BBC Scotland has contempt for its comedy audience | Colin Edwards attacks condescending and narrow-minded commissioners

BBC Scotland has contempt for its comedy audience

Colin Edwards attacks condescending and narrow-minded commissioners

It was a few years ago and after producing The Franz Kafka Big Band for BBC Radio Scotland and The Atrocity Machine for Channel 4 Radio, I was asked by BBC Scotland’s comedy department to submit a sitcom script that could be considered for Scottish TV. 

Despite having not paid a licence in over 16 years since giving up watching mainstream television, I went off and wrote a pilot script, handed it in and a couple of weeks later was called in for a meeting to discuss it with an exec producer.

‘So Colin, we’ve read your script and it’s very good. It’s funny, well constructed and you’ve got a real ear for dialogue.’

‘Thanks.’ Being very pleased to get such feedback although I could easily see the massive ‘But…’ rearing its head over the horizon.

‘But we can’t put it forward for commission. Your script has some serious problems.’

‘Oh. What are they?"’

I was then informed that because I mentioned the names of not one but TWO philosophers that Ewan Angus, the head of comedy commissioning at BBC Scotland, would reject the script immediately because he would deem it ‘too intellectual for television’ and just bin it.

Now not getting the script picked-up didn’t bother me. Having a script commissioned for television is a massive long shot. There are so many hoops it has to jump through and if it fails just one then the entire project is screwed. I was under no illusions. 

Also, development work is valuable even if it doesn’t lead to anything. It gets your name about, gets you writing and at the end you still have a finished script you can hopefully be proud of. But the reason of it being ‘too intellectual’, especially as it was no more so than say an episode of Cheers (although not as funny), did bother me… a lot.

So you could say I was somewhat disappointed but certainly not angry or bitter. That came after what happened next.

So a few weeks go by and, like a guilty ex, I get another phone call from BBC Scotland asking if I could come in for meeting about my script.

‘But I thought it was deemed too intellectual for television?’

‘Oh, it’s different this time. We’ll explain when you come in.’

So I arrive at Pacific Quay where I am told that they want to pitch my sitcom to BBC Two network down in London.

‘Cool!’ I said, although being under fewer illusions now as having the script commissioned by BBC Two was an even longer shot than getting picked up by BBC Scotland. ‘But I thought you said my script was too intellectual for television?’

‘Oh, that was only in regards to BBC Scotland and Ewan Angus [its commissioning editor for television]. This time we want to pitch it to BBC Two in London because English people are more, shall we say… "comfortable" with intelligent comedy. They feel less threatened by it.’

‘Hang on!’ I immediately interjected, ‘Are you saying that, according to BBC Scotland, English people are more intelligent than Scottish?’

The exec I was talking to sighed, leaned forward, and explained to me that according BBC Scotland that ‘Scottish people’ are more working class and less educated than English people and, therefore, would feel intimidated and patronised if they watched a sitcom that mentioned philosophers, whereas English people can cope with more ‘cerebral’ comedy without feeling as though they’re being made to feel stupid. 

So if I was going to pitch a script to BBC Scotland then I would have to make sure it was Glasgow, preferably male-centric and with no references to anything that could be construed as ‘intellectual’ or cultured otherwise it would get immediately discarded.

I was left stunned and, depressingly, vindicated as I had always had the suspicion something like this had been going. But it also meant I was living in a country whose national broadcaster appeared to have absolutely zero respect or regard for its own population.

You see, despite all the cries of ‘we only want working class comedy (whatever the fuck that actually means!) because Scotland is working class’ is the fact that you’d be hard-pushed to find anyone at BBC Scotland who actually IS working class! They’re either all highly educated Scots or, more often than not, have been flown up from England to meet various quotas. 

BBC Scotland producers are basically the media equivalent of those middle-class students you’d see at parties drinking Buckfast ‘ironically’. You know, the ones in beanie hats who make you think Pulp wrote Common People in vain as they laughingly guzzle their class-warfare juice knowing that they can do so without ever having to be exposed to the actual reality that drives the oppressed to alcohol in the first place. BBC Scotland producers and these students are basically the same…

And despite BBC Scotland’s protestations that the Scottish populace is ‘uneducated’, the simple fact of the matter is that, for example, during the Independence referendum the ‘average person’ on the street was engaging in a level of intelligent discourse that was far more informed and nuanced than anything BBC Scotland put out over that period. 

If you wanted to hear an intelligent argument you wouldn’t switch on the TV, you’d talk to anybody in the street. You’d hear talk of Noam Chomsky, Adam Smith, Joseph Stiglitz, the subtleties of constitutional politics etc in any pub or cafe you’d care to walk into. Switch on BBC Scotland and it was ‘tapps aff’ gags and the feeling of a broadcaster paralysed with fear. 

So for BBC Scotland to look down on its own people as being intellectually inferior to the English is not only morally and professionally inexcusable, factually wrong but also deludedly condescending almost to the point of mental illness. Glasgow is an incredibly cosmopolitan city with a vast wealth of extraordinarily talented and creative people from varying walks of life but you’d never think that watching BBC Scotland’s representation of the place.

I left that meeting kinda depressed.but I swallowed down the entire disgusting load that BBC Scotland had just shot down my throat and despite gagging like crazy on its filthy aftertaste I just assumed that this was the way things were in TV. I also began to realise why nearly all the producers I’ve ever met at the BBC look so downright depressed. 

