Monday, 24 January 2011

We don’t need “blue collar” sitcoms - we need funny ones!

Does the type of sitcom you laugh at depend on which class you belong to -  or on the class of the main characters featured in it? The answer, of course, is “neither”. 

The whole nation enjoyed Porridge, but many of us weren’t working class, and most of us (back in the Seventies, at least) hadn’t been to prison. Over one third of the country watched Only Fools and Horses (not me, I’ll admit) – but I imagine many of them were middle class. Similarly, I imagine many working class viewers enjoyed that most middle class of all sitcoms, The Good Life.

And I’ve actually met middle-class people who claimed to enjoy The Royle Family! (My arse, indeed!)

The controller of BBC One, Danny Cohen (solictor’s son, private school, Oxford), who got his current gig by running that unwatchable pile of old dog-doo, BBC Three – a waste of good bandwidth and licence-payers’ money if I ever saw one - is reported to want more working-class sitcoms on BBC One. This is to balance such middle-class fare as Miranda, Outnumbered and, of course, My Family (a show which everyone involved with it seems to hate – including its cast – but which millions of viewers enjoy). 

The Daily Mail today quoted a colleague of Cohen’s as saying, ‘[Cohen] feels the BBC has lost its variety and become too focused on formats about comfortable, well-off middle-class families whose lives are perhaps more reflective of BBC staff than viewers in other parts of the UK… One of his priorities is getting more programming that reflects the different social classes and what he describes as ‘blue collar’ comedies.”

This translates as: “bring me more comedies about Northern proles”, and the unstated sub-text  is that the working classes are feeling terribly alienated by all those posh, toffee-nosed bastards banging on about skiing holidays and Volvo estates and riding lessons and homework or whatever. If we’re not careful, they’ll turning over to watch all the great working-class sitcoms on ITV and C4 and Five and Sky (name one!). Or they’ll refuse to pay their license fee because there aren’t enough people like them on the BBC.

All utter liberal social-engineering tosh, of course.

As we’re not exactly floating in a sea of top-class British sit-coms at the moment (we never have), I should have thought that Cohen’s main concern would have been to spend his lavish commissioning budget on genuinely funny and/or popular comedies rather than worry about how common the characters sound. Great scripts and great comedy acting make us fall in love with sitcoms, not the settings or the number of dropped “h”s or “innits” involved. 

Of course, what Cohen wants has nothing to do with Love thy Neighbouror On the Buses – lower-class comedies genuinely enjoyed by the lower classes – but is more to do with Shameless, Channel 4’s shameful celebration of the merry, lovable pranksters of which our feckless underclass is comrpised, whose audience, I suspect, is entirely made up of liberal urban middle-class types happy to discover that the poverty, ignorance and criminality their world-view produces isn’t really as hellish as the right-wing press would have us believe - in fact, it all looks rather jolly. No - nice, privileged Mr. Cohen just wants to prove to his peers just how liberal and equalitarian a chap he is, despite his silver-spoon upbringing. 

The problem for Danny is that’s it difficult to see how the working classes are to be protrayed these days (unless he goes for the warm, unreal, nostalgic approach of Dinner Ladies). The indigenous white working classes aren’t happy bunnies right now, having been betrayed by the political class -  they’ve been financially squeezed, sneered at, taken for granted, and seen their fears about immigration and their anger at a benefits system seemingly devised to reward the work-shy comprehensively ignored. Being a worker just isn’t funny any more.

If young Mr. C  genuinely wants to attract a working-class audience, the answer is simple – make funnier sitcoms. He may not even need to do that – I would be astonished if My Family, whose lead characters are a dentist and his wife and their posh-sounding offspring, isn’t a big hit with C2DE viewers. We simply don’t need programmes to feature people like ourselves in order to be attracted by them. Did the working classes not watch Fawlty Towers? Or To the Manor Born? Did Only Fools and Horsesand Porridge garner huge audiences by not appealing to middle class audiences?

The most hilarious piece of strategy I ever saw at the BBC was something called “100 Tribes” which split the viewing public into that number of segments (I think I was in the “Scots-Norwegian Private School Oxbridge Middle Class middle income home-owning heterosexual married childed large bearded ex-writer” tribe) and, if I remember correctly, suggested ways the BBC could “serve” all the tribes. It was dreamt up, naturally, by a former academic rather than by someone who had ever produced a programme or run a channel. 

