Just for laughs

The biggest successes in TV comedy are no longer innovative cult shows but old-fashioned sitcoms. Louise Jury goes to Montreux to discover why
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As the impressionists Alistair McGowan and Ronni Ancona, the stars of BBC's Alistair McGowan's Big Impression, mingled at the Montreux Television Festival at the weekend, they created quite a buzz. A similar buzz surrounded ITV's The Sketch Show, whose five stars received a rousing reception when they performed before the same international audience of television executives a couple of days earlier.

In the world of comedy, where to be new and topical has long been the imperative, what was being whispered sounded almost heretical. Isn't it brilliant, the word went, that these are shows that people really want to watch?

This is not cult television for a trendy cognoscenti, but genuine popular hits. These shows, along with My Family, the Robert Lindsay/Zoë Wanamaker sitcom, are a return to the mainstream.

If such a "return" sounds a barmy concept when the battle for mass audiences drives the schedules, consider where the interesting British comedy has lain in recent years. From Smack the Pony to Black Books and Spaced, it was definitely on the fringe. Even Father Ted and The League of Gentlemen came from left-field.

Yet Alistair McGowan says it is a far bigger challenge to do something funny that appeals to everybody – an audience of seven million in his case – than to do something that nobody has done before.

"The industry is obsessed by change," he says. "The majority of viewers aren't interested in what's new, they want quality, and a well-written show such asMy Family is what they want to watch. I balk at shows that do something new for the sake of it."

Surprisingly, Jon Thoday, the managing director of Avalon, the comedy specialists behind Frank Skinner and Harry Hill, says he has spent the last 10 years trying to get commissioners interested in something like The Sketch Show. Even in this incarnation, with five experienced, though not star-name, writer-performers, the BBC passed on it, leaving David Liddiment, ITV's director of channels, to snap it up.

Thoday says that The Sketch Show, with BBC2's The Office, marks a return to "proper laughs". "Chris Morris's show set out to be outrageous, and it got lots of press coverage and no viewers. These two shows have brought funny back to comedy. This marks a turning point."

Charlie Hanson, whose next project is a new ITV comedy starring Rik Mayall, and who has produced everything from Birds of a Feather to The Sketch Show, says that for years most good comedians gravitated towards BBC2 and Channel 4.

"I did a lot of stuff for Channel 4 and I always thought I had more freedom there. Then you realise that even if you're on a top-rated show on Channel 4 or BBC2, the most viewers you're ever going to get is five million – or three million today," he says.

"We producers and directors are to blame. We all want to be associated with the trendy, cult shows, but someone has to make popular shows that the family can watch. I'd like to think you can be hip and populist."

Perhaps populism has been too long under-valued in British comedy. Fred Barron, a co-writer of My Family, who came to Britain after writing US hits such as Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, is perplexed at the negative reaction to My Family which, with 11 million viewers a week once you throw in the repeat, is Britain's top-rated sitcom. "Doesn't the British press like sitcoms?" he asks.

Critics may argue that such "good old-fashioned entertainment" is simply hard-pressed television commissioners relying on the tried and tested, and that attention is being paid to family entertainment because there is a dearth of shows that suit the 8pm-9pm, pre-watershed prime-time slot. But an alternative vision still exists.

Channel 4 has just announced that it has signed Garth Marenghi, the comic-horror trio who won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival last year, for a series. The fringe circuit that produced Lee Mack and Tim Vine of The Sketch Show, Dylan Moran of Black Books, Graham Norton and a host of others is still a fertile ground for comic talent. Asked to name potential stars of the next year or two, those in the know cite names such as Andy Zaltzman, Catherine Tait and Rob Dearing, currently on the comedy fringe but all ripe for television fame.

Peter Bennett-Jones, who runs Tiger Aspect, the independent production company behindMr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley, says talent is the key, wherever it comes from. "Alistair McGowans and Victoria Woods don't grow on trees. Lots of people are good; the really exceptional is a rarity."

Just as Channel 4 sponsors the Perrier Award partly in a bid to encourage new talent, the BBC has recently been involved in an attempt to discover stars of the future. Northern Exposure, which has funded new writers in the north of England, discovered Angela Clarke, sister of the actor Margi Clarke. Her first comedy, Eyes Down, starring Paul O'Grady (Lily Savage), will get underway as soon as O'Grady has recovered from his heart attack.

Asked for his predictions, Jon Plowman, the BBC's head of comedy entertainment, says that the joke you already know doesn't make you laugh. All he knows is that the next big thing in comedy will be a surprise.

Geoffrey Perkins, formerly the BBC's head of comedy and now with Tiger Aspect, recalls how, shortly before Lord Birt ended his tenure as director general of the BBC, he asked him to look at the comedy hits of the last couple of decades to ascertain whether there were any common trends. There weren't.

"A lot of the shows that were hits weren't expected to be," he says. "If your approach is 'Can I have another one of these, please?' you're probably on the wrong track."

A Montreux juror rubs his eyes in disbelief

As one of the judges at this year's festival, I can only marvel (nervously) at Continental variety shows. Take Ciao Darwin, on Italy's Canale 5, a one-hour spectacular that features rival teams of "progressives" (lap-dancers, transvestites) and "moralists" (churchgoers, council leaders). The two teams compete in a series of You Bet-style challenges (but with more nudity) in an attempt to find the "dominant characteristics" of the third millennium.

The most bizarre show at this year's Montreux was surely Germany's TV TotalDer Boxkampf, in which the TV presenter Stefan Raab stepped into the ring with the women's world boxing champion, Regina Halmich.

The portly Raab, at nearly 90kg, weighed in at twice the pint-sized Halmich's weight, and the five-round mismatch was as painful to watch as the bruising around Halmich's eye must have been the following day.

Most worrying was Stalkshow (from the Netherlands), in which the host, Bart de Graaff, spends all day – and night – stalking a celebrity, in this case the Dutch football star Patrick Kluivert.

"He overwhelms them with presents and finally tries to fulfil a stalker's greatest dream," boast the programme-makers: "to spend the night in their bed."

Kluivert acts with admirable restraint as De Graaff asks to share the bed with him and his wife. The presenter eventually ends up in the spare bedroom.

John Plunkett