fanatic about America, Paul Merton is a fanatic about the comedy of his childhood. In each case, there's an interest, a warmth, sometimes an obsession. If Angus Deayton is fascinated by train-spotting, let him do a series."

If you let funnymen loose on a serious subject, however, you run the risk of a deafening clash of tones. Talking at the speed of light - or the speed of a nervy barrister - Anderson defends his right to mix grit with gags. "You could do a better informed and more worthy programme about the destruction of the water-table in Goa with a current affairs presenter, but would everybody watch it? Or you could do a holiday programme which would have many more viewers, but would they learn as much?

"I don't want to come over all schoolmasterly about it, but it's nice if you can get in some information and a bit of jollity. With any luck, these documentaries are funny a lot of the time, but that doesn't stop you making serious points as well."

All the same, Anderson is already buckling on his breastplate to protect himself against the almost inevitable backlash against comdocs. "It's very difficult to identify a new concept (a) which someone else hasn't done before, and (b), which is even more infuriating, that someone else isn't working on at this very moment."

`Our Man In' ... continues on BBC2 at 9.30pm on Friday, and `Jobs for the Girls' starts on BBC1 at 9.30pm on Thursday.