Social media brings a new source of pressures to the job of being the BBC’s comedy chief, Shane Allen tells Mark Lawson
Both Monty Python’s Flying Circus and W1A – shows produced by the BBC Comedy department five decades apart – featured a gag in which the BBC head of comedy is revealed to be a dour, humourless figure on the brink of clinical depression.
“Yes. And Episodes did a bit of that, as well,” laughs Shane Allen, when the long-running gag about his job is mentioned, thereby establishing that it could not apply to him. The tape of our conversation is fittingly – though, given some of his predecessors, not inevitably – punctuated with his deep laugh.
"I'm a nerdy fan of comedy, so this is the perfect job for me."
The exact title on Allen’s business cards is, in line with current BBC corporate structures: controller, comedy commissioning. Six years after he arrived from the equivalent post at Channel 4, the burly Northern Irishman can smile at 14 nominations in the 2018 Virgin TV British Academy Television and Television Craft Awards, for shows including This Country, Detectorists, Famalam, Motherland, Inside No 9, Peter Kay’s Car Share, and Pls Like. This Country was also the stand-out success at March’s RTS Programme Awards, winning in three categories.
“I’m a nerdy fan of comedy,” says Allen, “so this is the perfect job for me. The only downside is when you tell people what you do for a living. Because comedy excites such strong passions. Every week, my mother-in-law has a conversation about Mrs Brown’s Boys and why it shouldn’t be on TV. And I threaten that I’ll put her in a home where she will have to watch it until she likes it.”
In common with those in other areas of programming, he worries that multichannel competition and social media opinion-leading create a need to succeed immediately. But the history of comedy demonstrates that the first series of Blackadder “wasn’t quite right”, and, at the start, Father Ted “wasn’t fully formed”, while Only Fools and Horses “really caught fire on the third series”.
You wouldn’t get that time now? “I think the learning curve is truncated. Maybe 10 years ago, you got a chance at a second series. Which is why I’m a big fan of pilots – iron out the kinks, come to air fully formed.”
Allen is helped in serving a range audiences by having notably broad tastes. He worked on Chris Morris’s darkly subversive series, Brass Eye, but is also, defying his wife’s mother, a fan of a show from an antithetical tradition of bawdy populism: Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown’s Boys.
He stresses that the latter enthusiasm is not a case of being forced to support a hit he inherited at the BBC: “It started when I was at Channel 4, and I looked on jealously.”
O’Carroll has said that he targeted “the audience that television forgot”. Allen agrees: “I think it was – as it often is – a case of the secret public committee who apparently decide what’s funny and what isn’t. And, post The Office, they decided that the studio sitcom was dead, not realising that there is a huge number of sub-genres and schools.”
"There’s a physical reaction with comedy that you don’t get with other forms.”
Growing up, the first TV comedy he loved was The Two Ronnies: “I remember all the generations watching together. And loving hearing my grandad laugh. There’s a physical reaction with comedy that you don’t get with other forms.”
Much work from the 1960s to the 1980s has proved astonishingly durable. The Two Ronnies and Morecambe & Wise still feature in the Christmas schedules, and repeats of Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers can still top the BBC Two ratings. “A lot of the stuff from that period is timeless because it’s character comedy,” says Allen. “They last for ever, and new generations discover them. Of more recent work, I think Alan Partridge is getting there.”
The obverse of such longevity is that some pieces from that period are now considered unfit for broadcast because of racist or sexist language and attitudes. One of Allen’s first decisions at the BBC involved making cuts to the racist rhetoric of the major in Fawlty Towers. He makes clear that, ultimately, “it was John Cleese’s decision to take it out”.
In a time when offence is so easily taken – and then rapidly inflamed on social media – does comedy become harder to make? “Yeah. I think there are more organised lobby groups these days because of social media. But, in a perverse way, it makes you more resolute. I see a lot of [the objections] as white noise.
“Social media can be a playground for arseholes and cowards and bullies. I think – as long as you are forensic in your processes about why you are doing something – then I don’t think anything is off limits. So we do Frankie Boyle, and Inside No 9 goes into some quite dark and challenging places: a snuff movie at Christmas, for instance. I think, in the past, where things have come unstuck, it’s been a lack of scrutiny and lack of referral. With Frankie Boyle, we work through the script, testing the editorial justification.”
So there has to be a right to offend people? “God, yes. There has to be. Different people will get offended by different things. You can’t legislate for potential offence, or you end up with the most homogenously bland comedy.” He admits to having read one sitcom where the language was so relentlessly strong that he felt it might put people off. Traditionally, BBC executives are nervous about specifying negative examples, but Allen, when asked, immediately replies: “White Gold, first series. I got them to tone it down a bit. Later, the programme-makers told me they thought I was right.”
Another consequence of social media is personal abuse of writers and performers. Allen thinks that “there’s a duty of care with talent, especially younger talent”. Before transmission of This Country, his team contacted its creators, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper: “We said, ‘You will be tempted to look at social media for affirmation. Don’t do it! If you do it, it’s your own fault if you get upset. Because it’s not a happy place.’”
Do comedy makers even get death threats? “Yeah. It’s horrific. ‘Whoever commissioned this should be shot in the face’.” So does Allen follow social media? “No. It gets digested and reported to me. But, hand on heart, I’d never follow the reaction live. Because it’s a self-appointed elite and cabal. At the BBC, we’re often trying to find populist pieces and, the more populist a piece is, the bigger the backlash seems to be, paradoxically.
