Sean O’Grady, The Independent, June 19, 2018
Launching a range of new diverse comedy programmes, with the centrepiece a celebration of the work of Sir Lenny Henry, the controller of BBC comedy commissioning Shane Allen has declared that the days of Oxbridge male dominance on his channels are long gone.
Reflecting on the approaching 50th anniversary of Monty Python, a product largely of graduates of Cambridge University, Mr Allen commented: “If you’re 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.” He mentioned the critically-acclaimed sketch show Famalam, with a predominantly black cast and writers, as an example of what he had in mind, and citing, in particular, the popularity of Black Jesus on social media.
Praising his female commissioning team, he said: “We’ve gone from being quite a male dominated sort of selection process where you would get a lot of male middle-aged mid-life crisis comedy…
“If somebody writes a script and it says ‘fit bird’ or ‘girl next door’, whatever, it gets called bullshit when it goes through the filter of some amazing people.”
Instead, BBC Comedy now asks “What’s the diversity story?”
Challenged on whether his policy meant there would be no new Pythons or Fry and Laurie-type talent coming through, Mr Allen said that he was part of “an industry-wide impetus” for people to be “telling stories that haven’t been told”, as with This Country and Young Offenders, which had strong roots in the Cotswolds and Northern Ireland respectively.
Mr Allen contrasted those with the “metropolitan educated experience” that had been too well represented: “If it’s three guys move to London and it’s a flat share then it feels like there’s no new ground and that’s not interesting…It’s about how original a voice not what school you went to.”
Thus, many of the new shows for later this year include those promising to feature “an authentic Muslim experience” (Diary of a Hounslow Girl), mental health issues (In My Skin) and one centred on a severely learning disabled 9-year old girl (There She Goes). More conventional offerings include Ghosts, a multi-character sitcom from the creators of the Horrible Histories series, including the ghost of a Tory MP who died in a bizarre sexual accident; a new series of Motherland; and the Lenny Henry celebrations for the actor’s 60th birthday in August.
Hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald and filmed in front of a studio audience, Sir Lenny will take a lighthearted look back at his career, launched on an ITV talent show in 1975. The BBC promises “all his favourite characters, from Theophilus P Wildebeeste to Delbert Wilkins, Deakus to Mister Lister” and “new sketches featuring a number of special guests”.
Mr Allen also defended Tracey Ullman’s comedy sketches about Jeremy Corbyn because “attacking the left, right and centre is part of the whole point of satire”. He complained that making mainstream comedy shows for before the watershed is more difficult because people are not allowed to swear. He believes that comedians and writers should not be afraid of Twitter controversy because “Twitter is a playground for bullies, arseholes and cowards.”
Mr Allen concluded: “The last few years in BBC Comedy have been a boom time for new talent with multi-award winning shows including Fleabag, This Country, The Young Offenders and People Just Do Nothing.
“We get excited by the stories that haven’t been told and the voices we haven’t yet heard which is why you’ll see more and more diversity of all kinds in the output over the next few years as we break new ground. Today’s announcements signal our expansion of this commitment to championing the very best emerging British comedy talent alongside new comedy pieces that cater for the wide spectrum of tastes of our audiences.”