Daniel Reast is an MRes History and BA (Hons) History and Politics graduate from the University of Portsmouth. He has written for the IAFOR Online journal and Portsmouth Postgraduate Review on the subject of comedy history, as well as his own blogs and website discussing politics and society. In this blog Daniel reflects on the development of television comedy in the modern era and asks whether it can be as ground-breaking as comedies from the so-called ‘Golden Age’of the 1970s and 1980s.
In May of this year, Channel 4 was proud to present Carry on Brussels: Inside the EU, a short documentary series following the European Parliament in its daily struggles, and pressures existing from the Brexit vote. While a natural reaction from some viewers to this series was to become ideologically enraged by the ‘positive’ representations exhibited on screen, the majority of viewers were watching through glasses tinted by satire and passive aggression. The series was a resounding success for Channel 4, whose reputation has been tainted by property programmes and dull lifestyle documentaries. The network’s history is well remembered as the first major programmer to ‘rebel’ against conformist three-channel domination on British television. It was the mouthpiece for alternative comedy and an anarchic attempt of Thatcherist satire. Alas, those heady days of near-Marxist parody and rebellion are long gone. The traditional television industry is losing its business and viewers to the young upstarts of streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. The boxset has replaced the soap opera, and American programming has emerged as an imperial power to dominate popular television.
When I first researched the comedy programming of the 1970s and 1980s, it was without any difficulty to find examples of popular material. The ‘Golden Age’, as I deemed it to be, was awash with sitcoms and sketch shows which were to transform British popular culture for generations. Even today we feel the warmth from the comic talents of the so-called Golden Age. The popularity was due in part to its superb writing; though the real success of a series is found through its legacy and societal impressions. But can we see that the comedy programming of today will break the ground as hard?
It is my suspicion that a majority of comedies will go neglected and fall into the archives without much appreciation. The same has occurred with many Golden Age comedies of course, but I fear modern programmes are neglecting the stick used to beat society’s dusty rug. The view of current BBC Head of Comedy, Shane Smith, is under fire from the revered comedians of the Golden Age for pushing a more diverse range of comedies for broadcast. Allen’s motives are to represent modern Britain with more ethnically diverse casts and writers, as well as plots and settings. According to Mr Allen, “If you’re going to assemble a team now it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes. It’s going to be a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world.” (Allen, 2018) The statement has sailed into the Charybdis of political correctness warriors and their opponents. John Cleese, the writer and actor in series such as Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, has attacked the pro-diversity movement for its ignorance and restrictions on comedic talent. Stars such as Eric Idle, Rowan Atkinson, and Ricky Gervais were quick to defend Cleese in turn.
The issue is not in whether a cast or writing team is diverse, but if the comedy is reflective of society’s changes. The very best comedy exhibits both hilarity and emotion in varying quantities, and to ignore modern Britain’s inequalities and impossibilities is to reject a progression in the genre. The Cleese argument is not attacking diversity or equality for comedians and writers, but the content which is produced by both sides. Ideally, Mr Allen would not need to politicise the commissioning of comedy. But as with all media exposure and production, the development is meaningless if a viewing public hates the programme. Proof of the pudding, is in the eating as they say. It is likely that people want Golden Age laughs, but in a sauce of modern relevance. As the late and great Robin Williams stated, “Comedy is acting out optimism.” Perhaps that’s all comedy should be: a joke.