New Controller of Comedy Commissioning at the BBC, Shane Allen, yesterday announced which of the corporation’s sitcoms, new and established, are to be axed, and which are to be returning. However, has he made the right choices about the recommissioning and cancelation of certain shows?
One of the casualties of the former Channel 4 Comedy chief’s shake-up is Sue Perkins’s Heading Out, in which she played vet Sara who, at the age of forty, had still not told her parents that she was gay. Over six episodes, we followed Sara as her friends had booked her sessions with a rather eccentric life coach (played by Joanna Scanlan), who helped build her confidence and find the courage to come out to her parents.
When I read that Heading Out had been given the chop, I have to say that I wasn’t particularly surprised. Whereas I wrote in my review of the first episode that the series ‘showed promise’ and it looked that there were ‘good things to come’, it failed to bloom into the brilliant show which many expected it to be, and it turns out that even Perkins’s common writer’s trick of ending the show with something of a cliffhanger, in the hope that commissioners and audiences alike will demand more, failed to work.
Don’t get me wrong, Heading Out wasn’t all that bad: it did manage to raise a few titters and I did find myself rooting for Sara. I even admired its rather unorthodox representation of gay people, which allowed them to be shown not as horrendous stereotypes but just…people, I suppose. It was an approach which is sadly rare in the world of sitcom.
GOING THE WRIGHT WAY – TO THE BIN
Next, there’s a sitcom which dealt with sexuality in a way more suited to the playground than the BBC, and one which should have been binned from the moment the writer penned his first draft: The Wright Way.
God, even writing it threatens the tears of despair which rolled down my cheeks during the transmission of Episode One. This almost universally disliked series, from hitherto reputable writer Ben Elton, focused on a local council’s Health and Safety department, headed by the series’ busybody protagonist, Gerald Wright – hence the title, The Wright Way! Oh my aching sides, Mr Elton.
The title, the jokes (or lack thereof), the title sequence, the delusion that Elton can still pen a successful sitcom, all of it was just so terribly tragic and led to the inevitability that this series would not again see the light of day. It’s not so much the inflicted boredom which influences my condemnation of The Wright Way: it’s the temerity of the BBC to commission it. During its last submissions round earlier this year, BBC Writersroom received over 2800 scripts – covering numerous genres – from budding scribes. I know, because mine was one of them. Now, I’ll bet that there were hundreds in that pile of scripts which the Writersroom team sifted through and were funnier or, if not a comedy, more worthy of the investment of licence fee payers’ money than Elton’s drivel. It’s almost as if he had a fast track ticket to a six-part series commission because he created The Young Ones and rescued Blackadder. Of course, I’m not for one moment suggesting that that is what happened, though.
Unbelievably, Shane Allen said, ‘[The Wright Way] isn’t what you’d call a flop’. And I agree – it’s not what I’d call ‘a flop’: it’s what everyone would call ‘a flop’. Ben Elton is apparently in talks about new pilots, however. Haven’t this show and Blessed (2005) taught the Beeb their lesson?
The third victim of Allen’s comedy shake-up is Getting On – which I was both saddened and surprised to read would not be returning.
Written by and starring Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, Getting On showed life in an NHS hospital, and totally lacked the glamour which medical sitcoms are usually brimming with. The trio created and played their characters brilliantly, making them rounded, relatable people whose day-to-day trials and tribulations, and reactions to them, were great to watch.
Unlike Heading Out and The Wright Way, Getting On had a true fan base – albeit a small one, given its modest three series run on BBC4. It received an RTS Award and Scanlan and Brand were each nominated for the BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Role in 2010, which the latter actually won. The series is also heading for America, as US network HBO commissioned six episodes in March. So, with such acclaim from viewers and critics, it seems a mystery as to why Getting On is getting the axe.
Perhaps the reason is that three series was deemed enough. After all, just think of other comedies which have stopped after three successful runs: Father Ted? Gimme Gimme Gimme? Gavin & Stacey? The Inbetweeners? Like these shows, I’m sure Getting On will still be fondly remembered. Plus, we aren’t going to be without Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine’s brilliance for too long, as the BBC has just announced that their new sitcom, Puppy Love, is to be filmed later this year.
SHOWS WHICH ARE GOING STRONG
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news for fans of Auntie’s comedy output: Count Arthur Strong has been given a second series, despite only one episode having aired – and even that was met with a mixed reception from its audience of just 971,000 viewers.
Shane Allen also enthused about Jennifer Saunders and her BAFTA- and Emmy Award-winning sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous, saying, ‘The door’s wide open [for it to return]’. I would definitely welcome a comeback for Ab Fab – despite many claiming that the 20th anniversary specials in 2011 and 2012 weren’t up to the standard of the original series (which ran from 1992-96, and then 2001-04) but I thought they showed the cast – comprising of ‘The Five Js’ – to be on top form, and Saunders to still possess the sharp wit and ability to pull of the satirical style which made the series such a hit in the first place. Even if Ab Fab doesn’t return, we may be seeing more from Jennifer on the BBC as Allen also said, ‘[Jennifer] is brilliant. I’d do anything she wants.’
I wouldn’t advise a West End musical though, Shane.
Also preparing for a return is The Royle Family, although it has been made clear that there are no further plans for Christmas episodes. Well if 2012’s effort is anything to go by, I’m not surprised. It was abysmal! Since the ‘Queen of Sheba’ episode in 2006, The Royle Family has moved away from its real-time routes and now jumps time settings and has even left the familiar surroundings of the Royles’ house on quite a few occasions. That took some getting used to for fans, but I think we’ve all come to just enjoy spending time with Jim and co., regardless of where it is. Last year’s Christmas special, however, ‘Barbara’s Old Ring’, was little more than an hour of far-fetched, yawn-inducing nonsense, which the BBC saw fit to broadcast at primetime on Christmas Day. I just don’t know how the writers thought that fans would be entertained by the rubbish that they handed in to the BBC – probably at the eleventh hour, something which Aherne and Cash are infamous for doing and which resulted in them not meeting the deadline to create a special for 2011. It was an inferior follow-up to the brilliant 2010 episode, which saw new character Saskia (Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt) go into labour a mere few seconds before the closing credits rolled. Skip forward two years and there’s not one mention of Saskia – who Antony had proposed to in the same episode – or her baby. It’s not what fans deserved, and I for one won’t be crying out for another special if the quality does not return to what we had become accustomed to with previous episodes.
So, in answer to the original question, I think Allen has made some ‘Wright’ decisions for BBC Comedy – axing Elton’s effort being the best of them all. However, I also believe that he has made some wrong ones – Getting On didn’t deserve the axe and maybe (just maybe) Heading Out should have been given a second chance (as Allen himself stated, ‘Only Fools and Horses took two series before it bedded in’). I also hope that he only gives the green light to specials of The Royle Family if they are up to scratch, unlike the last one, and that he has done the right thing in recommissioning Graham Linehan’s latest venture, Count Arthur Strong, so early on. After all, previous successes don’t guarantee that a show will work.
Ben Elton has learned that.
What did you think of Shane Allen’s decisions? Do you agree or disagree with me? Please comment below or tweet me – @UKTVReviewer.
You can also see my recommendations for the coming week’s TV on this blog, published every Saturday at midnight.