ITV brings home the bacon with new comedy Piglets

ITV brings home the bacon with new comedy Piglets

Thursday, 4th July 2024
A group of police officers and trainees, one in plain clothes, stands outside Norbourne Police Training College
Callie Cooke, Abdul Sessay, Rebecca Humphries, Sam Pote, Mark Heap, Sarah Parish, Jamie Bisping, Halema Hussain and Sukh Kaur Ojla (credit: ITV)
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ITV hopes that its new comedy Piglets can bring the laughs back to Saturday night.

New ITV sitcom Piglets ramps up the gag count and restores the silliness to comedy. Belly laughs, not navel gazing, are its stock in trade. “That’s all we really want to do, make people laugh – we’re not out to change the world,” says Victoria Pile of Smack the Pony and Green Wing fame, who co-writes, directs and produces.

The idea for the six-part series, set in a police training college, came to Pile while walking in her local park. “A bunch of youths rushed past and I was thinking, ‘What’s going down?’. Then I heard their walkie-talkies – they were the cops, not the hoolies. I thought they looked literally 12. I went home and we all had a laugh about the pigs being piglets these days,” she recalls.

ITV Head of Scripted Comedy Nana Hughes was immediately hooked: “First and foremost, it was a very funny script; that’s what sold it – it was all on the page and laugh-out-loud funny. I was a big fan of Green Wing and Smack the Pony – there’s top-tier comedy talent behind them.”

Sarah Parish, currently starring in Netflix drama Geek Girl, and Mark Heap, another veteran of Green Wing and brilliant in Friday Night Dinner, star as no-nonsense Superintendent Julie Spry and dithery Superintendent Bob Weekes, who run the training centre.

“We needed some grown-ups in there who had good comedy track records. I’ll always attempt to get Mark in everything but I’d never worked with Sarah before. But, oh my God, what a joy,” says Pile.

Parish, who usually dazzles on screen, is almost unrecognisable as a frumpy police officer, sporting terrible teeth and hair. “I had a very positive reservation about Sarah, which was that she is so beautiful. How could we put her in this role? She just went for it – you wouldn’t recognise her. What a trouper!

“Sarah and Mark had a really good chemistry on screen and all the youngsters just loved working with them.”

The young cast includes actors with no experience (or next to none) of TV, including Sam Pote (Leggo), Abdul Sessay (Dev) and Jamie Bisping (Paul).

Piglets, which is made by Monicker Pictures, reunites writers from Channel 4 shows Green Wing and Campus: Pile, Robert Harley, James Henry, Oriane Messina, Richard Preddy and Fay Rusling. “Obviously, it’s tried and tested having the same group and it’s got huge benefits for us, but there are limitations. We were very keen on a show like this to reflect what’s going on in society.”

The sitcom therefore bloods new writers, principally Omar Khan [see sidebar] who joined the writers’ room through the ITV Comedy Writers Initiative, a scheme aimed at writers under-represented in comedy such as people of colour.

Trainee police, Pile continues, “are mostly in their early twenties and have very different experiences and diverse backgrounds… that’s why we expanded our [writing] team.… We absorbed Omar into our little gang.

“He has these slightly offbeat, off-kilter, whacko thoughts, which are hard to find. That’s what I’ve always made my living out of, having a group of people who are slightly weird and eccentric and have this surreal take on things. Omar was a lovely fit.”

Although Pile knew Khan before Piglets, he had to apply via the ITV initiative; there was no favouritism at play. A further four writers were chosen to join an annexe to the writers room and also contributed to the series.

“This is a brilliant initiative,” says Pile. “I feel we’ve made contact with some people who are going to have some really interesting careers.”

Piglets is part of a double bill, following series two of Alan Carr sitcom Changing Ends, in a new ITV1 comedy hour from 9.00pm to 10.00pm on Saturday. Hughes says: “[We’re] trying to find a home for comedy on ITV where people go, ‘That’s the comedy slot’.”

Hughes is on a mission to locate the nation’s funny bone. She’s already had success with Changing Ends and schoolkid sitcom G’Wed, and is hoping Piglets makes it a hat-trick of hits.

“They’re funny shows, crammed with jokes,” says Hughes, who joined the broadcaster in 2020. “I learnt early on that the ITV audience likes a lot of jokes.”

TV comedy has been lacking laughs, she argues. “Fleabag – love it or hate it, and I think it’s great – is tonally a different kind of comedy. All of a sudden, every comedian wanted to write their version of that, so we had to get that out of our system and then get back to… writing good jokes.”

The ITV audience is “quite conservative”, says Hughes. “Piglets is an interesting trial – it could go either way. The characters are quite broad and it’s also quite silly in its comedy, but you could say, ‘Maybe it feels a little bit too quirky?’. Fingers crossed… that people will love it. I really hope so because I think it’s fantastic: Mark Heap and Sarah Parish are awesome and the piglets are great.”

Omar Khan’s big break

Omar Khan (Credit: United Agents)

Young east Londoner Omar Khan was chosen from more than 300 applicants to join the Piglets writers room as part of the ITV Comedy Writers Initiative.

Recalling the experience, the engaging and enthusiastic writer/actor says: ‘It was really insightful and educational because I hadn’t written as part of a team before, let alone a team of such legends.

‘The comedy initiative took a punt on new young writers – that’s the kind of opportunity people on the periphery of the industry are starving for. It’s hard; there are not that many opportunities for new writers – [the industry] feels very gated. But schemes like this help young people take the next step in their career.’

Khan was inspired to write after a catastrophic performance in school exams. ‘I got 10 As for my GCSEs – I was one of those little wankers who didn’t even try,’ he recalls. ‘Then, in my first year of A-levels, I got D, U, D, U and completely failed.

‘I always liked writing – I grew up reading novels; so I decided to write a sitcom about it, to make something good of it, called The Resit, which I did when I was 19, 20.’

Khan made it to university, studying psychology at Westminster University, and graduated in 2019. Then Covid hit. ‘I wrote so much, honing my craft by myself,’ he says. ‘I was watching films and TV series. I had no formal education in writing; I just really enjoyed storytelling.’

Then his career started to take off. In 2022, Khan wrote and acted in an award-winning short film funded by Netflix, Queen of Diamonds. Handily, Piglets' writer/producer/director Victoria Pile and National Youth Theatre Artistic Director Paul Roseby attended a screening, and both were impressed.

Last year, Khan won an Emmy, the Sir Peter Ustinov Award for an unaired drama pilot by non-American writers under 30, with Pocket Man. ‘I submitted a script and, two months later, I was sitting in New York with Jesse Armstrong and some of the biggest writers in the world,’ he says.

In August, his play, the comic revenge thriller Blue Kimera, in which Khan also stars, is being performed by the National Youth Theatre. He is also in discussions about developing Pocket Man.

‘Writing and performing is all I think about,’ he admits, but it has ‘led to the career I’m currently having and the places I aspire to go to’.

Piglets is due to air on ITV1 from 20 July; the whole series will be available on ITVX from the same day.