These Upstart Crow critics shouldn't be given credibility | Steve Bennett on the reaction to Ben Elton's sitcom © BBC/Colin Hutton

These Upstart Crow critics shouldn't be given credibility

Steve Bennett on the reaction to Ben Elton's sitcom

The BBC launched a major new sitcom last night… let’s see what the newspapers verdict was.

‘Twitter wanted to like Upstart Crow, but the canned laughter really grated,’ said the Irish Examiner. The Guardian series in East London went with": ‘Twitter wanted to like Upstart Crow, but the canned laughter really grated’.  In the West Country, Newsquest’s This Is Wiltshire ruled: ‘Twitter wanted to like Upstart Crow, but the canned laughter really grated’. While in new media, Yahoo came to the conclusion that ‘Twitter wanted to like Upstart Crow, but…’ well you get the idea.

The reason all these outlets had the same story was because they take a feed from The Press Association, Britain’s top news agency. Excuse me, ‘multi-platform content provider’.

But as a story, it’s clearly a crock of shite.

First, the ‘canned laughter’ phrase is wrong, as anyone with more than a passing interest in TV comedy will tell you – and many sitcom-makers will do so quite vigorously. The practice of pressing a button to add some prerecorded chuckle did happen, mainly in the States, but was pretty much done away with by the end of the 1970s, for the obvious reason of how fake it sounds – as any Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the era will attest.

What they mean, of course, is the laughter track, the mix of the studio audience’s genuine reaction to the show in front of them, which can, of course, be turned up or down – or otherwise tweaked, which only raises suspicions.

But even if it’s 100 per cent real, knowing that will do nothing to allay your anger if you’re watching stony-faced while the TV erupts in guffaws. Even the fact that the communal spirit of seeing something live with several hundred others will inevitably generate more laughs than you, sitting on your sofa at home, possibly alone, will cut no ice if you subjectively don’t think the show is funny.

Certainly a mismatch between the laugh track and the hilarity or otherwise of what’s on screen is a valid criticism – I’ve certainly made it before – but this is not the main problem with the Press Association story. That is that this widely-distributed article was based on just six tweets. It was hardly as if the nation had risen up and spoken as one.

Yet with the distribution network the agency has, these tweets have been reported widely, and now will form part of the perceived wisdom about Upstart Crow. Twitter user @nanoscryptic, sharing an opinion with his 154 followers, is now setting the national mood, at least on this admitted trivial issue. 

Who is he, or any of the commentators the PA quoted? Maybe it doesn’t matter – we’re supposed to believe all opinions are valid these days, whether from an expert scientist with decades experience in his field, or a bar-room blowhard unfussed by evidence. But with TV shows – and therefore careers – now riding on an instant Twitter reaction, maybe leaping to a conclusion isn’t always so helpful.

In fact, the PA story could find little positive to say about the show in its round-up of 13 tweets that it chose to sum up Britain’s full response to the show, even though the reviews of full-time critics were, on the whole, a lot more positive. ‘Good in parts’ was about the best they could find… though even a casual glance through social media paints a wider picture, some absolutely loving it. You can surely find 13 tweets to support any premise you like – if this article gets 13 retweets will the PA run a story saying they are rubbish?

And the majority of the tweets the PA quoted were posted within the first six minutes of the show starting. That’s how considered an opinion most of these were; they didn’t like the first couple of scenes.

Back in the day, the agency might have employed someone who knew about comedy or television, to syndicate a column to newspapers with an informed opinion about a show, which they would even have watched all the way through to the end. Imagine!

But as the media grapples with the need to produce content, without the money to pay for it – and we, as readers now reluctant to pay for any real journalism, are ultimately responsible for that – such stories could be the depressing future. 

Published: 10 May 2016

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.