'Don't blame me for lousy sitcoms'

Critics say the BBC's television and radio comedy is in crisis. So why is controller Paul Jackson upbeat?
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Perhaps only the England football manager has a harder job than Paul Jackson. He is the controller of BBC Entertainment, and on many days he must feel like coming to work wearing a flak jacket. Scarcely a week goes by without him being greeted in his office by headlines such as: "Television sitcoms? Don't make us laugh."

Perhaps only the England football manager has a harder job than Paul Jackson. He is the controller of BBC Entertainment, and on many days he must feel like coming to work wearing a flak jacket. Scarcely a week goes by without him being greeted in his office by headlines such as: "Television sitcoms? Don't make us laugh."

The shrapnel was really flying during the summer when the BBC Governors' annual report, for the second year running, criticised the standard of sitcoms and Saturday night entertainment shows. Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of the Corporation, said pointedly that: "The BBC needs to work harder to find the successors to Basil Fawlty and Victor Meldrew."

Matters hardly improved with the arrival of the autumn schedules. BBC1's Let Them Eat Cake, the new French and Saunders vehicle, has had disappointing reviews. This newspaper said the programme's title was "not a bad metaphor for this crumby sitcom thrown to us plebs by two royally paid comedians." Starting Out, a new sitcom from Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, has fared little better.

So how is Jackson coping with the latest reports of a crisis in his department? "Which crisis?" he laughs. "According to the newspapers, there has been a crisis in Entertainment since the Seventies. When Morecambe and Wise retired, they were all asking, 'what are you going to do about that?' There's always something for them to complain about. We're either too upmarket or too downmarket.

"But attacks by the press come with the territory. In some ways, they're an indication of the BBC's importance. If people didn't care about the BBC, the red tops wouldn't attack us.''

Sipping a cup of tea at Broadcasting House, Jackson is discussing In Conversation With..., his new Radio 4 series of interviews with such comedians as Caroline Aherne and Ben Elton. While conceding that he's "no Parky", Jackson reckons that his 30-odd years in the business have given him some insights into comedy. "What you get with this series is a good combination of detailed research about the comedians and stuff I know about them that's not in the research."

Returning to the subject of tabloid tormentors, Jackson admits that the knocking copy "can get me angry - I'll sometimes kick a chair - but it doesn't get me down. The press have got every right to ask questions. The licence fee is public money, and we have to be accountable."

Similarly, he holds up his hand over the Governors' Report. "It is a perfectly proper function of the Governors to question the BBC. Entertainment is at the core of the justification for the licence fee. So the Governors would have been in dereliction of their duty if they hadn't questioned why Entertainment wasn't performing in the way it had done in the past."

So what's he going to do about it? "For the last ten months, we have been working on a new comedy initiative. We've got five or six new comedies coming through that will be on the screen next spring. If just two or three of them hit, we'll be on the road to recovery."

In addition, three new Saturday night entertainment shows are being piloted this autumn. Jackson hopes that, like the Reeves and Mortimer vehicle, Families at War, they will plough an original furrow.

He won't say what the new comedies will be - commissioning editors are far too competitive to give away information like that. However, an educated guess would point to a veering away from the more traditional, "three-piece-suite" format, epitomised by programmes such as 2.4 Children, towards more edgy, risk-taking shows. This is an area where the BBC has scored some hits lately. Jackson underlines the success of the naturalistic comedy of The Royle Family on BBC1, BBC2's dark picture of life in a weird northern town, The League of Gentlemen, which won the Golden Rose at Montreux earlier this year, and the subtle BBC2 spoof docu-soaps, People Like Us and Operation Good Guys (winner of a Silver Rose). "The public are saying 'we're bored with the traditional sitcom.' In an era of docu-soaps and naturalistic drama, studio-based sitcoms with laughter-tracks and false sets do not ring true."

Jackson, a youthful-looking 52-year-old, learnt the trade as a floor manager on Basil Brush. He went on to produce The Two Ronnies, The Young Ones, Three of a Kind, Girls on Top, Saturday Live and Red Dwarf. Ever eager to fight his corner, he contends that the newspapers' nostalgia for a "golden age" of sitcom is merely selective memory - "people only remember the hits, not the dross" - and goes on to argue that ratings for TV comedy have declined across the board because the industry itself has diversified. "The market has changed. Someone like Frank Skinner is worth huge amounts because the stars have multiple options. In the days of The Two Ronnies, telly was where they made their money. Nowadays, comedians can make truckloads of money with films and videos."

That puts comedy stars in a strong bargaining-position, but Jackson refutes press suggestions that they are leaving the BBC in droves. Just last week, the Corporation signed a two-year deal with Steve Coogan. " The Sun is so blatant about this. It trumpets the fact that Caroline Quentin has signed to do a one-off drama for ITV, but she is still doing Kiss Me Kate and Jonathan Creek for us."

Jackson is equally robust about the headline-grabbing departure from the BBC of Noel Edmonds. "It's hard when a show which has been a staple of the schedules like Noel's House Party starts to tire. Unfortunately, viewers were voting with their feet, so we had no choice but to end it." Edmonds took a parting shot at the supposed dumbing down of the BBC - to which Jackson responds: "There is an irony in someone who gave the world Mr Blobby talking about dumbing down."

Jackson has the BBC running through his veins - his father, T Leslie Jackson - produced What's My Line?. When the BBC hosted the Eurovision Song Contest last year, the younger Jackson brought the house down as the warm-up act. Nicknamed "Mr Light Entertainment", he is a tireless advocate for the BBC's comedy output - we completed our interview in a taxi en route to a meeting with some high-powered American agents. He won't fail through lack of trying.

Jackson has only been in charge of this new super-department - which oversees 400 producers in BBC radio and television - for just over a year. But, with a raft of "anti-traditional" shows in production, he is already hoping to silence the critic who called him "as old-fashioned as Ben Elton's sparkly jacket".