No laughing matter: Moves to make BBC Three online-only may fall flat


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When the BBC’s digital comedy and youth channel, BBC Three, was launched a little over five years ago, it was with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

The number feels less magical now that BBC management seems determined to make it a web-based channel, on commercial grounds. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but there are others who feel that they can make the channel work, and there seems little reason not to allow them the chance to do just that.

Comedy, it might be said, is a magical thing, and the BBC has proved its wizardry in the field over many decades, from The Goons and Tony Hancock to Monty Python and The Office and W1A. BBC Radio 4 and BBC Two provided reliable testing beds for the best in new comedy (new genres and techniques as much as new performers and writers). From those channels emerged such national satirical treasures as Ricky Gervais, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, not to mention Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), John Shuttleworth (Graham Fellows) and Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney) – all characters with a truly Dickensian quality (which is a good thing, by the way).

And yet the BBC has never had a monopoly on comedy, as the admittedly uneven successes of Channel 4 prove (thanks to C4 for Father Ted, Phoenix Nights and Peep Show). The demand for free-to-air humour has never been greater, perhaps more so now that there is so much hardship in the real world. We need comedy to relieve the tension, satirise the evils that threaten us and, well, just make us laugh.

In a time of austerity, with a sceptic installed as Culture Secretary, and a difficult licence fee negotiation impending, selling off BBC Three, as is suggested on page 38, might be good for both the nation’s health and Auntie’s finances. Whatever happens to the channel, let this voice of youth not be lost to us forever.