And so I thought that was pretty much about that… but then something happened.

It was a couple of months later and I went to a talk about Scottish comedy at the Glasgow Film Theatre at which Ewan Angus was one of the speakers. At first it was kinda difficult to make him out on the stage but fortunately I had brought along my opera glasses. As this was a celebration of Scottish comedy it was introduced by some clips of the greatest moments of Scottish TV comedy but what was, in effect, actually a promo for the independent production company The Comedy Unit, but the audience politely sat there and roared with silence as we settled down for one of the most accurate representations of Scotland since Braveheart.

Then the floor was open to questions and somebody, who amazingly wasn’t me, straight up asked Ewan Angus why he doesn’t commission more ‘intellectual or cosmopolitan comedy’, ‘more female driven comedy’ and why it is that he nearly always seems to commission west-coast of Scotland, male, working-class centric programs tending to be made, primarily, by The Comedy Unit.

What followed was the most brazen tirade of complete lies and utter cowardice by a grown man I’ve experienced since my last girlfriend asked me ‘Who’s bra is this?’ as he told the audience that hey, there was nothing he’d love more than to commission a comedy that played less to the ‘Glesga’ crowd and that he wants to commission a female led vehicle but that it wasn’t his fault if the comedy writers in Scotland were working-class Glaswegian males and that, in Scotland, it is only Glasgow males that want to be comedy writers.

 Also, it wasn’t his fault that there weren’t any female comedy writers in Scotland or writers that tackle more intellectual themes and as he can only commission the scripts that are put in front of him then it wasn’t his fault that the only ones he reads are by working class, west coast males. So don’t blame him, blame Scottish comedy writers

I was totally taken aback listening to him speak but was also sort of distracted by the fact that, as he spoke these words, the irritation in his voice and his oddly disconnected stare gave him the appearance of an ill-tempered Scotty dog attempting to simultaneously gaze through time and space. It was quite something to behold.

I hadn’t been that confused, baffled and annoyed in a cinema since I first saw Battlefield Earth because almost every single comedy writer I have known had been told the same by BBC Scotland that to ‘under no circumstances’ submit anything that could even be vaguely classed as ‘intelligent’ and I have also known incredibly talented female comedy writers give up comedy because pitching to BBC Scotland felt like a hermetically sealed boy’s club, which it basically is. 

And this is where the biggest regret of my life comes in as I still feel the shame of not immediately standing up and calling Ewan Angus out and quoting Camus and Spinoza to him to help him understand his total inconsistency and utter lack of responsibility. Here he is giving explicit edicts that are passed down and reluctantly internalised by his staff that only a certain style of comedy will be tolerated in Scotland, but to then turn round and blame the writing community itself seemed spectacularly disingenuous.

But amazingly he hadn’t finished as, like the magic porridge pot but filled with toxic waste, his effluence continued to spill forth across the stage as he was then asked why he hasn’t commissioned another showcase for Scottish stand up comedians such as The Live Floor Show which was on TV years back. 

His reply was one of the most spectacular pieces of betrayal of his own nation by someone since John de Menteith betrayed William Wallace, except with fewer laughs, as Ewan Angus explained that apart from the two big hitters of Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges that Scottish stand-up comedians ‘weren’t good enough to be put on TV’ and, in fact, putting them on television would be extremely counter-productive as it would highlight just how poor the standard of Scottish stand-up comedy was and would do more harm than good.

 So no, he would not be commissioning a live stand up show as it would just end up being an embarrassment to Scottish comedy.

Bugger my balls! And this was meant to be a celebration of Scottish comedy?! I hadn’t been so tempted to walk out of the GFT since Jane Campion’s The Piano… which is shit!

So I kinda missed his closing statements as I was too busy trying to drown out the sound of the word ‘Twat!’ from violently bouncing around inside my skull like a trapped pigeon for some totally unconnected reason, but there are a couple of extremely important issues here. Firstly, Ewan Angus was totally wrong. The Scottish stand-up scene is in great shape and has been for ages. You are guaranteed of seeing comedy of a vastly higher standard any night of the week in this country live than you ever will be by putting on the television. Scottish stand-up actually emphasises BBC Scotland’s comedy output for what it is : anaemic, anodyne and sometimes wilfully wallowing in inverted snobbery and lazy class cliches.

Now I would like to point out that this hasn’t been written out of bitterness at a lack of commissions or having scripts turned down etc. As soon as I realised that making comedy for BBC Scotland was such a condescending mess I pretty much walked away and happily so. Besides, I’m a radio and prose person and also have been extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to make radio programmes on my own terms, a level of freedom a lot of people would give their right arm for. 

I am aware that I have been exceptionally lucky and I am also aware of how I have grasped that freedom and completely ran with it as I indulged myself on a scale of Caligula-esque proportions.

But it is annoying that things are in this state where our national broadcaster thinks the neighbours are cleverer than the people they represent, that unless comedy is focused purely on west-coast cliches that anything else is either irrelevant of high-falutin’. 

Oh, and the names of the two philosophers I had the audacity to write into a script that ‘Scottish people’ wouldn’t understand? Socrates and Plato. Yeah, those two utterly obscure fannies.

• This is an edited version of an article Edwards posted on his blog, here.

Published: 22 May 2016

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