Here’s my message to modern TV executives – it doesn’t work that way, particularly when it comes to mass entertainment programmes. You can try to target smaller channels at various market segments (I am the natural audience for BBC Four, which I love), and you can target special interest programmes at viewers with special interests – but sitcoms can be targeted at only one of two audiences: those with a sense of humour (e.g. Miranda, The Office, Porridge, Fawlty Towers), and those without (My Family, Last of the Summer Wine, The Royle Family). 

I’m not being facetious, bu the way: people without a sense of humour need sitcoms too! 

What you shouldn’t do – ever – is try to target sitcoms  at a particular class, or use them to increase the number of black, disabled, gay or working class characters on TV. The sitcom is one of those genres (Nature programmes represent another) where, in search of diversion,  we put aside our differences and truly become equals.

Danny, old boy - leave out the sociology and just try to give us a few laughs. By God, we need it!


  1. Interesting blog. The day after there was an article in the DT saying pretty much the same thing by one Andrew Pettie. [I wonder if hacks raid the blogosphere as regularly as ad agencies lift concepts from You Tube?].
    I wonder what "Danny" Cohen, the BBC1 commissioning guru [easier to spell than charlatan] means by"blue collar"? Is it the world of "This Happy Breed", The Alf Garnett menage,"The Spring and Port Wine" family, the Royles? If so, they don't exist in the same way that the worlds of Richard Curtiss and Guy Ritchie don't exist. So he must mean the underclass - the DE's or lumpenproletariat.
    He already has a massive imaginary blue collar comedy hit - "Eastenders". Risible plot-lines, preposterous dialogue and a cast of gargoyles. It is so bad it is brilliantly funny so why doesn't he get an admin suit to reclassify it as a sit-com. Problem solved.
    But if he wants to hold up yet another mirror to the underclass here's a thought. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman made their directorial debuts respectivelly with "War Zone" [rape, incest] and "Nil-by-Mouth" [domestic violence, alcoholism, drug-dealing]. So they "tick all the boxes". They both star Ray Winstone who bases his acting style on the strutting bear from the '70s Holsten lager commercials. Hugely funny. Why doesn't the BBC buy the rights and spin off two separate series? Bring back Roth and Oldman to direct - they can't hang around in Hollywood forever playing psychopaths and Winstone needs saving [have you seen any of his films lately? Blimey.] And the foul language is already in place [cutting-edge comedy]. All you need is to inject a shed-load of Diamond Geezer-type humour. Cathy Burke? Michael Caine could wander in as Harry Brown and deliver some of his funny lines and shoot people. Paul Whitehouse. The casting possibilities are endless.
    Re "Shameless". I have seen excerpts of this while channel hopping. It seems to be on a continous loop. It is a depressing experience. I also saw David Threlfall on "Have I Got News for You" - he didn't utter one word during the whole programme. Strange guy.
    Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 05:53 PM

  2. “Oi, Anne – shut yer ‘ole, you slag, or I’ll chop yer bleedin’ ‘ead off! Cow!”

    My favourite Ray Winstone comedy performance was undoubtedly his portrayal of “Enry Vee Eightff” (I believe Danny Cohen has ordered a remake, starring Lee Evans). He was also hilarious in Beowulf: “Grendel, you tosser! Fink you’re ‘ard, do ya? Ahtside, now! Muppet!”

    Your suggestion re Eastenders is an excellent one. I saw five minutes a while back, and the bald Mitchell brother who doesn’t get chased around by gangsters on Sky had turned into a crack addict. Very funny.

    I think Cohen’s probably coming over all middle-class revolutionary because the BBC’s current Dr. Who and Sherlock are such raving posh boys. (Maybe he should get rid of Benedict Cumberbatch and hire Jason Staham: “Watson, you wanker” (nuts his colleague) “doctor that!” Like all new controllers, he’ll be gagging to make his mark – and it’ll no doubt be a skid-mark.

    As for David Threlfall – TV folk really are like children, sometimes – just like the old dears who imagine the characters on Coronation Street are real, they imagine that actors are just like the characters they play: in Threlfall’s case, he is now evidently expected to represent the underclass, just because he plays a member of it on TV.
    Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 03:01 PM