Ha, Ha, Ha; Forget Education, Education, Education: Comedy Is King

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), November 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Ha, Ha, Ha; Forget Education, Education, Education: Comedy Is King


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Little Britain (BBC3)

My Life in Film (BBC3)

Professor Patrick Barwise, in his review of the BBC's digital-only television channels, concluded that BBC3 was not good value for money because it reached too few people. His solution was for it to loosen the remit that requires it to entrance the 25- to 34-year-old audience. Doubtless the professor was thinking of its celebrity-obsessed, Heatstyle shows Liquid News and Celebdaq, which, before being culled in January, was attracting only 25,000 viewers of any age.

But as so often with reports, there was a professorial lag between the research and the publication of the conclusions. In the meantime, the BBC's crafty new director general, Mark Thompson, had already addressed the problem. In his deliberately opaque lecture to the Edinburgh TV festival, media Kremlinologists finally discerned a new BBC commitment to comedy. "Ha, ha, ha" would be Thompson's equivalent of Tony Blair's "education, education, education". BBC3 has turned out to be the comedy chalkface.

I am not complaining. We all need a laugh. It is interesting, however, that the transition has come about not by ministerial diktat or through consultation with the regulator, Ofcom, but by a logic that any commercial broadcaster would recognise. BBC3 was not great at attracting 25- to 34-year-olds partly because the programmes it aimed at them, such as Celebdaq, were amateurish, and partly, no doubt, because 25- to 34-year-olds have other things to do, such as clubbing and changing nappies. But BBC3, like the rest of the corporation, is rather good at comedy. Its hit of last year, Little Britain, won audiences of up to 453,000, and many more when it was repeated on BBC2.

The opening episode of the second series (19 October) reached nearly two million viewers, a result that Sky One and E4 would kill their best Friends reruns for. Little Britain is derivative and less inspired, not to mention less fast, than The Fast Show, and less wicked than The League of Gentlemen, but there is no disputing that the sketch show from David Walliams (surely a typo at the register office) and Matt Lucas has added to the national stock of characters. In the first episode of series two, the nightmare teenager Vicky Pollard ("Yeah but no but yeah but") was caught stealing a whole cash register from the local supermarket, and virginal Dafydd, who wrongly claims to be the only gay in the village, came out to his parents, leaving his mother to ask kindly: "Have you had no arse action at all?"

We also got some new characters. These included a hideously obese woman named Bubbles who, overconfident of her charms, revealed herself in full-frontal glory; a wet called Harvey who, at 30, still suckles from Mummy's breast; and two village bigots, one of whom showed expertise at projectile vomiting. …

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