His hits include Absolutely Fabulous, The Office, The Thick of It and Psychoville – but veteran BBC comedy producer Jon Plowman still regrets missing out on Brass Eye.
The pilot for Chris Morris’s controversial satire was made at the BBC, where he was head of comedy entertainment, but the corporation was anxious about the legal costs the programme could incur and it was eventually made for Channel 4.
‘The guy who made that decision at the BBC then went to Channel 4 and took Brass Eye with him,’ Plowman told the audience at The Space, a monthly arts show in Brighton last night.
The producer also admitted he had turned down Sacha Baron Cohen when the Ali G and Borat creator first came to him as a fledgling comedian. ‘I didn’t know who he was at that stage,’ he shrugged.
Reminiscing about his successes, he recalled Jennifer Saunders giving him the first script for Absolutely Fabulous, written in pencil in an exercise book. ‘That was the last time I ever got a whole episode written out before we filmed it. While Dawn [French] is very meticulous and worries about stuff, Jennifer thinks if you can get away with it, it’s preferable to leave your homework until later.’
Plowman also admitted that the fashion culture the award-winning series portrayed was compellingly alien to him. ‘It felt like a world I didn’t know, but wanted to know about – and those are the scripts worth making, not those written like imitation sitcoms by people who’ve watched too many sitcoms.’
Other collaborations came about in even less orthodox ways. He didn’t see a script for The Office before agreeing to produce the acclaimed show. ‘Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant] had been touting the show about and said. “We’re bringing this to you because people say you will do anything.” They didn’t walk in with a script, just the David Brent character and a tape which became the first episode. They had such fervour I knew I had to give it a go.’
Asked which new comedians he tipped for success, Plowman listed Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer’s double act Totally Tom, nominated for the 2011 Fosters Best Newcomer award, and comedian and actress Lucy Montgomery, who starred as Saffy’s former prison cohort Baron in last year’s Absolutely Fabulous Christmas special.
Originally called Happy Endings, the pair last month revealed during Richard Herring's Leicester Square Podcast that it was to be called No 9, and feature a series of self-contained stories set in different houses, all at No 9.
It gets harder to make people laugh as one gets older, he said. ‘There’s a point where you’re either redoing stuff or you have to search for something genuinely different and I’ve been lucky in that respect.’