Ian Burrell: Comedy will be key if BBC3 wants to keep its youthful audience happy

Viewpoint: BBC3 effectively concentrates on only two genres: comedy and factual
  • @iburrell

Did you ever wonder what became of Heydon Prowse? He was the prankster who filmed the Conservative frontbencher Alan Duncan on the House of Commons terrace claiming at the time of the Westminster expenses scandal that MPs "have to live on rations and are treated like shit".

Since then Prowse and his sidekick Jolyon Rubinstein have continued making films lampooning the powerful, in collaboration with Don't Panic magazine. And now they have a show on the BBC. In one previous stunt, Prowse and Rubinstein dressed as fashionistas and tricked staff at Top Shop's flagship London store into installing a window display espousing "The Monaco Look", a mannequin in a T-shirt advising passers-by of Sir Philip Green's fondness for the tax haven.

In a film made during the peaceful Occupy the London Stock Exchange protest last year, they provocatively mingled with the docile crowds by posing as a film crew from "Fox News UK" in helmets and flak jackets. "I feel threatened, it's total chaos, total anarchy, we've just got to get out really fast." The humour is in the way the well-meaning protesters and police officers are outraged by the coverage.

These films caught the attention of Zai Bennett, controller of BBC3, who has commissioned Prowse and Rubinstein to make a six-episode series, provisionally-titled The Revolution Will Be Televised, to be broadcast in May. "They have got the most huge balls, they're nuts – but in a good way," he says.

Bennett, one of the star young executives of the British television industry, has been in charge of the BBC's youth channel for a year after being poached from ITV. He earned his reputation by bringing a young audience to ITV2 for shows such as The Only Way is Essex. But it is the genre of comedy that dominates his thoughts at BBC3. "I can't overstate the importance of comedy," he says. "If you get comedy right it can define your channel."

He picks out two more of his new commissions as examples of "where I want BBC3 comedy to be". The Californian actor Andy Samberg stars in Cuckoo, playing an idle young hippie who a British girl introduces to her parents as her new husband as she arrives home from a gap year. The tension between Samberg's character and an overprotective father played by Greg Davies (the headmaster from The Inbetweeners) sounds like rich comedy material. Then there's Bad Education, a school-based script written by comedian Jack Whitehall – who is only 23 and stars in the show as a highly immature teacher.

BBC3's budget has frequently been questioned. It took a 20% cut before Bennett joined and he is implementing a further 15% saving which will see the channel effectively concentrating on only two genres; comedy and factual.

When it gets factual shows right, BBC3's 16-34 year-old audience responds enthusiastically. It has scored the highest AI (Appreciation Index) figures of any BBC channel, for shows such as last year's Alex: A Life in Fast Forward about a 21-year-old with bone cancer.

It is one of only two BBC channels designated to show the Olympics and its coverage will have a more youthful tone, fronted by Jake Humphrey, 33. "We have an opportunity with a lot of people who have not watched the channel before," says Bennett. "We want to convince them it's a good thing for BBC3 to exist." He no longer has to make that argument with many younger viewers. "In television as a whole youth audiences are extremely unhappy with the way they are portrayed," he says, quoting new research. "BBC3 is one of the few exceptions to that."