State of TV comedy is no joke

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The Independent Online
Two of comedy's old guard will attack television bosses at ITV and the BBC later this week for depriving creative talent of money and power.

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, writers of shows such as Birds of a Feather, The New Statesman and Goodnight, Sweetheart, will make their attack at the most prestigious occasion of the television year: The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival. Marks and Gran have described their speech as "biting the hand that feeds them". It will criticise BBC Director General John Birt and corporate bosses at ITV for starving producers, writers and directors of money and creative control.

They will propose that British TV mimic the American practice, where hits such as Friends have 40 per cent of their budget spent on writers. In Britain writers are likely to get no more than 4 per cent of the programme budget.

American situation comedies are thought more successful because big teams of gag-writers produce up to 32 episodes of a show a year. By contrast, teams of one or two that produce UK sitcoms can only deliver eight to 12 episodes a year. This makes it a longer process for viewers to get to know the characters in British comedies and for the programme to become a hit.

Mr Marks told the Observer yesterday: "We are calling our lecture "The Betrayal of Talent" because that is just what has happened in British television. "We've got nothing whatever to lose by stating the truth. It needs to be said since both the bosses and the system have badly let down the talent."

They say that the BBC is obsessed with factual programmes, and that ITV, whose comedy they think is in a much worse state than at the BBC, diverts funds from their creative talent to their shareholders.

Marks and Gran, who now run their own production company, Alomo Productions, want to see ITV and the BBC follow the Channel 4 model and commission programmes from independent producers.