Two of the most senior figures in British television comedy have accused the BBC of turning its back on younger audiences in favour of courting the high arts establishment.
In comments which are damaging to the BBC director general Tony Hall, Jimmy Mulville, the founder of Hat Trick Productions, which has produced some of the BBC’s most popular comedy shows, said that the broadcaster had “embarked on a mission focused on making itself irrelevant in 10 years’ time”.
In interviews to television trade magazine Broadcast, Mr Mulville and Ash Atalla, the producer of The Office and The IT Crowd, criticised the timing of a star-studded event convened by Lord Hall this week, in which the DG offered positions with the BBC to arts grandees from the Tate galleries and the National Theatre and promised the BBC would make its “greatest commitment to arts for a generation”.
They criticised the arts initiative, which saw roles offered to the Tate’s Sir Nicholas Serota and the National director Sir Nicholas Hytner, days after the announcement of the closure of the youth-orientated BBC3 channel. At an event attended by the actors Gemma Arterton and Tom Hollander and the dancer Darcey Bussell, Lord Hall set out plans for ambitious coverage of the Hay literary festival, Glyndebourne and numerous theatre and opera projects.
Mr Mulville said: “The message to young people is: we don’t want to serve you culturally, we want to serve the high arts.”
Mr Atalla, the founder of the independent production company Roughcut TV, which makes the Sky series Trollied and the new BBC iPlayer hit People Just Do Nothing, compared the BBC’s decision to close down BBC3 as a television channel while pouring added resources into the arts to an old man objecting to a night club’s music so he could “hear more Mozart next door”.
He said: “You can’t argue against the arts per se, that would be absurd. But you can when their promotion comes after a direct cut to youth, to comedy, to diversity. This is a daylight land-grab by a metropolitan elite. I was right – the Mozart has been turned up to number 11.”
Lord Hall is in a difficult position as he leads the BBC into the next round of negotiations for its funding under its Royal Charter, which runs out at the end of 2016. He is anxious to underline the broadcaster’s public service contribution as a producer of cultural content and it is crucially important that the BBC avoids criticism from the arts establishment over the quality of its output.
But in making BBC3 into an iPlayer-based service, in order to make savings cuts required after the BBC’s disappointing performance at the last round of licence fee negotiations, the organisation’s executive has come under fire from a noisy constituency which values the role of the young channel.
Many high-profile comedians, including Matt Lucas and Jack Whitehall, have rallied to a campaign aimed at saving the television channel, a protest that has mirrored a backlash to previous plans to axe the radio network BBC Radio 6 Music. Both Atalla and Mulville are part of a comedy industry that benefits from BBC3’s position on television. Hat Trick has produced numerous hits for the BBC including Harry Enfield’s Television Programme and The Kumars at No.42.