The future of British television comedy in the north

Wednesday 12 October 2011, 13:24

Peter Salmon Peter Salmon Director, England

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Eric Morecambe, Glenda Jackson and Ernie Wise in 'Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show' (1972)

Eric Morecambe, Glenda Jackson and Ernie Wise in 'Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show' (1972)

'Hello, my darlings'. The first television words I ever remember. Spoken by the pint-sized comic Charlie Drake. It could easily have been Captain Mainwaring's 'Stupid Boy', courtesy of the immortal Arthur Lowe or something from Hylda Baker. And let's not forget that other Hilda, Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden - my nomination for the funniest performance on British television for 50 years.

Catchphrases and comics lit up my childhood and now we are searching for next generation comedy artists. And the North is a great place to start looking.When we think of great, iconic comedic talent, a whole host of Northern names immediately spring to mind. From classic entertainers like Morecambe and Wise, Les Dawson, and of course Hylda Baker, we can chart the history of comedy through the likes of Victoria Wood, Vic and Bob, Caroline Aherne, Peter Kay to performer including John Bishop, Lee Mack, Ross Noble, Sarah Millican, and the extraordinary Steve Coogan.

It continues to provide a rich seam of new talent like promising North East comics Jason Cook and Chris Ramsay. Both of them will be in action at the Sitcom Showcase this week, where six new sitcoms will get their first outing in front of a live audience at MediaCityUK.

But it's not just on-air that the talent flourishes in the north. There are the writers as well. Great writers such as the three Alans - Bleasdale, Bennett and Ayckbourn -as well as Willy Russell, Tim Firth and John Godber to name just a very few. Some funny, others with a blacker sensibility.

Even the soaps here have humour at their heart - look at the differences between Corrie and EastEnders for example. You could never imagine someone on Albert Square proclaiming "Hey Stan look, we have two taps." God bless Hilda Ogden, they were her first words and established her life- affirming character for the next twenty-three years.

So, why is television comedy so important to people? It's simple. It makes us feel better. Cheers up the nation. Sometimes, I think it should be prescribed by the NHS!

BBC research shows that audiences in the north see humour as their 'default' setting - it's part of who they are and how they get through every day of their lives. Not an add-on or luxury item. Memorable sitcoms like Open All Hours, The Likely Lads, Bread, The Royle Family, Phoenix Nights, Dinnerladies and The League of Gentlemen, were amongst the many sitcoms with a strong Northern flavour. Yet for the BBC, comedy is the very thing that audiences we don't naturally attract, love to watch. It gives the corporation a warmth that our Reithian traditions sometimes frustrates.

So investing in comedy is one route to appeal to some parts of the UK and licence-payers we can struggle to reach. In fact, ambitious UK comedy - especially on BBC One and BBC Three - has a major role to play as part of the BBC's editorial priorities moving forward. While we meet the challenge to find the recently announced 20 percent cutbacks, we will ensure that comedy remains a priority for the BBC.

Of course the BBC doesn't have sole claim to entertaining audiences with unforgettable comedy. Granada Television in Manchester has been the home to terrific comedies across the years with shows like Nearest and Dearest, Wood and Walters and Surgical Spirit. Whilst over the Pennines, Yorkshire Television enjoyed success with the much-cherished Rising Damp as well as A Bit Of a Do and Hallelujah.

No one should underestimate the debt owed to Coronation Street here. The rich tradition of comedy characters from Ena, Minnie as well as Hilda and Stan, through to Jack and Vera, Percy and Phyllis and latterly Becky and Steve and Roy and Hayley, and Blanche of course, delivered hilarious comic dialogue amidst the pathos.

Following stints on Corrie, a number of their writers then set their sights successfully on narrative and in some cases, typically Northern bawdy and larger-than-life comedy. Paul Abbott joined Linda Green to create Shameless, Jonathan Harvey gave us Tom and Linda in Gimme Gimme Gimme and as well as the characters in Beautiful People and Carmel Morgan worked on Drop Dead Gorgeous and The Royle Family.

Other Northern talent took a different route. Victoria Wood, Steve Coogan, Peter Kay and Paul O'Grady with his alter ego Lily Savage added to the mix with their big, warm characters. And even before them, let's not forget the likes of Russ Abbott, Cannon and Ball and even the Grumbleweeds .... All part of a broader northern comedic culture.

But while it's good to reminisce and celebrate the North's comedic heritage, we also need to look forward and nurture and support emerging talent to find the next laugh.

For us at the BBC it means replacing long- runners from Last of The Summer to Two Pints of Lager. While Northern comedy is still going strong - from ITV's Benidorm to Shameless and Sirens on Channel 4 and the very promising Trollied starring the multi-talented Lancastrian Jane Horrocks on Sky - a raft of new and emerging comedy productions will also be making an appearance on viewers' screens.

We'll be making a pilot of Pearlygate, a new sitcom directed by David Jason here in Salford, and later this week we will announce and pilot six studio comedy pilots, some of which may be broadcast on BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Three. And given that comedy has a natural home here in the north, I would be incredibly chuffed if Salford became the new home of great British comedy production. As we open our big studios for business, Coronation Street moves cobble by cobble to our site and The Comedy Carpet gets rolled out at Blackpool, maybe its time got a lot more northern funny business again.

Peter Salmon is Director of BBC North

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