Serial killers

The creators of 'Shooting Stars' and 'Father Ted' may feel it is time to move on - but viewers may think otherwise. Untimely deaths or getting out while the going's good? By Thomas Sutcliffe

Any updated catechism of cliche would have to include the verb "axed", because it seems that no other tool will do when it comes to terminating a television series. The two most recent examples of the usage had an unusual twist, though, because this time it was no faceless bureaucratic executioner wielding the blade, but the victims themselves.

First of all, Reeves and Mortimer announced that they would not do another series of their hit game-show parody, Shooting Stars. Then, to a flutter of alarm at Channel Four and Hat Trick Productions, it was reported that Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews were minded to make the third series of Father Ted, the award-winning clerical comedy, the last. Both were reported to have "axed" their respective shows - implications of sudden and untimely death which raise the large question of just what the natural lifespan of a series is.

One of the reasons these decisions (or quasi-decisions) attracted so much attention was that they were, in effect, heretical - offending against the established principal that only commissioning editors or audiences should have the power to end television life. In truth, the creators were not proposing an act of euthanasia; they were simply declaring that they would not "officiously strive to keep alive". But in doing that at a time when both programmes were in full vigour, both critically and in terms of their viewing figures, the distinction was effectively erased. Success is so elusive in this field that not to cling to it when it turns up is bound to look either self-destructive or saintly.

The most famous case of restraint - Fawlty Towers - was immediately invoked, as television's canonical example of "knowing when to stop". In truth, Fawlty Towers demonstrates nothing but the difficulty of coming up with fixed rules for comedy success. Only 12 episodes of the series were made, a decision that has usually been put down to heroic clearsightedness on the part of John Cleese. But personal circumstances probably played as much part in that decision as any artistic rigour: Cleese had just separated from his wife and writing partner, Connie Booth, and a third series would have forced on them a rather perverse intimacy. "We feel that now we are separated we ought to live that way," said Cleese at the time. "Working on these scripts means you spend more time together than the average happily married couple."

There were ideas for a third series, in fact, and Cleese's fierce quality control would almost certainly have made the finished product just as durable as the two that preceded it. What Fawlty Towers does prove is that "knowing when to stop" may be a vice rather than a virtue. In common with nearly all comedy classics, success did not come at once - only when the repeats were shown was a disappointment converted to a triumph.

Geoffrey Perkins, Head of Comedy at the BBC, testifies to the importance of staying power - "one of the things that makes a show is familiarity with the audience", he says, pointing out a number of series that only found their feet towards the end of the second batch, when they could begin to exploit the audience's knowledge of the characters. In other words, a certain amount of indifference to the evidence of failure is necessary to make any success. This can make it even more difficult for a writer to judge the precise moment at which the gradient has turned. Sitcom writers might be likened to people climbing a mountain in thick mist - will the next step take you over the top, or just a little closer to a peak you cannot see? And the truth is that early retirement is not nearly as rare as the press coverage for those two announcements might suggest - what are rare are programmes good enough to make us feel the pang of separation.

Things are different in America. There, the economy of television production, in which syndication delivers immense monetary rewards (rewards which can only be attained with large numbers of episodes) exerts a natural pressure for very long runs. American productions are also better equipped to refresh long-running shows by rotating the large team of writers who work on scripts. In this country, with its cottage-industry model of production, the fatigue of an individual writer is far more likely to make itself felt in the end result. "Two people just don't want to write 200 episodes," points out Doug Naylor, who has himself just finished the seventh series of Red Dwarf.

He also doubts that the British system can ever field enough money to persuade writers to ignore their own instincts. He himself will not sign a contract for the eighth series of Red Dwarf until he is convinced that he can go the distance with new ideas. Channel Four originally asked the writers of Father Ted for a second series of 12; they insisted on six, finally delivering eight after inspiration exceeded their cautious predictions.

But what nobody is able to predict, however acute their comic judgement, is that moment at which the affection of the audience will suddenly curdle. (The Last of the Summer Wine, easily the longest-running British comedy, shows no signs of wearying its loyal viewers, despite the fact that its tales of geriatric mischief long ago lost all capacity for surprise.)

There could be no better evidence of the difficulty of second-guessing the viewers than Only Fools and Horses, a long-running success which (officially, at least) concluded this Christmas. John Sullivan called it a day not so much because he thought the show had run out of steam (character-based comedy will always have a much greater life-span than that dependent on farcical invention), but because he thought he might not get another chance to shape an ending for his creation. The difficulties in getting the cast together for filming (a difficulty generated in part by the show's success) proved to be such that he thought he should seize the moment. The result was the biggest viewing figure in television history - an extraordinary vote of confidence that would give the most resolute writer second thoughts about retirement (there has been light-hearted talk, apparently, about a millennium reunion for the inhabitants of Nelson Mandela House). As that experience and the fuss over Father Ted demonstrates, there are only two times to kill off a comedy series - too early or too late.

A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape