Heard the one about the man who will save BBC1 comedy?

Peter Fincham knows how to make viewers laugh. Which for a controller of BBC1 is a bit of a departure. Anthony Barnes reports
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The Independent Online

The death of the sitcom has been mourned for so long that the people who complain that "they don't make 'em like that any more" are themselves not made like that any more. Ever since the so-called golden age of Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and all the rest, the sitcom has been seen as broadcasting's holy grail. But is the new controller of BBC1 going to be the person who finally unearths it?

The death of the sitcom has been mourned for so long that the people who complain that "they don't make 'em like that any more" are themselves not made like that any more. Ever since the so-called golden age of Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and all the rest, the sitcom has been seen as broadcasting's holy grail. But is the new controller of BBC1 going to be the person who finally unearths it?

Peter Fincham, who was announced last week as the successor to Lorraine Heggessey, is expected to make comedy, and sitcom in particular, his first priority.

Fincham's appointment comes less than a month after the BBC axed yet another of its great sitcom hopes, According To Bex, starring Jessica Stevenson, conceding that the Friday night show failed to hit the target. It received poor audiences and a critical drubbing.

Indeed, only two sitcoms born during Heggessey's five-year reign have managed to achieve any long-term success, My Family and My Hero. Many sitcoms are axed after only one or two series, for example Dawn French's Wild West.

At the same time, old faithfuls such as those listed above are repeated endlessly. David Jason recently voiced concern about how often his classic series Only Fools And Horses is screened.

Fincham has great form on the comedy front. His company, Talkback, built shows around Ali G and Alan Partridge, and almost all in the broadcasting industry believe his ability to nurture and coax great talents will transform BBC1's comedy track record.

Daisy Goodwin, the editorial director at Talkback, said: "He'll be looking for those great sitcoms straightaway. That will be the first thing he will want to do."

There are already some new ones in the pipeline that Fincham will be keen to refine. Home Again, about several generations of the same family forced to share a roof, has been created by the writers of My Family, while Green Green Grass is a spin-off from Only Fools and was penned by its creator, John Sullivan.

The head of BBC comedy, Sophie Clarke-Jervoise, said: "Comedy on BBC1 is by far the most difficult thing to do. The more that series don't do as well as expected, so the pool of writers who want to risk their necks on BBC1 gets smaller and smaller."

On a wider front, Goodwin believes Fincham's inclination will be to make the station feel more "classy". She said: "He can't help but to take the channel upmarket. Not that it's particularly downmarket, but his tastes are by nature more towards BBC2 or Channel 4. He's definitely not going to go down the route of plastic surgery shows. He will be looking for quality," she said.

Fincham, 48, is the first controller without a background at the BBC and although he has a strong pedigree, his position as an independent means that he has no pedigree in the black art of scheduling.

He does, however, have a background working across a number of genres. Recent successes for his former company have included The X Factor, Stephen Poliakoff's acclaimed drama The Lost Prince, and the Jamie Oliver ratings blockbuster Jamie's Kitchen.

"He is well aware of the idea of public service," said Talkback's commercial director Alex Mahon. "He has massive experience in drama, entertainment, comedy and factual. It is rare that you would find someone well versed in all those genres,"

Fincham joined Talkback - set up by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones - as a producer in 1985 when the firm was still working in radio and commercials and as a corporate video company. He became managing director in 1986 and in 1989 led the company's move into TV production.

During his years there, Fincham was executive producer of BBC shows such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks, I'm Alan Partridge, They Think It's All Over and The Lost Prince.

He was appointed chief executive in February 2003 when Talkback merged with Thames, the company behind shows such as Pop Idol, Family Affairs and The Bill. The merger made it the UK's largest independent production company.

Meanwhile, BBC1 has come in for a measure of criticism for its "me too" shows - thin copycats such as the Pop Idol-alike Fame Academy, and doubts raised about stretching successful formulas so far. After Strictly Come Dancing proved a hit, the format has transferred to the ice rink and in coming weeks there will be an African dance version.

On top of that is Strictly Dance Fever, a new show for Graham Norton that started last night. It has also raised questions about how best to use talent that the BBC has snapped up. It is the first BBC1 series for Norton, but comes a whole year after he transferred to the corporation in a golden handcuffs deal reputed to be worth in the region of £3.5m.

Many feel that one of Fincham's strengths will be to match the stars with the shows. "He's very creative and very good at working with the talent and nurturing ideas - picking them and backing them," said Mahon.

Another area needing attention is EastEnders. Its audiences - bludgeoned by dull characters and plots - have plummeted. Ratings showed that the series, now in its 21st year, hit another all-time low a week last Thursday, with just 6.2 million tuning in.

Efforts are already being made to revive the four-times-a-week soap with new figures on the creative team, but others warn that in a new era, BBC1 should avoid simply relying on soaps and continuing dramas for ratings and be more innovative. The scale of the problem of milking the old faithfuls is shown by the fact that 57 of the top 100 programmes on the station so far this year have been editions of EastEnders and BBC1's two long-running hospital series.

Will Wyatt, former chief executive of BBC Broadcast, said: "We have quite enough of those dramas like Holby City, Casualty and EastEnders - probably too many of them. What we need is a sense of surprise. On BBC1, probably the most important thing is not that we have more of a particular thing, but a good, wide range of programming across the week."

Jon Thoday, the managing director of Avalon Television, thought Fincham the perfect choice to revive the channel's fortunes. "Talkback is not a company that is known, by and large, for copying other programmes. I would hope Peter would go to the root of creative talent. What the BBC can afford to do is be original even in the mainstream - that's where BBC1 wants to be." Now it's up to Fincham.

DIARY

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