BBC sitcoms: forget class, just make them funny
Johnny Dee on the new BBC1 chief's misguided quest for 'blue collar' humour
Tony Blair didn't tell many gags but one of his funniest was when he declared that the "class struggle is over". That turned out to be a bit of a lie but in the parallel universe of sitcoms, at least, the class-struggle (if ever there was one) truly does seem over.
In sitcoms, the class of the characters and their situation has increasingly become an irrelevance. Whether a sitcom is set in a prison, factory, stately home, joke shop or council house, whether it stars a dinner lady or a spin doctor, it doesn't matter.
What counts is whether it's funny or not. Or at least it did.
It appears that the new controller of BBC1, Danny Cohen, disagrees. Cohen, the 36-year-old, £250,000-a-year son of a solicitor, has decided that there are too many middle-class sitcoms and not enough working-class ones on the channel he now presides over and so he is calling for more "blue-collar comedy".
A BBC source, quoted by the Daily Mail, says: "In the past, programmes like Porridge, Birds of a Feather and Bread were about real working families and the workings of their lives."
The source added: "Danny is conscious there are not programmes like that on BBC1 at the moment and is making it a priority to change that."
Anyone familiar with the three sitcoms name-checked in the patronising comments above will know that there wasn't much "working" involved but they were all undeniably a good deal more working-class than today's dominant fare, such as Outnumbered and My Family.
But while this is true, why should it matter? If Cohen is attempting to engineer "blue-collar" sitcoms then the danger is that he'll end up with cliched characters and situations like the ones mocked in When The Whistle Blows - the northern factory-set spoof in Ricky Gervais's Extras - rather than another Only Fools And Horses.
What's insulting about BBC1's new position is the suggestion that people can only relate to British sitcoms if they involve people from a similar background as their own. It's nonsense.
The BBC1 controller's comments are said to have come from an internal review instigated by Cohen upon his promotion from BBC Three - a channel of questionable quality unless you're a fan of such bottom-feeder delights as Snog, Marry, Avoid.
The irony is that on the same weekend Cohen's comments were leaked, Miranda Hart was toasted as the big success story of the weekend's British Comedy Awards.
Hart and her show Miranda won Best Comedy Performance, Best Comedy Actress and People's Choice award for the King or Queen of Comedy. The latter suggests that British people - some of whom may be working class or from parts of the UK that aren't Chiswick, you never know - have managed to overcome the fact that her jolly hockey sticks poshness is alien to at least 95 per cent of us, and yet still find her amusing. Who'd have thunk it?
The BBC has an enviable history of broadcasting great sitcoms. Despite losing ground to Channel 4 shows like Inbetweeners, Peep Show and The IT Crowd, it has still commissioned plenty of brilliant mainstream shows including The Office, The Mighty Boosh, Nighty Night and The Thick Of It in the past decade and accommodated the one-off episodes of The Royle Family.
These sitcoms deservedly stand alongside iconic series like Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army and Blackadder. It's a shame that the BBC is choosing such a backward concept as class to encourage new shows - rather than a desire for quality and innovation.
What we really want is comedy that will make us laugh. That's where too many BBC sitcoms have failed - not through being too southern or middle-class. ·
Comments are now closed on this article