'We make Mrs Brown's Boys and I'm incredibly proud of it' | BBC Studios comedy chief and other creators on the demand for broad family sitcoms © BBC

'We make Mrs Brown's Boys and I'm incredibly proud of it'

BBC Studios comedy chief and other creators on the demand for broad family sitcoms

When it comes to warm, family sitcoms, there can't be many inspired by The Blair Witch Project.

Yet apparently Here We Go, Tom Basden's hit comedy about the Jessop family was developed with the ‘found footage’ approach of the cult, low-budget horror as a touchstone.

Josh Cole, head of comedy at BBC Studios, explained how the sitcom had developed its formal conceit of showing everything through the handheld camera of teenage son Sam from these unlikely origin as evidence for how the family sitcom is being reimagined.

'The original iteration of Here We Go had found footage, like horror elements, with Blair Witch part of the reference book' he explained in a wide-ranging discussion about the genre at the BBC Comedy Festival in Glasgow.

Here We Go has 'kept some of that,' Cole continued. 'You can see where the found footage element went in terms of the format. It's a non-linear structure. It's formally subversive and reinventing that kind of family comedy.'

Here We GO

The session also featured Basden, Friday Night Dinner creator Robert Popper and Nerys Evans of Expectation TV, the production company behind Sophie Willan's Alma's Not Normal, Bridget Christie's The Change and Nick Mohammed's Intelligence. There was a sense of the panel and host Ashley Storrie, the stand-up and star of the BBC sitcom Dinosaur, being mildly bemused by the BBC's stated wish for more 'broad', (ideally) pre-watershed sitcoms that invariably focus on families, when it seems writers tend to be more interested in penning edgy comedy-dramas.

The term 'broad' proved especially problematic, as Popper ventured that ‘no one sets out to write a broad show', while Basden suggested that viewers' formative years as teenagers, developing their tastes, aren't spent seeking out shows that are being specifically targeted at them.

'I feel like the time in my life when I was watching the most comedy was probably when I was about 15' he said. 'And I never thought when I was watching Only Fools And Horses, One Foot In The Grave, Dad's Army or any of that kind of thing, that I was watching something that was in any way aimed at me. The appeal of it was that it wasn't aimed at me.

'You don't necessarily set out to write something where you go, "well, an 11-year-old can watch this with a 91-year-old". You just want to write something that's funny and then think, "would I have liked this when I was 15?"

‘That doesn't mean you make it puerile at all. You make it quite exciting, you make it quite adult. If you make something that's slightly too old for 15-year-olds, they're desperate to watch it. Whereas if you make something aimed at them, they think it's shit.'

Popper agreed, pointing out that with Friday Night Dinner, he had only set out to make something that he himself would want to watch. Only its relative popularity has seen it labelled as a broad comedy.

'When people say we like broad shows like The Inbetweeners – that is not a broad show really, it's just that people liked it' he maintained. 'Little Britain was a phenomenon [but] that was a weird show. You can never know what will ever become big. And then it becomes broad, that's what I think, really ….

'Mrs Brown's Boys … that's what I think of as broad [cough] comedy.'

Despite the laughter in the room this casual swipe provoked, Brendan O'Carroll's ratings juggernaut unquestionably had its defenders, including Cole and Storrie. And Evans was forthright.

'It's interesting listening to brilliant writers and their horror at writing something broad because it's popular and it's loved by people and it's talked about and it's ultimately what you want in comedy,’ she said.

'I know we don't set out to make broad comedy. But we've got to get over the embarrassment of making something that people want to watch. 

'It's easy to make small shows and find a little cliquey kind of viewership. And I love that, how comedy finds its people, its tribes. But also, we all want to sit down and watch a generational show together. And they can take lots of different forms but it's actually harder than writing a small show. It's a big challenge.'

Name-checking Popper and Julia Davis as writers that truly make him laugh, Cole nevertheless argued that 'it's hard to find writers who have the ability to write an ensemble … it's really hard to write a really funny, 30-minute script where you're speaking with multiple voices, different characters, I think that's ultimately what it boils down to. We make Mrs Brown's Boys and I'm incredibly proud of it.

'Maybe that's the difference between the UK and the US, where a lot of the beloved shows are watched by huge swathes of the nation. Robert and Tom have been involved in lots of those. 

But they are fewer. We generally as a comedy community focus on shows that are almost niche and punish the really popular ones. Historically at least, I think we've got better at it but we don't celebrate success in the same way they do in the US.'

Evans lamented the disappearance of studio sitcoms such as Blackadder and Dinnerladies, calling them a 'dying artform' that ‘no one is making any more', recalling that when she was involved in producing Miranda, it was seen as a 'really uncool' series.

'What we're not providing is the bigger, broader comedies,’ she stressed, before clarifying that in the current economic climate, 'every recommission these days is like a little miracle’.

Meanwhile, sitcoms like Derry Girls serve as family sitcoms 'by stealth'. And she stressed to writers – 'don't bend your idea out of shape [to fit a commissioner's brief]. You make something good and it will find a home.'

Writing for the mainstream BBC One needn't mean 'basic' added Cole. The recently recommissioned Mammoth is 'cleverly wading into culture wars', while Black Ops is 'subversive in a very different way, poking fun at the Met [Police] and institutions and doing something very different.'

With 'newer talent', the 'BBC One game has fully changed and we need to catch up with that' he said. 'There's nothing to be afraid of in terms of [writers] aiming at BBC One. It doesn't mean that the show has to be with Jennifer Saunders. Obviously, I'm sure we'd all be delighted if it was but it doesn't need to be. You don't have to have Jennifer Saunders to get your show on BBC One any more.'

Irrespective of the relative merits of broad sitcoms and edgy comedy-dramas, Basden believes that in contrast to his own feelings, comedy is still widely seen as inferior to drama and that might explain writers' reluctance to shoot for the moon.

'Writing comedy that makes people laugh, it's not only harder it's a lot more exposing' he said. 'Because if you try and make people laugh and it doesn't work, they hate you! They hate you and what you've written. It's a big risk.'

However, the problem is actually ingrained into the BBC itself claimed Popper, pointing out that the corporation's news coverage of the Baftas was 'drama, drama and they don't ever mention comedy, ever, ever, ever.

'It's just weird. Because people love it, people will rewatch comedy again and again and again.’

- by Jay Richardson

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Published: 24 May 2024

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