Monday, November 03, 2008

What does the Brand/Ross/Sachs affair mean for BBC comedy?

(written for

As Russell Brand cheekily opened his weekly Guardian column - ostensibly about football, though we all know what he's really referring to: "What a palaver". I won't comment on the original incident; lord knows there's been enough comment already without me adding to it (and in any case, it seems that your opinion is immediately invalidated in you are a fan of Brand and/or Ross. Ahem. I’m neutral on the subject, as you can tell.) No, rather than picking over the original phone calls, it is certainly worth considering what the ensuing furore means for comedy on the BBC. Is it all Last Of The Summer Wine and After You’ve Gone from here on in?

Well, as Ian Hislop said on Have I Got News For You last Friday night, the BBC has something of a track record of going from keeping schtum and acting as if nothing has happened (I think he actually used the phrase “breathless arrogance”) to fawning lapdog in the wink of an eye, so it is certainly possible that Aunty will be now be checking up on her comedy performers and writers with an unprecedented vigour - and many would say that that’s a darn good thing.

And of course to a certain extent it is - the BBC does hold a special position thanks to the licence fee and sheer world standing, and so ridiculous lapses in editorial control are not acceptable. And after all, tighter controls in this particular instance would have meant that BBC Radio 2 could have held onto its (by all accounts hugely respected) controller, and one of its most innovative presenters - and this thoroughly bizarre, frenzied week might have been avoided completely.

But while editorial control is one thing, over-zealous censorship is something else entirely, and something to be wary of. As someone who is passionate about her comedy, and who looks to the BBC for breaking acts, intelligence, and something a bit different, I can’t help but be a little concerned that comedy on the Beeb is going to lose its teeth.

It’s clear where the immediate danger lies. Shows such as Mock The Week and Never Mind The Buzzcocks which rely on often acerbic comics will be watched over with a particularly keen eye, despite the fact that sailing close to the wind is precisely what makes them so entertaining to their (probably shared) audience. Editors and producers, you assume, will try to keep Frankie Boyle in particular on a rather short leash, especially as a comment he made about the Queen eighteen months ago, but repeated this week, has already been criticised by certain sectors of the press.

The BBC must remember, however, to assume some intelligence on the part of the audience. They must remember that we are just as able as before to pick up on subtlety, intent, irony, sarcasm and above all context when considering whether something is unacceptable or simply challenging. All of these things must be taken into account - comedy out of context loses 90% of its meaning.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all comedy needs to be cutting edge to be worthy - just look at Beautiful People for an example of a comedy which could easily be tweaked for a pre-watershed slot and yet in my opinion is one of the best shows airing at the moment. But balance is necessary, and not all comedy shown on the BBC can be of this type. It goes without saying that the genuinely offensive should be cut out at source, but the BBC needs to hold its nerve, otherwise it will find itself deserted by its top talent, and - perhaps most worryingly of all - mediocrity will rule.


Jane Henry said...

I agree with every word of this Anna. The Beeb seem to specialise in navel gazing to an unhealthy degree when things go wrong (witness the soul searching after the Dr Kelly affair) and then making sure that everything falls prey to an overall dictat about subsequent behaviour (eg after the furore about phone quizzes - who in their right mind ever thought they weren't fixed? - even Ken Bruce couldn't have his poxy music quiz on.) It would be a great pity if all BBC comedy becomes anodyne as a result of this, but, it may lead to interesting interpretations of things - if the rules get stricter, praps comedians will have to be cleverer about breaking them? I have to say I am getting a bit tired of smut and innuendo, so maybe things might improve for the better. (She says hopefully).

I agree about Beautiful People as well. Think it's great.

Dean said...

I agree with most of that, though I'd argue there's even a place for genuinely offensive comedy if there's a reason for it.

Brand and Ross were just being arses by doing what they did. But if they did the same thing to, for instance, a politician that had been found to be sleeping with a 17-year old girl, and had a 17-year old daughter whom Brand had slept with then maybe there's a point.

Like so much in comedy, it's easier to forgive if something is actually funny, and not just offensive for shock value alone.

Richa@rd said...

I agree with everything you say,Anna & Jane Henry, and especially your liking of Buzzcocks, Mock the Week (& Frankie Boyle, mmm a bit rude at times, in fact all the time) & beautiful people. All are 'Must Watch' for our household.
However, we gave up on Ross & Russell some time ago. Our considered opinion is that they (JR & RB) are no better than your typical rude little boys in the playground making fun of, and making cry, the girls. Unfortunately they are both paid one hell of a lot of money for continuing to be rude big boys.
Ross's millions just added insult to injury for us - the sooner he is off the BBC permanently the better.
Chris Moyles is another dubious character. As they say, 'You're not funny, and you're not clever'.
But please please please keep the BBC and keep it cutting edge, interesting, different, but without it at times degenerating to playground showing off.

Torchwolf said...

I'm all for intelligence and cutting edges in comedy. But since when do schoolboy prank calls count as that?

Btw, you're unusally quiet. Are you writing somewhere else now, or just to busy for blogging??