Paul Schlesinger: 'Come on, then, make me laugh'

From radio to TV is the classic route for the greatest comedy shows. But now it's under threat. The man who has the job of putting jokes on to the BBC airwaves tells Jane Thynne what he's doing about it
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The Independent Online

It is impossible not to think of Ricky Gervais as you tread the grey, institutional corridors of Henry Wood House, where BBC Radio Entertainment has its nerve centre. Not because of the open-plan work stations, the pot plants and the photocopiers, nor because the boss resembles David Brent. It's because of the impact that Gervais's iconic sitcom has had on comedy itself.

"The Office really changed things for comedy," says Paul Schlesinger, BBC Radio's head of entertainment and a man whose anxious, self-effacing air seems slightly at odds with the job of making everyone laugh. "It was part of a move, which also included things like Nighty Night and People Like Us, towards niche comedy; what you might call the comedy of embarrassment, which edged away from laugh-out-loud shows."

The impact of that trend away from old-style mass audience amusement has affected the entire landscape of broadcast comedy and nowhere more so than at Radio 4, a traditional seedbed for comedies that go on to big-time televisual success.

Like Marmite, Radio 4 comedy shows produce strong reactions. People who adore The News Quiz will lunge for the off switch at the opening bars of Quote Unquote. Fans of The Write Stuff shudder at sharing a network with Loose Ends. In the past, the BBC has complacently regarded this curate's egg as triumphant proof of fulfilling its charter requirement to cater for all tastes.

But now there's a new mood. Executives admit there is a lack of writing talent coming through the ranks and an over-reliance on established names. This absence of fresh performers struck Schlesinger as soon as he did the rounds when he moved into his post almost a year ago.

"Tom [Jamieson] and Nev [Fountain], who started Dead Ringers, were still the only writers on it six years later. When I asked why, they said, 'Well, there's no one coming through.' That impression is mirrored by talking to people in this department - the same five or six names keep coming up. Very good they are, but the thing is to try to get another wave."

So is Radio 4's status as launch-pad for successful comedy under threat? "It's not that the talent isn't out there but the landscape's changed a lot. Let's be honest; whereas 10 years ago radio comedy was the first port of call, it no longer is, and we have to work a lot harder to ensure that that flow comes in. New comedians are looking at BBC3 or E4 and all the support channels are after the same talent as we are.

"Whereas Goodness Gracious Me and The League of Gentlemen would once have come through us, they would now seriously consider jumping over the radio hoop. So when I took on this job there were two really big things to do - one was to reinvigorate the formats, and the other to find new writers and performers."

How exactly does one become a radio comedy performer? Traditional stereotypes suggest that the Cambridge Footlights, stand-up comedy and alcoholism help, but Schlesinger says performers need to be properly trained. "It's hard for people to come in - stand-up is a completely different discipline and it's difficult to make it work on radio. The skill of writing to a brief and writing sketches has been lost."

To this end, the BBC has launched Show Me the Funny, a talent search for writers and performers. The performing part, Witty and Twisted, invites would-be comedians to send in their showreels, while Sketch Factor propels new writers towards a late-night Radio 4 series called Recorded For Training Purposes.

"We're making a real commitment to writers. If they're chosen they will be on that show and paid for the duration of the series as salaried writers in a similar model to American writing teams," Schlesinger says.

"Recorded For Training Purposes looks at the world of communications, where technology has pushed forward yet we're not really talking to each other at all. Things like podcasts and blogs. We made a pilot, which is streamed online so people can look at it and then write specifically for the existing characters. Half the team will be established writers and they will script-edit the new ones."

Which, like many BBC programme innovations, sounds a lot like something you've heard of before; in this case, Radio 4's defunct series Weekending, which for many years served as an informal entry point for new writers to the BBC, and which gave Schlesinger his first radio job in 1991. Having attended a couple of script sessions of Weekending myself, I remember an atmosphere of a very witty student party, with writers sitting around and indulging in a quickfire stream of consciousness, with the good jokes getting written into the script.

This time, however, the spirit of Birtspeak hovers over the comic process. New writers will be "mentored" by existing writers, and attend workshops. "They'll come and do their workshops all round the country in place like Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle, and writers and producers will elicit what their idea is and explore it more. Jeremy Dyson, Stewart Lee and Graham Fellowes have already been approached to be mentors," Schlesinger says.

And yet... what will this do to the anarchic spirit of comedy? It's hard to imagine Tony Hancock in a mentoring session. Peter Cook in a "producer-led talent workshop initiative" sounds like a sketch in itself. And what about the casual, alcohol-soaked genesis of Monty Python as recounted in Michael Palin's memoirs, even now being serialised on Radio 4?

