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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Lead Systems Developer / Software Developer

COMPETITIVE + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Lead Systems Developer / Sof...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Engagement Manager - French or German Speaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The world's leading financial services careers...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive - 6 Months Contract

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Digital Marketing Executive...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Senior Account Manager

40-45K DOE + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Manager / Senior Account Manag...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future