There's something about the passage of time with people, which enables us to escape one cliché only to become another. Last week, Adrian Edmondson made the journey – pioneered by legends as disparate as Kingsley Amis and Johnny Rotten – from angry young man to grumpy old man. Edmondson, whose work with Rik Mayall was so violently exciting in the early 1980s, is still kicking against the pricks, only these days the pricks are, as it were, members of the corporation. He is, it appears, fed up with the hand that fed him.
"TV scripted comedy is so hard to get on that it's almost pointless trying," he told comedy website Digital Spy. "There's only one channel that make it and that's the BBC. And they are full of ********." I don't know what "********" is, but I doubt it's an eight-star rating.
It's a grumpy claim, but it's also one based on experience. Edmondson is no stranger to scripted comedy; he's in much of the best of it, from Channel 4's star-making Comic Strip shows to the BBC's own The Young Ones and Bottom (he was also a bit weird in Holby City, but that's probably not what he means by "scripted comedy"). And as he looks around now, he doesn't like what he sees, which is, according to Edmondson, "just lots of people being clever... lots of people just having the kind of conversation you would have at a dinner party". He singles out panel shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats (Channel 4, as it happens) and BBC's Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
Most of the dinner parties I go to aren't as funny as TV panel games (perhaps there's a panel game idea in that? Dinner Party, in which Sean Lock and Reginald D Hunter are asked where they're going for their holidays and whether they have found a good school for their children. I think I'll drop an email to Living TV). Despite this, I'd have to say that Edmondson has a point. Turning on the TV these days does seem to bring with it the risk of seeing five comedians in a row, two on each side of a host, in fairly interchangeable ranks. Often they are the same people. David Mitchell and Jimmy Carr both host panel shows and appear on other people's shows, frequently together. They are, fortunately, extremely good television comedians, excellent at the spontaneity and speed that a decent panel game needs, but it can be difficult to work out sometimes if you're watching QI, Have I Got News For You, 8 Out of 10 Cats or Would I Lie to You?
As Edmondson goes on to point out, it's almost always "all blokes". This is partly society's fault – the evils of the patriarchy trickling down into comedy – and partly because many women comics don't enjoy the neurotic competitiveness of quickfire panel games (at least one well-known female stand-up of my acquaintance hates the aggression and one-upmanship of these shows, where the joke that gets in is not the funniest, but the loudest and fastest).
Comics such as Sarah Millican and Jo Brand tend to thrive when they're given space to work, not when everyone is bellowing at each other.
So yes, there are lots of panel games, and they are a bit interchangeable – there's one for music, one for sport, one for news, one for know-alls and one for Chris Moyles – and there are too many men and we could do with a bit more variety both inside and outside the format. (It's been 20 years and still nobody has even piloted my panel game idea, The Tibetan Quiz of the Dead.)
There's a paucity of sketch shows. Even on Radio 4, the sketch show is less well represented than it might be, while, after the failure of a batch of sex-based sketch shows a few years ago, television seems to have abandoned the genre altogether. (It has been left, rather excitingly, to go feral in pubs and clubs hosted by clever, untelevised sketch comedy groups such as Oxford's The Awkward Silence). Variety, too, is in short supply, although I'd give a thumbs-up to both Harry Hill's TV Burp, a quite extraordinary surreal show for which, I admit, I write, and to The Rob Brydon Show, an excellent hybrid of chat and comedy.
Edmondson is right that about 80 per cent of channels make no comedy at all; even Dave, the repeat-filled Tardis of recent British comedy, makes hardly any original programming. It does, however, seem unfair to harangue the BBC for shouldering the burden of finding work for every comic talent in the UK on budgets that wouldn't buy a silver-topped cane on Downton Abbey.
The BBC is far from perfect. Apart from the NHS, it's the last great nationalised institution, and, like the NHS, it's a mixture of public brilliance, generosity of spirit and dumb bureaucracy controlled by people who should be working on the seabed instead of in cosy boardrooms. It can committee an idea to death and it has the classic big organisation's fear of actually producing anything (unlike small independent producers, nobody at the BBC can lose their job if they don't make a show). But it does makes comedy programmes. Lots of them. It made Miranda. It made Ricky Gervais' shows. It made Outnumbered, and The Thick of It, and Rev, and Marion and Geoff, and The Mighty Boosh and Mrs Brown's Boys. It makes popular comedy, and weird comedy – and things that aren't entirely comedy, like the brilliant Being Human and, when it's at its best, Doctor Who.
I don't want this piece to be an advert for the BBC. It moves very slowly. It's just cancelled Shooting Stars, and seems unable to give Reeves and Mortimer the millions they deserve. It still hasn't found a decent new sketch-show format. And any world that contains even repeats of Two Pints of Lager is one that no other intelligent space-faring civilisation would ever want to contact. But it is, as Edmondson points out, almost the only one doing it. Channel 4's commitment to comedy is improving but most of its satellite output still appears to be 1990s episodes of Friends (an old criticism that I'll stop repeating when it stops, er, repeating). Sky is spending millions on new comedy but doesn't have the audiences (the first episode of the BBC-rejected This Is Jinsy was apparently watched by only 50,000 people, which is less than might follow a cartoon cat on Twitter). And ITV still seems not to have moved on, sitcom-wise, from the early 2000s, when I was told by one of its executives that there was "no point" making situation comedies as they were too expensive and took too long to establish.
The BBC makes panel games because they're fairly cheap. It's also why it shows endless "comedy roadshows", where you can see one or other of the stand-up comedians from the panel games doing their material at the Hammersmith Apollo in front of big neon signs reading MICHAEL MCINTYRE. But it doesn't entirely fill up our screens with reality shows and celebrity competition shows.
It is, however, prone to the worst of television's current obsessions, the utterly pointless celebrity travelogue show, in which well-known people go to a place they know little or nothing about and make jokes about it. Sometimes these can be imaginative, true, as when Al Murray – famous for his rabidly xenophobic character the Pub Landlord – explored Germany and its culture in a reversal of his TV persona. But generally they aren't, and the programme consists entirely of a comedian going round Britain asking people what they do and interrupting them when they reply. These shows are almost entirely devoid of content, humour and entertainment, but they only cost a few train fares and a presenter's fee to make. Edmondson's Ade in Britain is on ITV this Friday at 4pm.
David Quantick writes for 'Harry Hill's TV Burp'Reuse content