How budgets and technology have affected the type of TV comedy we see

I was at the London School of Economics last night for an event called Comedy As Commentary, in which a panel of writers and producers discussed the way in which “much comedy writing can be read as a kind of commentary on social life.”

But economics came into it too.

One of the panelists was Joanna Scanlan, actress and co-writer (with Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine) of the highly realistic sitcom Getting On, set in the geriatric ward on an NHS hospital.

All of the panel seemed to be big fans of the sitcom Father Ted.

“But,” Joanna pointed out, “the budgets that were available to make television at the point that Father Ted was commissioned by Channel 4 are very different from the budgets that are available to make television comedy now.

“What has happened is that the realism mode, to-camera shoot and the limited locations are partly financially driven. If you turn up in a commissioner’s office and say we have to build these props and it’ll take a six-day shoot… The Thick Of It was initially shot in two-and-a-half days per episode and Getting On was done two-and-a-half days per episode.

“They both started on BBC4, where there were very low budgets and very low expectations for audience: they were going to build it.

The Thick Of It has ended up being a huge phenomenon, but it has never had the budgets that really go with that.

“People talk about Getting On as if we really intended it to be like that, but we didn’t. It had to be like that. It couldn’t be different (because of the budget).

“The other thing is that technology has changed; cameras have changed. You can walk around a room without a cable behind the camera so therefore you can shoot in rooms without cables becoming visible on the shot.

Peter Capaldi, who directed the first two series of Getting On, said at the very beginning Why are we making television in the way that we’re making it? The technology has utterly changed. All the conventions within the production methods you can throw away.

“So I think it’s partly about letting your imagination run wild but (with lower budgets) it’s very difficult in a world where no commissioner is going to… Well, Sky is the exception. When they started commissioning comedy, Lucy Lumsden, the commissioning editor, said she wanted touchy-feely stuff, she wanted warm stuff – which is partly about their subscribers, but it’s also that she had some more money. You could make a world. You could have more than one location.

“It obviously does affect the creative vision.

“There was a BBC do a while ago where one of the heads of Comedy was saying Ooh, it’d be nice if… and showed a clip of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em – one of the most famous episodes where Frank Spencer gets hoisted up onto the steeple of the church… We can’t laugh at that sort of thing any more, because we really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s out of the question, but it would be good if we could.”

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