Geoffrey Perkins: The bottom line just isn't funny

The BBC head of comedy is leaving for a job where 'sitcom' is not a dirty word, he tells Jade Garrett
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The Independent Online

Working at the BBC has been a "maddening" experience for Geoffrey Perkins, the corporation's highly prized head of comedy. He has found it to be a "strange place" where programme budgets have overrun by £1m, where broadcasters work in opposition to their own producers and where a comedy success appears to be based almost entirely on luck.

But after six years of delivering cast-iron winners such as Only Fools and Horses, The Royle Family, The Fast Show and Jonathan Creek, Perkins is off to join the independent production company Tiger Aspect as its creative director, a job that has been specifically designed for him.

The attractions are big. An end to being interrupted by finance people keen to talk budgets; a chance to get back to the comedy coalface, pitching ideas around to rival commissioning editors; the freedom to work with some of his old chums (Harry Enfield, Alan Davies and Caroline Aherne); not forgetting the opportunity to work with a company whose creative pedigree has delivered the Bafta-winning Billy Elliot, The Vicar of Dibley and Fat Friends – culminating in this year's Golden Rose of Montreux for Lenny Henry in Pieces.

"As head of comedy, I've spent a lot of my time arguing about budgets and the mechanical bits of making shows," says Perkins. "There have been occasions when you say, let's just make a deal knowing everyone is unhappy – where no one gets the budget they want to make their programme. There are people that are inspired by that, but I'm not one of them. I'm much happier being closer to programmes.

"Since I've been there, I've lived through whole seismic changes, and there is a feeling that some of it has gone back to where it was, really. [Those changes] have put production and broadcast at odds with each other, and that's quite difficult to work through. It has set the people that produce programmes in direct opposition to the people responsible for actually paying for and broadcasting them, and I'm not sure it's a model that is desperately suited to the BBC. It's quite hard to find people now who'll defend it."

Perkins says it's easier to be nostalgic for an age when he didn't actually work at the BBC, when programmes did overrun to the tune of £1m (he's not saying which ones) and people were blissfully unaware of the costs involved. "There had to be a way of making people much more accountable, and so it got a lot tighter," he says, but the inevitable downside for Perkins was being pulled away from the creative side of his passion and into more business-focused decision-making.

"At the BBC you're very close to all the finance people, so it's much easier for them to come and have long conversations with you about budgets than if you were working in an independent, because there they can't get hold of you."

Perkins is 48 now, and his career will become more about taking risks on the kind of show the BBC may not have had the courage to commission. "A lot of the really interesting things happen right on the margins of taste, and audiences are, I suspect, more willing to take a bit more of a risk. They will accept slightly more than we've given them."

Perkins is one of the UK's most successful writers and producers, with the not inconsiderable accomplishment of persuading Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason to reunite for a fresh series of Only Fools and Horses, the first of which will be broadcast on the BBC this Christmas. He became the BBC's head of comedy in 1995, after working his way up the ranks of radio and TV production. Before that he spent eight years as a director at Hat Trick, the production company that, under his tenure, brought Father Ted and Have I Got News for You to British TV screens.

In that time, he feels, the sitcom genre has suffered from increased scrutiny and far greater interest from the TV reviewers, while its development has suffered from being seen as lowbrow fodder, not least from within the BBC. "One of the BBC's own annual reports that talked about the achievements of the year once used the phrase 'all the way from high-value costume drama right the way down to sitcom'," he remembers. "Unfortunately, the term 'sitcom' implies a great disdain; people say it with a curl of their lips."

There are no great pearls of wisdom from Perkins on how to spot a successful comedy show, unless you count, "They've got to be funny and star funny people," as a great insight. He tells me that Only Fools and Horses was dropped after its first airing and did not take off until years later, when early repeats were broadcast again. "If you go back over most of the big successful shows, they had a torrid birth," he says, which may provide some comfort to Johnny Vaughan, the former Big Breakfast presenter, whose debut comedy drama, 'Orrible, which he co-wrote with Ed Allen (the son of the comedian Dave) is proving less than convincing in its post-watershed slot on BBC 2.

'Orrible's ratings-slide (a loss of nearly half a million viewers between the first and second episode and a further drop of 40 per cent, although it has picked up since and is now averaging around two million) has proved that even Perkins can have his moments of bad judgement perhaps, although he's adamant that if it was still his decision he would recommend that the series was re-commissioned.

"I think they're genuinely good writers and they really know that world but they've tried to cram too much in," he says. "Ed and Johnny have got quite a lot to do in working out just exactly what the show is. At the moment it's got too many disparate elements in there, but that's not a bad thing: you can hone a show down and work out what you like."

Perkins is standing firmly by the latest series of Absolutely Fabulous, despite a public confession from its creator, Jennifer Saunders, that it wasn't up to scratch. "People will absolutely love it or they will say, 'What's the point of bringing that back?', and I'm afraid the answer lies in between. It's got some great moments. Jennifer is wrong if she thinks the series wasn't liked by a large number of people and was critically hammered, because it wasn't."

Perkins is modest about his achievements, saying he hasn't had nearly the number of hits he would have hoped for. But at least he has never made a misjudgement on the scale of the script editor who recommended the rejection of one of the BBC's biggest comedy hits. On the wall of Perkins's office is the framed original script of Fawlty Towers, with the script editor's assessment: "I'm afraid I found this one as dire as its title. A group of stereotypical characters in a clichéd setting, I can't see this being anything other than a major disaster."

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