January 11, 2004



Well, now that the Big Read has wound up - Lord of the Rings the best novel ever, anyone? - the BBC tries the same trick with British situation comedies. The public have been polled about their favourite sitcoms and the Top Fifty, as presented by Jonathan Ross this evening, was a largely predictable run through the usual suspects, interupted by the odd perplexing interloper - the woefully average My Family achieving any sort of placing was distressing enough, but the Vicar of Dibley reaching the top ten (some twenty odd places higher than Hancock and Reggie Perrin) really was a joke, one that Ross couldn't resist a gratifying sneer at. I fully expect Dad's Army , which, like The Two Ronnies, Tommy Cooper, and Laurel and Hardy, I've always found faintly exasperating rather than funny, to win.

Unlike drama, which is dead on British TV these days, comedy is something that television here still does well. The Office, League of Gentlemen (which despite not being a sitcom featured in tonight's rundown), Peep Show, Phoenix Nights... These are comedies as good as anything British TV has ever produced.

A slight caveat. OK, The Office has definitively jumped the shark. Taking Brent out of the office in the Christmas specials destroyed the central conceit and with it much of the humour. The Office went the way of Alan Partridge: what had began as a structural critique ended up as the personal lampooning of one man. Alan Partridge was funny initially not because of Partridge's cluelessness but because such a buffoon was allowed to have a broadcasting career. (And anyone who thinks that the BBC is way too cool and knowing for Partridge-style light entertainment didn't watch the frankly painful Eastenders Christmas Special). In the same way, The Office lost its satiric point once Brent was sacked. Now the target wasn't bosses and office culture but Brent's pathetic absurdity. The setting up Brent as a minor mini-celebrity (who's slipped, lightning quick, from Barely Was to Has Been) was a creditable enough attempt to extract laughs from the grim phenomenon of docusoap micro-fame (witness the scene with Brent on stage with Bubble of Big Brother and that bloke off the Halifax ads), but this kind of meta-awareness is always a sign of senescence.

On Drama by the way. It really is poor, isn't it: the BBC imagining that lavish costumes and period detail will substitute for innovation or, to coin a phrase, relevance, but even at its worst still streets ahead of ITV's lacklustre efforts. There's a curiously un-ITV quality about its showcase Dramas. ITV is usually idiot-TV, monkey-TV, two-second attention span-TV, but when it turns to drama, ITV turns all ponderous and laborious. I did my best to sit through The Mayor of Casterbridge at Christmas, but it was catatonically, body-numbingly slow: as if the all that conspicuous Gloss has hardened and hardened, calcifying everything. And as for those Kemp (Martin and/ or Ross) Drama Specials: they are less like star vehicles than versions of Jacob Marley's chains, money money everywhere, but weighing the productions down rather than liberating them. The fact is, ITV's Drama department has almost no instinct for drama: for pacing, for the simple but elusive art of making you want to know what will happen next.

Posted by mark at January 11, 2004 01:32 AM | TrackBack

mark: I look forward to your script. It must be fucking brilliant

Posted by: at January 11, 2004 03:23 AM

Sadly not. But what I've said comes from a sense of disappointment, not from a feeling of smug superiority, as I imagine you're implying. I'm comparing TV drama not to any attempts of my own - which would no doubt be risible - but to what it used to be like. Potter, Kneale: their likes are unimaginable now.

Posted by: mark k-punk at January 11, 2004 12:26 PM

nostalgia is about missing the point. People might long for the BBC to nurture talent as it did in the past (as if it ever did!), but they miss the fact that they can do it all themselves if they want - they can nurture themselves. If someone wanted to, they could make a sitcom on dv and post it on the net for about a grand. But they don't. Why? Because writing is hard work. Everyone's got the time to write, but hardly anyone does. I think at least 3 of the top sitcoms had the same writing team didn't they? With drama, it looks like the new Shameless will be one that people will admire, it won't quite reach our memories of Boys from the blackstuff, or numerous Potter plays, but...well those are just two writers out of almost three decades - not many of 'em are there? I will persist: write one yourself.

Posted by: at January 12, 2004 12:21 AM

> I look forward to your script. It must be fucking brilliant

Rather than submit scripts unlikely to make it past Jane Root's sense of humour, surely it would be more profitable to analyse the institutional reasons for the commission of lazy derivate shit (how I'm looking forward to Jam performed by washed-up celebs!)

> If someone wanted to, they could make a sitcom on dv and post it on the net for about a grand.

Assuming that cast and crew are willing to work for free. The going rate for a single episode of a thirty-minute sitcom is 200k.

Posted by: michael at January 12, 2004 11:44 AM

Technical production and style over investment in writing/experimental production every time.
It's easier and safer to make - and no doubt to watch - a vacuous technically-perfected simulacra of 'quality TV' (ie the multiple sub-Morse detective dramas, shitty uninformative blurry-stock-footage documentaries) than to take the risk of making something different. Unless, even better, you can get away with a repackage of previous successes with a minor celebrity talking you through it.

re: brent's pop video. Totally unnecessary and counterproductive, I thought, taking The Office into the realm of reflexive TV. And a example of the embarassing way people always seem to feel they have to throw money at something once its become popular, even though it obviously gained that success _without_ a gargantuan production budget. All I could think of as I was watching the Brent vid was how it probably cost as much as an _actual_ shit pop video and added nothing to the show except a(nother) smug BBC back-pat. Production crew having a field day "cos actually pop videos are what I really want to move into eventually, I know all the techniques, a mate of mine in Soho knows the guy who did the CGI on Bjork's latest, I'm actually just working here until I get my big break..."

