British television 'failing to make long running hits'

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The American producer behind The Cosby Show and Roseanne, who the BBC hopes will help revitalise its comedy slate, has claimed that British television is failing to make long running hits such as The Sopranos because it has created an artificial barrier between the genres of drama and comedy.

Caryn Mandabach, whose first British-made show, In With The Flynns, is being shown on prime time on BBC1, complained that the entrenched culture of British television was to treat comedy and drama as two separate departments, while most hit television shows and feature films combine elements of both. “The one thing that is good about American television is that they seem more at ease with their comedy and drama being in the same product. The lines that are drawn here between drama and comedy are unnecessary because in most hits in America there is an element of comedy in the drama and vice versa,” she said. “The Sopranos, I think it’s kind of funny, you know what I mean?”

She said that American cable network HBO had bought Dirty, a show by Shameless writer Danny Brocklehurst after she had previously offered it to the BBC. Dirty, a comedy about a philandering police officer, is directed by the Oscar-winning British director Andrea Arnold (whose credits include the feature films Red Road and Fish Tank). “The BBC didn’t want to do it so I sold it to HBO,” said Mandabach. “I think it could have been a smashing show for the BBC but I’m pushing against a really closed door when we are talking about that form, and that form is called just good television.” She cited Shameless as the British show which showed how comedy and drama could be combined.

Mandabach, who also made the US shows 3rd Rock from the Sun and Cybill, moved to live in London in 2005 and is also the woman behind medical comedy-drama Nurse Jackie, which is about to begin its third series on the BBC. “It was acquired [from the United States] and if I had pitched it here they wouldn’t have bought it.”

She said that it seemed obvious to her that comedy and drama should freely mix but that she was fighting against a television culture that had been established over 70 years. “If I could say anything to the industry it would be ‘Take down that wall Mr Gorbachev!’”

Mandabach, who produced 201 episodes of The Cosby Show and executive produced all 222 episodes of Roseanne, said that she believed that narrative-based television was “in peril”, under threat from the economic recession and the preference of broadcasters for cheap reality television formats. “I think it shouldn’t be called reality television…it should be called manipulated reality product,” she said. “It has no repeat value, so long term it’s not a great business,” she said. “The broadcasters have a desire to brand themselves and they can brand themselves with cheaper programming. The cost of narrative programming is more expensive than reality product and the cost of bringing a cast and crew back for a second season is a big chunk of change.”

Despite her concerns, she said she had no regrets about setting up in London (she also retains a base in Los Angeles). She said that American television had “an astonishing failure rate”. “You have such great talent in this country,” she said. “Pound for pound, there are fabulous writers, fabulous directors and fabulous actors.”

The BBC’s relationship with Mandabach follows the broadcaster’s tie-up with American producer Fred Barron, creator of sitcom My Family, which returns for an 11th series on BBC1 on Friday. In With The Flynns has developed some of the stories first explored in the New York-based comedy Grounded for Life, which Mandabach made for the Fox Network. Like the BBC show, which is produced by Jamie Glazebrook (The IT Crowd and Man Stroke Woman) and stars Will Mellor and Niki Wardley, the American series also featured a family with Irish roots.

Mandabach is confident that, despite a lukewarm response from critics, In With The Flynns will be re-commissioned and that the second series would be filmed in Manchester (where it is set). She believes the subject matter – the challenges faced by a loving couple of young working-class parents – offers great potential for international sales. “A young family with children should travel, so we are in a very good place,” she says. “The reason I like the show is that it’s just like my family.”

In With The Flynns is on BBC1 at 8.30pm on Wednesdays

My Family is on BBC1 at 9pm on Fridays