Schlesinger is having none of it. "Of course you have people who know totally what they want, but on sketch-writing there is an element of learning your trade. Having gone through that system myself and seeing what came out of it, it's more like a comedy dating agency. Like when Armando Iannucci was producing Weekending, he met up with Stewart Lee and created On the Hour, which became The Day Today, which I script-edited."

The whole point of radio compared to television, he believes, is that it frees writers and performers to experiment without needing to worry about the visuals. Which is crucial, he says, because comedy right now is at a crunch point and badly needs experimentation. The BBC has, of course, been brainstorming this issue via something called the Creative Futures Team.

That does not in itself sound a barrel of laughs, but Schlesinger says it has made important discoveries. "It's interesting to look at what's happened to BBC1. When people are asked what they see as BBC comedy, most would say big BBC shows like Porridge and Fawlty Towers. Yet on BBC1 there haven't been many recent hits and the path is littered with casualties. That's because the trend is away from laugh-out-loud comedy towards cringe comedy, or niche comedy, like Extras."

In fact, to encapsulate BBC1's problems, just think of the old-style sitcom satirised by Gervais in Extras. "There's nowhere to hide when you're doing mainstream comedy. The characters have to be absolutely compelling. People generally weren't bothered by whether something was too middle class; what bothered them was the inauthenticity of what was portrayed. It didn't feel real or rooted in anything."

So comedy directors are experimenting both with new formats and a new style. "Everyone's attempting to make those sitcoms more up to date. The way they were shot and made, it was like a strange hybrid of television and theatre. But if you think about cutting and lighting like in The Thick of It, you get away from that projected huge operatic feeling and get something altogether more believable."

Having spent time both in television and radio, and currently straddling the two by producing a new TV series of People Like Us, Schlesinger is ideally placed to develop the synergy. "The collaboration between television and radio is important and there needs to be more of it. In radio, the exciting thing would be to see how we get the established talent to come back and try new things. Like, on Radio 2 we have a new show called Teenage Kicks, which has Ade Edmondson 20 years on from The Young Ones.

"We also want a higher ratio of built comedy shows. The stand-up circuit has created a cast of people who can slot in, but the things that last, like The Office and Drop the Dead Donkey, are written comedies, and they're very hard to create. I think there needs to be more originations of comedy at 6.30pm on Radio 4, and I'm also pushing for a new slot on Friday nights at 11pm. We've currently got Matt Lucas doing a fantastic new sketch show for that called Watercooler, which is set in the workplace."

Ask Schlesinger about his own enthusiasms and he ticks off the usual metropolitan passions of The Thick of It, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras and Mitchell and Webb. But his chief enthusiasm is for the comic intimacy of the pitch.

"I've never been in a job like this before. In television there's a huge army of logistics, but in radio it's basically the writer and director. They come and pitch to me and those are the moments I relish, when you have a meeting and find a good idea and laugh. There's so much flying around at the BBC in terms of value for money, public value tests and all of this stuff for people in management, so it's important to keep tabs on why you're actually doing the job."

Top 10: the best of what the small screen inherited

Hancock's Half-Hour

Groundbreaking radio comedy when it appeared 1954, in which Tony Hancock starred with Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams. The TV version appeared in 1956, and production of screen and radio versions alternated until 1961.

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

After a year on Radio 4, the improvisation game-show moved to Channel 4 in 1988. Both were hosted by Clive Anderson.

Dead Ringers

The caricature show first aired on Radio 4 in 2000, before moving to BBC2 in 2002. Celebrities and politicians have been mimicked byartists including Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Phil Cornwell and Alistair McGowan.

Goodness Gracious Me

This show hit screens on BBC2, before the third series had aired on Radio 4, in 1998. It developed the careers of members including Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar.

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Steve Coogan's first full-length incarnation as Alan Partridge aired on for one series on BBC Radio 4 in 1992, before moving to television in 1994.

The Day Today

Armando Iannucci's brainchild started as On The Hour on Radio 4 in 1991, and fronted by its co-creator Chris Morris. The cast moved on to BBC2 in 1994. Introduces Alan Partridge.

The League of Gentlemen

This black comedy began on Radio 4 in 1997 afterEdinburgh Fringe Festival. Its characters moved to BBC2 in 1999, and have been in a film.

Little Britain

Debuted on Radio 4 in 2000 before moving to BBC3 in 2003. Voice-overs from Tom Baker, along with characters including Vicky Pollard, catapulted Matt Lucas and David Walliams to comedy stardom.

They Think It's All Over

Des Lynam hosted the sports game show on Radio 5 in 1992, but Nick Hancock took over when it crossed to BBC1 in 1995. Panellists have included Gary Lineker and Boris Becker.

Room 101

Radio 5 originally broadcast this show about pet hates in 1993, when it was hosted by Nick Hancock. Moved to BBC2 in 1994. Paul Merton took over in 1999.