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Writing radio comedy
Jane Berthoud, the Head of BBC Radio Comedy, and writer Dave Cohen discuss the state of BBC radio comedy and the opportunities for writers
What sort of health is BBC radio comedy in?
Jane Berthoud: I think it is in very good health actually. The figures on Radio 4, which is where most of our stuff goes, are going up, particularly the figures at 6.30pm. We’ve also launched a Radio 4 Comedy Of The Week podcast and that went straight to the top of the iTunes charts. And Gwyneth Williams, the new Controller of Radio 4, has announced a new slot for comedy that will start in October on Sundays. So, generally, yes, I’d say we are in pretty good shape; though that’s not to say there aren’t places that we need to make improvements.
And Dave, as writer for radio comedy, what’s your perception of how things are at the moment, and how things have changed over recent years?
Dave Cohen: BBC radio continues to make shows by very well known people that are very successful, so in a good way it hasn’t changed at all. I think the big change is that in the past there were more routes for people to get into comedy, but BBC Radio is now almost the only place for writers starting out.
And what about the kind of comedy output that BBC Radio is doing now?
Dave: Over the past 20 years, with the rise of stand-up, the writer-performer has become much more important. When I started in the early 1980s, there were a few of us who were writing and performing, but generally the writer was king.Jane: Has there been a rise in stand-up the last 20 years? Absolutely. And there was a while when radio and TV couldn’t quite work out what you did with stand-up I think, and that they wanted stand-up in other shapes and forms. Only yesterday somebody quoted to me that in the last 7 years 10 times more people go to see stand-up comedy than used to. So that’s huge. So, does radio comedy reflect that? Yes it does, and rightly so because we’re providing for the audience that loves comedy and TV is starting to catch up. I think that there has been another slight change in that our lives have got busier and busier, so it becomes harder to put a sitcom on at 6.30pm that demands a lot from listeners. There was a sitcom called Party on recently, written by Tom Basden – it’s a scripted sitcom, but it plays primarily for gags, so it’s not too plot-heavy. I think that Clare in the Community sits well at 6.30pm and Ed Reardon sits well at 6.30pm. But we do have much more traditional sitcom that plays at 11.30 in the morning, and also 11 o’clock at night.
As the Head of BBC Radio Comedy, how concerned are you about the balance and range of your output?
Jane: We do map it out a but it’s also a little bit random, and if something comes in that’s amazing you would try and fit it in. At the same time we are looking for huge swathes of things that we haven’t got: things by women and things with women in, for example.
You don’t see enough material by women writers?
Jane: More are coming through, and there have been as many female as make producers for quite a long time, and that also makes some difference I think. It will all slowly get there.
Dave: While we’re on the subject of diversity, there’s also the question of representations of disability. I’ve been involved with various attempts to try and kind of get more disabled people involved but it’s difficult because you can’t make a show that’s about diversity, because it just sounds too worthy and not very funny, usually.
Jane: You can positively discriminate by looking for certain types of writers and performers, but you’re not going to put them on if they’re not funny.Would you say there any particular sort of programme proposals that you just get a bit too much of?
Jane: Stuff that’s just not funny enough? Far too much of that.
I guess that’s always around!
Jane: I don’t want in any way to be prescriptive, but there were some quite interesting things that I noticed when I arrived. One of them is that because it’s radio, and because you can go anywhere, I think that people can have a tendency to overcomplicate. When I arrived I don’t think there was a single sitcom that was set in 20th century ordinary Britain, which I found quite odd actually.
Dave: I remember when I first started here a lot of sitcoms would come through set in newspaper offices because a lot of comedy writers were ex-journalists. So perhaps rather than just writing about what you know, write about the things that make you passionate, the things that tap into you emotionally and make you angry or irritated or upset.
So it’s about having your comedic voice?
Dave: Yes. It’s quite hard to get there, but you just have to keep pushing away. It’s almost like you have to prod yourself, you know, come on, come on, what is it? Annoy yourself almost.
Given the rise of the writer-performer, would you say it’s harder for someone who is just a writer now?
Jane: I think there was time, when we didn’t have Week Ending, when it was a real problem. I produced that show and the initial writer relationships that I had in comedy came through that. Each week there were about 10 or 12 commissioned writers, but it was open to absolutely everybody. And that stopped about 10 years or so ago, and I would say there was a gap, and we started to see the impact of that all the way through; of people who hadn’t been trained and hadn’t had that contact with the department. There wasn’t a way in.
I know that was a concern of the Guild’s. Dave in particular lobbied very hard to get new shows for non-commissioned writers.
Jane: It was terrible. I can understand that you need to change the world and move on and all the rest of it but I think that it took a long time for people to really understand the damage that that was doing. But now we do have Newsjack, on Radio 7 and that’s going a huge way towards filling those gaps I think. And then on Radio 4 there was a show called Recorded For Training Purposes which would take some of those writers and give them their first commission, and there’s about to be a thing called the Headset Set that is a similar idea.
If there are people who are new to radio comedy, is it best for them to look out for one of those shows? Or can they send scripts in to the BBC Writersroom? Or should they send scripts in to a producer or to you?
Jane: Any or all of those things really. I would say the number one thing is to listen first. So listen to Newsjack on 7, listen to comedy on Radio 4, decide what it is you want to write and how you want to go about it. Then look in the Radio Times and see who produces the things that you like the most. Target those producers with something that’s suitable. We’ve also produced a leaflet ‘Comedy Writing Top Tips’ that, at Dave’s request, we have now put online at the BBC Writersroom.
Dave: Another victory for the Writers’ Guild.
Is radio comedy still London-centric?
Jane: Yes, it is. But we have taken on somebody in Manchester and there is an initiative going on at the moment that is moving into Newcastle as well. We go up to the Leicester Comedy Festival and elsewhere but yes, a lot of it is based here.
Finally, what shows are you particularly enjoying at the moment or that we should look out for?
Jane: I really liked Party, that was something that hit the right note for me. It was suitably silly but slightly satirical – some people misunderstood it and just thought it was quite puerile but I saw something. I thought the performances were great, it made me laugh. We we are developing a great sketch show with Alice Lowe that I like a lot. And Kay Stoneham’s got some interesting ideas coming through.
Dave: I love Ed Reardon, it’s perfect radio. And, going back a year or two, I think Sunday Format , which I was involved with in a small way, was an example of how radio comedy can work brilliantly
This is an edited transcript of a podcast that can be heard on the Writers’ Guild website, via iTunes or through the Guild’s app for the iPhone and iPad.