Monday, 24 January 2011

Middle class? TV? You've got to be joking.

Danny Cohen, the new controller of BBC1, has ruffled the feathers of a few in the media by apparently issuing a Soviet style diktat that the comic content on the main channel has become too middle class. See the story here.
 That made me laugh, which is more than Danny Cohen's output on BBC3 (his previous job) was able to do.
  Apparently the shows he has highlighted have been the award winning Outnumbered and the hugely popular My Family.

  The first is about a history school teacher (not a lawyer, doctor, judge or banker) and his wife raising their three children in a leafy part of London (but not Hampstead or Mayfair). They are educated, respectably well off (certainly not starving) but not rich (the children go to state schools).
  My Family, the long running sitcom series devised by American talent for the BBC, stars Robert Lindsey as a dentist (admittedly one of the better off professions) who, along with his wife, is raising their now grown up children in a leafy part of what I think is probably greater London.
  Considering these shows alone you might conclude that Cohen is right. But the problem with stories like these is that you can summon examples of shows past and present that prove or disprove the controller's point.
  True, neither of these shows feature main characters who work from white vans, go to the caff for a fry up or spend the night in front of the box drinking lager and or cups of steaming brown tea. But what about The Royle Family, a hugely popular recent sitcom for, er, BBC2 and BBC1? Did the recent revival of Rab C Nesbitt benefit from its roots in Scottish working class culture, or was it cliched nonsense about drunk Jocks?
  Critics are often baffled by the success of My Family, but it works because it is a classic sitcom in the American style. Plenty going on, recognisable characters that are both flawed and lovable, and no politics.
  Outnumbered differs from My Family in that it is clever, well observed and done in a minimalist style that plays up the relationship between the baffled parents and their bizarre offspring. But let's be honest people, well written though it is, it ain't Shakespeare. It ain't Brecht. It ain't all that smart. Hell, it ain't even Curb Your Enthusiasm.

  Armando Iannucci has said that British TV was (I'm paraphrasing a bit) "a room full of university educated people wondering what people who didn't go to university would want to watch".
  He has a point. There's a rift between the kind of people who run TV and the masses who watch it. As a result you get this strange double think and musings by the likes of the privately educated, university degree carrying Danny Cohen, along the lines of: if only we had more Porridge.
  (Porridge, incidentally, that wasn't inspired so much by prison experience as by the writers' attending an English public boarding school.)
  There's an unfortunate consequence to all this and it's reflected in the fact that Cohen has apparently focussed on issues of CLASS when he should have been talking about the QUALITY OF THE WRITING.
  The best shows, drama and comedy, come out of America where they seriously invest in writing. Where writers work in teams. Where they earn proper salaries. Where there is an expectation that a half hour comedy should have three plots ticking along at once, multifaceted characters and a credible sense of reality.

  Think about it: 30 Rock is a show about TV people, many of which are millionaires. Seinfeld was about wealthy Manhattanites and their concerns. Even Everyone Loves Raymond is about a sports journalist and his family in a smart neighbourhood outside New York. Hardly On the Buses. If Mad Men had been pitched to a British TV company, would they have insisted on setting it in Yorkshire at the time of the 1980s mining dispute?
  These shows work because they are well written and performed: they are funny, perfectly plotted and manage to produce 20-30 shows a year, thanks to a team writing system that brings in many different talents.
  British sitcoms, which ten to be written by individuals or by teams of just two or three, are woefully inadequate when it comes to plotting and gags per minute. And its plot and gags, not the character's career, that really matters.
  Imagine pitching Curb Your Enthusiasm to a British TV exec:
  OK, its about Larry. He's a grumpy billionaire....
  Billionaire? No, you've got to be kidding... who can relate to a billionaire? Next!

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