Suddenly, television comedy is under the microscope. Tomorrow sees the start of a series of four Oxford University lectures by the writer and producer Armando Iannucci - entitled "British TV Comedy: Dead or Alive?" - in which he ends the series with the provocative question: "How can mainstream comedy survive?"
His lectures come a few weeks after an excellent Channel 4 programme on a similar subject, presented by the former ITV programme boss David Liddiment, in which he asked: "Who killed the sitcom?"
Why this sudden interest in television comedy? The answer, I suspect, is that a number of people have suddenly realised that there isn't a lot of mainstream comedy left on British television, and in particular that there are very few new sitcoms on the main terrestrial channels.
Television comedy, and particularly mainstream situation comedy, was once the foundation of BBC television, in particular. Even as recently as 10 years ago there was hardly a night when you couldn't watch one sitcom or another, with most of them getting very acceptable audiences and a few notching up exceptional viewing figures.
Yet a glance through last week's listings showed not a single new episode of a situation comedy all week on either BBC1 or BBC2. If you looked carefully you could find repeat episodes of One Foot in the Grave, Last of the Summer Wine and Dad's Army, but nothing else.
Now, this wasn't July or August, when the potential audiences are outside sunning themselves or away on holiday; this was the second week of January, when the audience can be enormous. So what's happening? And does it really matter?
I am strongly of the view that the answer to the second question is yes; that television comedy, and in particular situation comedy, matters a great deal. Ask most people about the television they remember from their youth, the programmes that made a mark, and nine times out of 10 they will talk about comedy programmes. Arguably, truly outstanding comedy shows tell you more about Britain in the period they were made than most factual programmes or television dramas of the period.
It's important not to exaggerate the problem. There are still some great comedy programmes being made, and in years to come I'm sure my kids will talk about The Office, The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain in the same way as my generation look back so fondly on Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Monty Python, The Likely Lads and Fawlty Towers, to name but five.
But there is no doubt that there are fewer comedy programmes on television today, and the sitcom has, as David Liddiment told us in his programme, virtually disappeared from our screens. Liddiment gave a range of possible explanations for this phenomenon, but the one I found most convincing was that mainstream talent - both writing and acting - is increasingly not interested in the traditional mainstream sitcom. The Comedy Store generation of performers and writers - people such as Ricky Gervais - are much happier writing and performing to "smart" audiences than mass pre-9pm BBC1 or ITV audiences. It's also unfashionable to write many episodes of a series, as we saw with The Office.
The most popular new BBC sitcom of recent years was The Vicar of Dibley, written by Richard Curtis, who understandably decided he was more interested in writing movies such as Four Weddings, and in doing the charitable work he does for Comic Relief, than writing more Dibley. He was happy, US-style, for others to write some episodes, but Dawn French wasn't. The result? No more Dibley.
Another theory discussed by Liddiment was that comedy had become more generationally specific. That is certainly true, but that doesn't mean that young people wouldn't also watch traditional sitcoms if they were available. Over Christmas, my 18-year-old son was watching the television and laughing out loud. I wandered over to find out what was so funny and discovered he was watching Michael Crawford in a very old episode of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. He and his friends had all become big fans.
So my survey of one suggests to me that there is still room for certain types of traditional sitcom that appeal across classes and age ranges. The difficulty is finding the writers and artists who want to do the more traditional fare and commissioners willing to risk their money - sitcom isn't cheap - and their airtime to try and try again until they get one that works. Like David Liddiment, I believe our hopes rest on the BBC and the BBC alone, but I'm not optimistic.
* Just as ITV broadcasting boss Simon Shaps was writing this column last week, telling me that I was wrong in my assessment of ITV, he suddenly got hit by two broadsides. First it was announced that his director of programmes Nigel Pickard was leaving and then came the news that one of the Channel's few recently acquired new stars, Paul O'Grady, top, had decamped to Channel 4.
Pickard, below, is one of the nicest blokes to be found in the television business but his likely departure once Shaps had arrived at ITV's network centre was one of television's worst kept secrets. Shaps clearly wanted to do his job. Pickard had to stay until the end of the year to maximise his payoff but then left at the first opportunity.
As for O'Grady, one has to sympathise with the ITV press officer who got the job of putting out the statement saying that the departure had nothing to do with all the changes being made at the network centre when O'Grady himself was saying the opposite, that he no longer felt loved and that all his mates at the centre were leaving.
The most important thing about television production is looking after the talent, both behind the camera and in front of it. As a television executive doing it can drive you nuts - and sometimes the pain is simply too great - but that's the business and you have to do it.Reuse content