Thursday, 21 June 2018

Of course Monty Python wouldn't have been commissioned by today's BBC - far too original, anarchic and off-message

Launching the BBC's ribtickling new comedy season, the corporation's head of comedy Shane Allen boasted that the Monty Python team wouldn't have got a look-in today: "If we were going to assemble a team now it's not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes, it's going to be a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world and have got something to say that's different and we haven't seen before." John Cleese responded:
As an example of what Mr Allen would like to spend our money on, he cited Famalam, a current BBC Three sketch show featuring an all-black "Crazy Gang" style cast...

...but I'm not sure what's meant to be so groundbreaking about the racial composition of the Famalam team, given that BBC Three aired two series of a hidden-camera comedy show called 3 Non-Blondes, starring thee black female performers, between 2001 and 2003. And I'm not sure Shane Allen is wise to cite Monty Python, which - whether you were a fan or not - was genuinely ground-breaking,  experimental, and sometimes a touch on the "edgy" side. It was also occasionally very funny, and at least a dozen of its sketches have since become so lodged in the national consciousness that the mere mention of words such as "parrot" and "lumberjack" can bring them to mind. (I somehow doubt that future generations will be saying the same about Famalam - just as they certainly aren't about 3 Non-Blondes, despite the fact that it had its moments.) 

Has anyone done any research to establish whether comedy shows featuring a majority ethnic cast - from Goodness Gracious Me onwards - actually appeal to ethnic viewers? Or is it more an age and class thing? I suspect their fans enjoy them because they find them funny, rather than because watching people of their own ethnicity somehow makes them feel "represented".  (I'm not being facetious - it would just be interesting to know if this matters to people.) Ditto class and educational background. These days, I derive far more pleasure from watching the likes of Lee Mack and Peter Kay than from middle class "comedians" with degrees from top universities, because the latter tend not to be particularly funny, much of their comedy seems to rely on jeering at people who don't share their drearily predictable political views (that would be most of us), and just as I am sick to death of working-class comics boring us to death with anecdotes about their bloody "nans", I simply can't take another privately-educated posh boy with a degree from a Russell Group university and a team of tax accountants working for them trying to pass themselves off as one of the workers. Bampots, the lot of them. 

When did the educational background of TV comedy writers and performers become a significant issue? On paper, the Sixties were the Oxbridge decade when it came to new comedy - Beyond the Fringe, Not Only...But Also, Monty Python, Private Eye etc. But the edgiest and most experimental TV comedy show of that decade was undoubtedly Q, written and performed by Spike Milligan, who never attended university, and whose The Goon Show was the most cutting-edge radio programme  of the '50s - while the most successful and cleverest sitcoms were written by people like Johnny Speight,  Galton and Simpson, and Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais - not a degree between them, let alone an Oxbridge one. 

I suspect this obsession with the class, race and educational status of its comic "talent"  is more about assuaging the guilt of middle class BBC lefties over their "privilege" than anything to do with representation, diversity or inclusivity. 

Allen, addressing the apoplectic reaction of Corbyn supporters to Tracey Ullman's Steptoe sketches, had this to say: "It's not just a BBC thing, but comedians are traditionally from a leftist point of view. I think it's brilliant you can have a thing attacking left, right and centre." Well, yes - but as BBC comedians have spent almost the whole of the past 35 years only attacking the Right, I see no reason why it wouldn't also be brilliant to feature a "thing" dedicated to attacking the Left. As for the idea that comedians are "traditionally from a leftist point of view" - who says so? I suspect that most traditional stand up comedians since WW2 - certainly until the 'mid-'80s - voted Conservative. As for genuine, mainstream comedy stars of more recent times - as opposed to the Jeremy Hardys and Marcus Prickstockes of the world - I have no idea what their political views are. Even satirists haven't been solidly left-wing - Ian Hislop might be a ghastly little left-liberal establishment toady, but  Peter Cook wasn't, and neither was Richard Ingrams during his years editing Private Eye.  The "tradition" of left-leaning comedians on the BBC only dates from the Thatcher-hating'80s, and was largely created - and sustained - by the BBC. 

It's a bit unfair to single out Shane Allen for criticism: he commissioned a lot of good comedy shows during his eight years at Channel 4; he has recently introduced Conservative-supporting stand-up comedian Geoff Norcott to TV (The Mash Report on BBC2) and radio (Right Leaning but Well Meaning on Radio 4); and he's distinctly unsnobbish when it comes to family-friendly sitcoms. And I'm really not suggesting he commissions material based on allegiance to a particular political party (we've had quite enough of that, thank you). But presumably the response to Tracy Ullman's Jeremy Corbyn sketches and to Jan Ravens's brilliant Diane Abbott impressions on Dead Ringers will have convinced Allen that there's a hearty appetite for some genuine political diversity on the BBC. What partly gave The Goon Show, Q and Monty Python their edge - their energy - was their contempt for the pious certainties of the establishment. Nowadays, most of the performers on shows like HIGNFY, QI, The News Quiz and Mock the Week seem to spend their time braying at anyone who has the temerity to question the pious certainties of this pompous progressivist era, e.g. the benignity of the EU and the UN, the undisputed validity of the science underlying Climate Change, the moral rightness of mass immigration, the utter brilliance of the NHS, the wickedness of America and Israel, the inherent peace-loving nature of Islam, the prevailing anti-white victimhood narrative, and the overriding importance of equality, inclusivity, and diversity. A few genuine anti-establishment comedy shows would be welcome - and I don't give a rat's bum about the performers' race, class or where or whether they went to university. 


  1. The BBC's savant has identified the problem of Shakespeare's land, viz., there are far too many English people in England.

  2. "Your exquisite reason, dear knight?" (12th Night)

    1. I did have a suspicion last night that I had not quoted correctly, but was too bone idle to check and you were all too polite on this occasion to point out my mistake. It is of course "Thy exquisite reason....."
      In my opinion there can never be too many English people in England. It makes me sad to think that expats don't love their native country enough to live in it.

    2. Steady on, Helen! After all, people end up living abroad for a variety of reasons - financial, romantic, climatic, health, duty, job requirements, a sense of adventure etc. In some cases, I imagine, it's because they can't bear some of the changes that have been forced on the country they love by its politicians. The expats I know tend to be patriotic to the core, and most either intend ending their days back here, or would if it weren't for the eye-wateringly high cost of living - especially property prices and school fees. My father left dirt-poor Norway for Canada when he was seventeen "in search of a better life" (the phrase that appeared on his emigration form), but joined the RAF after Norway was invaded, and, apart from a four-year stint in London, lived in Norway for the rest of his life.

  3. "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."