When Mark Thompson, the BBC's new director general, revealed his vision of the future at the Edinburgh Television Festival, he will have known that he was telling most decent, right-thinking people the sort of thing that they wanted to hear. The new BBC would have less reality television (hurrah!), fewer lifestyle programmes (yippee!), although the best of them, like Top Gear, would survive (boo!). Instead, the quest would be for excellence (big news only for those who assumed that the corporation had hitherto been striving for the quite good) while the emphasis in commissioning new programmes would be shifted towards genres that provided public value in a clear and demonstrable way.
Chief among these genres would be comedy. Most of us like to laugh and, as it never ceases to remind us, the BBC has down the years played an important part in bringing comic performers and writers to prominence. There might have been one or two raised eyebrows among the suits in Edinburgh when Mark Thompson argued that the corporation's role as laughter-maker was as pivotal as its role in news, but most will have agreed that comedy is more than mere entertainment. As the director general said: "It plays a critical part in reflecting our national culture and the way we live now."
This comment was well-timed. A new generation of British comedians, notably Ricky Gervais, Rob Brydon and Peter Kay have recently broken through to mainstream audiences. The astonishing Sacha Baron Cohen has cracked the American market. It seems to be generally accepted that, as Nicholas Barber put it in an article last weekend, "comedy currently operates at a level that's never been topped".
But, if it really does reflect our national culture, what an unattractively smug, self-deluding image it reveals. In Barber's article, leading figures on the stand-up circuit were invited to select comedians they thought the best, and worst, in the business. Unsurprisingly - this is showbiz, after all - most were reluctant to make nominations in the more negative of the two categories, but those daring enough to speak up seemed to agree that one comedian, above all, deserved the wooden spoon. It had to be Jim Davidson. "Everything he's ever done has been poor from beginning to end," Jeremy Hardy said.
It is at times like these I begin to worry about my sense of humour and indeed my sanity. I saw Hardy's show at Edinburgh. For an hour, he ranged over such subjects as private schools, middle age, Iraq and Mark Thatcher. He was a huge hit with an audience of fans who crowed with laughter at every right-on joke and cheered a biliously gleeful routine about how much the hated Baroness Thatcher would be suffering right now.
The show was fluent, intelligent and mildly entertaining but contained as few surprises as a George Bush speech. The subjects were as predictable as the satirist's politics and point of view. Perhaps it is embarrassing confession to make but I know that, even on a bad night, Jim "Nick Nick" Davidson would in a single minute have elicited more laughter from me - uncomfortable, embarrassed but genuine laughter - than was extracted during that long, dutiful hour in the presence of Hardy.
Is it possible that those who responded to Hardy's jokes with the unquestioning hilarity of a coach-load of out-of-towners at a West End farce were not expressing real amusement so much as pleasure at seeing their own views served up as entertainment? Could it be that the reason why it is fine for stand-up stars to sneer at Davidson is that he is rampaging outside a cosy corral of like-minded liberals?
If that is true, then comedy of the type that Thompson wants to encourage and develop is not subversive and daring, as the comedy industry likes to claim, but collusive. The product may be zany or savage, satirical or offbeat, but the worldview behind it is essentially the same. Even when we are being agonisingly entertained by masters of the new comedy of embarrassment, we know that their perspective is impeccably correct. Peter Kay may roll around in a wheelchair in Phoenix Nights, or Sacha Baron Cohen might, as his character Borat, lead a bunch of Americans at a country and western bar in a chorus of his folk song "Throw the Jew Down the Well", but the discomfort of viewers is skin-deep. The jokes are never close to home but are aimed, reassuringly, at those of whom all sensible folk disapprove - the right-wing, the powerful, the bigoted, the downright stupid.
This may indeed be a golden age of comedy, but there is something faintly sinister about a great school of humour that presents itself as cutting, satirical and dangerous but which is providing comfort viewing for an unquestioning majority. Much as I enjoy watching David Brent, Borat or Keith Barrett, I hope the BBC's search for comedic excellence takes it beyond the Perrier Award circuit, and the stand-up boys and girls with their interchangeable political views, towards comedy that is truly unsettling and subversive.Reuse content