Tag Archives: Alan Yentob

How BBC TV forgot the person they stole a comedy series idea from

Malcolm Hardee - he never got a BBC TV series

Malcolm Hardee: Was it his original idea?

My blog yesterday mentioned Sean Brightman’s excellent tumblr pages The Alternative Alphabet.

He is quite rightly thinking of developing this idea of an A-Z of Alternative Comedy. But I have a cautionary tale for him.

At the end of the 1980s, the comedian Malcolm Hardee and I submitted an idea to Janet Street-Porter, who was then Head of Youth & Entertainment Features at BBC TV and who knew and liked Malcolm.

The idea was for a 26-part factual series titled The A-Z of Comedy. Each programme, based round a single letter of the alphabet, would include pieces on people, places and subjects, both current and past. We pitched it to the BBC because only they had such a vast visual library to draw on.

We submitted a detailed outline of the series, episode-by-episode, with a breakdown of the specific subjects in each episode.

Each episode had a balance between old and new, between recordings and newly-shot material, between people and programme clips and themes.

Janet Street-Porter was interested and submitted it to BBC2 Controller Alan Yentob, who thought about it for a while and then okayed it.

But about six months later the BBC, going through their potential projects again, decided not to go ahead with it.

Fair enough.

Fast forward a couple of years.

Malcolm Hardee gets a phone call from someone at the BBC – he is not clear if it’s a producer or a researcher – saying they are thinking of making a series called The A-Z of Comedy. It would look at various people, places and subjects, both current and past.

Malcolm often got calls from TV people wanting to plunder his encyclopaedic brain about various ideas and his contacts book for various people. They almost never paid him for any of this advice. It was a cheap and fast way to research a programme.

In this case, he said he could not help them… and then phoned me up, more bemused than angry, to tell me they had nicked our idea.

I do not know if they had stolen idea. I did not take the phone call. Malcolm reckoned they had had our programme outline lying around for a couple of years and just nicked the idea, forgetting who had originally suggested it.

Maybe they did. Indeed, I presume they did – the BBC at that time had a track record of stealing ideas.

Shit happens.

But maybe they didn’t.

It was just an idea – though beefed-up in detail in our submission.

And ideas cannot be copyrighted – only scripted formats.

Although it was our idea, it was hardly original. Indeed, Malcolm and I got our idea by distantly remembering an old TV series Alan Melville’s A to Z (on various subjects) which the BBC screened in the late-1950s.

The A-Z of Comedy is one of those ideas which lots of people will independently come up with at various times. The trick in our case was in the balancing of the various elements and in having Malcolm present it.

Basically, the truth is that, if a large company or corporation rips you off, there is nothing you can do about it. They can afford to out-finance you if you were ever stupid enough to take them to court.

And, no…

BBC TV never made the A-Z of Comedy series. Like many other ideas, including ours, it merely melted away like ice cream stains or grains of cocaine on TV executives’ desks.

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