“When I was at Channel 4, the big shows – The IT Crowd, Black Books – were the studio shows. And that [genre] is shrinking now, and writers are often frightened of BBC One because of the seemingly inevitable backlash. But we are doggedly persisting in looking for populist, studio-based shows.”
Allen’s only regret about studio comedy is its historical effect on budgets: “Comedy was one tariff because it was studio-based, and drama was a higher tariff because it was shot on location. And that equation persists to this day.”
Whether in a studio or the currently dominant genre of docu-com (This Country, Detectorists, People Just Do Nothing), Allen has increasingly come to the view that, for successful comedy, heart is as important as smart one-liners.
“That moment in Mum where the guy suddenly says his mum’s died. It’s like the death of Nan in The Royle Family, or when Cassandra has the miscarriage in Only Fools and Horses. I’m trying to find pieces with that kind of truth.
"I’m more nervous of high-concept things that can burn themselves out quite quickly.”
“The shows that have done quite well for us recently – Mum, This Country, People Just Do Nothing, The Young Offenders – they come from a real place. Stefan Golaszewski, in Mum, is writing about all sorts of people he has known in his life. This Country is so autobiographical, it’s unbelievable. I’m more nervous of high-concept things that can burn themselves out quite quickly.”
Fleabag and The Young Offenders also clearly feel very personal. So, is “sit-memoir” the prevailing BBC trend? “Yes. It’s very prevalent, writing about your own world. You can sniff the truth.”
With the BBC publicly committed to increasing diversity of race, gender, class and age, the comedy department has less to worry about than some parts of the corporation.
“When Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne died in the same year ,” Allen remembers, “there was a panic about where the next funny women were coming from. But now, if you draw up a list of the talent you’d really want to work with – Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Holly Walsh, Sharon Horgan – they’re all women. And I think that’s the result of a deliberate shift in commissioning and having more women commissioning editors.”
Nor does there seem to be a retirement age for comedy writers. Eighty year-old Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, 82, revived Porridge last year, and Roy Clarke is writing a series of Still Open All Hours for screening in his 90th year: “It’s astonishing. Roy has written more half-hour comedy than anyone in the history of television.”
British comedy was also often seen in the past as an exclusive club for those of certain backgrounds. In the days of Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe, a search for new comedy talent often consisted of a BBC producer going to see that year’s Oxbridge revues, perhaps even staying over on his own old college staircase.
But, says Allen, “When we started Famalam, the question we asked was: how would you now do a ‘gangshow’, such as Monty Python or Not the Nine O’Clock News? And we decided that it would be young black people talking about their experience of life.”
The 20-minute Famalam is a good example of how newer distribution methods (it originated on the online only BBC Three) allow the creation of unconventional formats, impossible in a standard, clock-watching schedule. “Yes, it’s quite liberating that you can just say that a show will be as long as it’s funny for.”
The most common private gripe from TV comedy writers and performers is being told by executives what is and isn’t funny. Allen recognises this problem: “That creative freedom element is crucial. I think, with people at the start of their careers, you want to give advice and warn against some mistakes, without being dictatorial.
“But, in a TV world where there are so many more places to sell your stuff and have a career, why is anyone going to come back to the BBC if you are heavy-handed and restrictive? I was pleased that a lot of talent from Channel 4 – Peter Kay, Charlie Brooker – seemed to trust me enough to want to come across.”
Now that talent has so many other places to go, isn’t there a risk that the BBC could become a showcase for Netflix and Amazon to choose who they want to recruit? “I think that is already happening, with Charlie Brooker and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And that’s why we double down on new talent. Netflix tends to want the famous talent and proven thing. But, in This Country, we took a punt on unknown people who had never been on TV before. And that has to be our thing: pipelining the next generation.”
The BBC’s best selling point, Allen believes, is large and verifiable audiences or, as he puts it: “It’s about eyeballs. Netflix doesn’t publish audience figures. And there was a gold rush towards Sky a while ago. But, then, people realise that no one’s really watching the show and say: can we come back? Steve Coogan got annoyed that people didn’t know what he was doing.
"iPlayer’s a pretty potent force for making sure that people can connect with a range of stuff."
“Things such as This Country and Cunk on Britain, they get a million overnight and then a million more on iPlayer. I think iPlayer’s a pretty potent force for making sure that people can connect with a range of stuff. Comedy is the genre that performs best on catch-up and box sets. So, we can give talent eyeballs and relevance.”
What have been his first mistakes as controller, comedy commissioning? “Oh, fucking hell. Where do you want to start? Tons. Mainly where we’ve rushed things to air, before they were fully formed – I think we’ve failed them.”
Will he give examples? “Nah. It would be mean on the talent.”
On his production slate for 2018-19 are second series of Motherland, Fleabag and Hold the Sunset (with the long-run-averse John Cleese committed to return), third runs of Mum and This Country, and a fifth season of Inside No 9. People Just Do Nothing will be promoted from BBC Three to BBC Two.
“It’s a good patch at the minute,” says Allen. “But it’s like being a midwife – you’re just worried about whether the next one will come out the right way round.”