Posted by: undercurrent at January 12, 2004 12:19 PM

Tommy Cooper exasperating?????

Posted by: oliver at January 12, 2004 12:30 PM

> re: brent's pop video

Inexplicably shown in full, rather than, as would have been more appropriate for the genre being spoofed, as a short excerpt. The BBC (i.e. Gervais) leaks a rumour to The People about If You Don't Know Me By Now being released as a single, and then Gervais writes to The Sun to protest that it isn't.

Dear Bizarre,

Firstly I'd like to thank The Sun and Radio 1 for their continued support but I'm afraid I won't be releasing If You Don't Know Me By Now as a single.

There are a number of reasons for this. I think the reason people liked it was its context as much as its content and I've always been very careful that David Brent and his antics only exist in the TV series and not outside.

In the show, Brent releasing a single makes him a sad wannabe seeking fame and money. Releasing the single in the real world makes ME that person.

I hate celebrities, actors or comedians "having a go" at a pop career. However high up the charts they get, it doesn't count.

And finally, I've only just forgiven Billy Connolly for In The Brownies and he's the best comedian in Britain.

The good news is, we are putting a full version of the video for If You Don't Know Me on the Xmas Special DVD due out some time later in the year.

So if people still care by then they can own it without having to go through watching me on Top Of The Pops.

Have a great New Year,

Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais is currently making training videos for internal use by Microsoft UK.

Posted by: michael at January 12, 2004 02:35 PM

Gervais was always (perhaps purposefully, perhaps rightly) putting himself in the firing line giving all those interviews talking about all the work offers he'd turned down and how he wouldn't do something 'just for the money' and it 'had to be right'. A misjudgement like the pop video I can forgive (like you say, 5 seconds would have been enough. and oh, what a surprise that they made the _whole_ video for DVD release. I wonder if there's a 'making of the spoof video' feature too?). The microsoft thing is just sick!

Posted by: undercurrent at January 12, 2004 03:24 PM

> money money everywhere

Ironically, ITV's all but bankrupt. The main effect has been for it to leave completed dramas in the can, because its contracts allow it to delay coughing up until the actual transmission.

Isn't the issue with TV drama more specifically to do with the fact that entire genres comedy, drama have been hijacked to executives' notions of what would satisfy a particular target demographic, effectively killing off the esoteric, experimental or otherwise just demanding (and banishing what survives to digital)?

One could ask where can an (unknown) dramatist with a relatively singular vision find an output for formally innovative work that rattles its audience's preconceptions. The answer 25 years ago would have been Play For Today or Second City Firsts what's the answer now?

And don't say Doctors.

Posted by: michael at January 12, 2004 03:45 PM

>One could ask where can an (unknown) dramatist
>with a relatively singular vision find an output
>for formally innovative work that rattles its
>audience's preconceptions.

They could always start a blog wherein to 'nurture themselves'.

Posted by: undercurrent at January 12, 2004 05:09 PM

As long as they wash their hands afterwards. In Dettol.

Posted by: michael at January 12, 2004 05:18 PM

and no moaning. Keep it positive, for Vauung's sake!

Posted by: undercurrent at January 12, 2004 05:31 PM

Let A Hundred Currencies Bloom

A two-hour HSBC drama premiere exploring tariff-free trade between the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong and the Mainland, with Niamh Cusack as a futures trader. You know from the beginning that she won't take her clothes off, and as a gentleman I wouldn't want her to.

Posted by: michael at January 12, 2004 05:52 PM

actually, the Junkies cost 6000, not 200, 000. And yes, nobody got paid. Isn't that awful? You wouldn't like that would you, if you did something quite good and you didn't get any MONEY. You deserve some MONEY. No, you're quite right. I'll get me coat

Posted by: at January 12, 2004 08:33 PM

If you're already a bunch of fairly successful TV comedians that helps...for a start, you might have 6000 spare quid to spend. It's surely unrealistic both to protest that writing is hard work (which, presumably, means that it takes time and dedication) and that anyone can do it on the bus home from work of an evening. And does it really make you a foul money-grabbing capitalist to suggest it would be a good idea if TV companies made investments in these things, since they stand to make the profits, rather than shifting all the risk onto small production companies? This also entails commissioners having some vision beyond pandering to imagined demographic groups. OK, if you as a writer believe in an idea, you should put what you can into it, but in a world where power and access is unevenly distributed to say the least, that's not always going to be enough to break through (even sacred comedy cow Only Fools and Horses 'failed' initially). (And I note that The Junkies is not presently enjoying a repeat showing of the 26 episodes not commissioned for primetime by ITV.).

Posted by: uc at January 13, 2004 09:23 AM

actually, the Junkies cost 6000, not 200, 000. And yes, nobody got paid. Isn't that awful? You wouldn't like that would you, if you did something quite good and you didn't get any MONEY. You deserve some MONEY. No, you're quite right. I'll get me coat

How terribly foolish of me to take into account the fees of people who write, vision mix, act in, direct, produce, score, script supervise, light, cast, costume design, set design, sound record, edit and film a real-life prime-time television programme out of something other than love, Mr Caesura.

I take it you've also factored in any residuals. Martin Shaw can be a real bitch on the score.

Posted by: michael at January 13, 2004 10:23 AM

Oh alright you win. I hate arguing anyway, especially about things I don't really care about. And anyway, what's so important about sitcoms or any art form for that matter? Why do we crave them so?

Posted by: at January 13, 2004 06:41 PM