For many around the world, the BBC represents trustworthy news reporting and quality programming. It’s seen as a singular entity, “Auntie”, whose only mission is “to inform, educate, and entertain” and who rarely takes a misstep.
However, not everyone in Britain feels this way. As Charlotte Higgins wrote last year:
The BBC is like the Greeks’ Hydra: vast and many headed. The same organisation that made Sherlock frittered away £100m on a failed IT initiative; it runs five orchestras, the Today programme and the World Service; it inexplicably buys — and then sells for a much smaller sum — the Lonely Planet guides. While Kenneth Clark was pacing the streets of Italian hill towns, filming Civilisation for BBC2, Jimmy Savile was presenting Top of the Pops on BBC1, and Stuart Hall was informing, entertaining and abusing in the north of England. Whatever qualities it has, it often seems to embody the opposite, too. For most of us, there are parts of the BBC we couldn’t live without, much of it that we enjoy, vast acreages that we take for granted, and characteristics that we find irritating, infuriating — or even loathsome. (Charlotte Higgins, “The BBC: There to Inform, Educate, Provoke and Enrage?”, The Guardian, 16 April 2014)
There have been scandals. There have been complaints about the way the BBC spends its money (money that comes not from advertisers but from the license-payers). Accusations of left-wing bias are rife (you can’t read an issue of the Daily Mail without seeing the BBC blamed for some political or social problem). Not everyone associates the BBC with the words ‘trustworthy’ and ‘quality’.
And in times of a Conservative government that still supports the notion of austerity, (almost) everything is suffering from cuts. This includes the BBC.
Last year the BBC got hit hard and in this summer’s budget, it was revealed that the BBC “will gradually absorb the £725m yearly cost of free TV licences for the over-75s … Overall, the BBC’s budget will remain roughly flat. But that means an estimated 10 per cent cut after taking into account rising salaries and other costs, a reduction that is roughly the combined current cost of Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5” (Henry Mance, “What Next for the BBC?”, Financial Times, 21 August 2015).
In 2014, the BBC Executive set out its proposals for changes, as a response to the “changing TV landscape, changing audience consumption” (more online viewing) as well as, obviously, “falling income”. (A summary of the proposals can be read here at the BBC Trust.)
One of these proposals was to close BBC Three and move it online.
And that’s where we comedy lovers come in.
Because BBC Three has played a huge role in television comedy. The specific remit for the channel is to target a younger audience (16- to 34-year-olds) with “high quality public service broadcasting through a mixed-genre schedule of innovative UK content featuring new UK talent” (BBC Three, BBC Trust). One way it’s done this is by taking chances with new comedy and comedians, and often (though not always) those chances have been worth taking.
Some of the BBC’s most popular comedy shows are associated with BBC Three. Most of Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps (2003-2011) was on the channel, as was Coupling’s final series in 2004. BBC Three has also been a home for international comedy programming: Family Guy from the US and Summer Heights High and Angry Boys from Australia have all been parts of its schedule.
Often, shows debuted on BBC Three before moving to other channels. Originally a radio show, Little Britain‘s first television outing was on BBC Three (2003-2004), and Gavin and Stacey (2007-2008) also premiered there; both shows later moved to BBC One.
However, it’s not just popular comedy that the channel has given us: it’s unusual and risky comedy (some of which has been popular, as well). Sean Lock’s brilliant and brilliantly weird 15 Storeys High, which Mark Jones called “very much one of a kind: an artistically shot kitchen-sink sitcom that managed to be gutwrenchingly funny and brilliantly imaginative”, bounced around BBC channels before settling into the second series on BBC Three in 2004 (Mark Jones, “15 Storeys High Box Set Review”, The Guardian, 3 October 2013.
Brian Dooley’s The Smoking Room (2004-2005) was 17 episodes of people smoking and talking, all shot in the same room — a bit of a risk for a sitcom, but one BBC Three was prepared to take and one that paid off, as Dooley won the Best New Writer BAFTA in 2005. Of course, almost anything that involves Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry is bound to be unusual, and their BBC Three show, Snuff Box (2006), was no exception. Both Fulcher and Berry appeared in Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt’s The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007), another BBC Three programme. The channel also broadcast (only once) AD/BC: A Rock Opera (2004), written by Berry and Richard Ayoade, which boasted a great cast of comedians, including Barratt, Matt Lucas, and Julia Davis. It was weird and wonderful and workable only in a channel that was willing to take chances.
BBC Three has continued to produce strong comedy. The series start of the Greg Davies’ show Cuckoo in 2012 became the channel’s most-watched comedy launch. Him & Her, starring Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani, ran from 2010-2013 and won a BAFTA for Best Situation Comedy in 2014. Uncle, debuting last year with a second series shown this spring, is a fantastic show about the relationship between slacker Uncle Andy (Nick Helm) and his sensitive nephew Errol (Elliot Speller-Gillott). Sam Wollaston said “Uncle manages to be warm as well as dark and rude. And hilarious” (Sam Wollaston, “Uncle; The Great Sport Relief Bake Off-TV Review”, The Guardian, 14 January 2014). It’s also a musical, as each episode includes a funny (and genuinely catchy) song from Helm and the cast.
This autumn the channel aired yet another enjoyable and strange comedy in the form of Top Coppers by Céin McGillicuddy and Andy Kinnear. My first thought when watching it was that it’s a modern day Police Squad!, as it’s an over-the-top parody of a cop show (a thought I’m not alone in having as pretty much every review of Top Coppers makes that reference). However, what makes it even more special is the surreality of the show: although it’s set in Justice City, the characters’ varying accents and clothing styles make us unable to place it in a specific location or time period; the two main characters, John Mahogany and Mitch Rust, have heads of disturbingly red hair; a photograph of a dead man offers advice; and the department’s intelligence specialist is a ten-year-old boy. It is proper silly and laugh-out-loud funny.
Will we ever see Andy and Errol again? Will there be no more crime fighting in Justice City?
It’s hard to say. When the BBC proposals were announced last year, they proclaimed that BBC Three would be “reinvented” online. However, this did not meet with public satisfaction. Comedian Russell Kane wrote:
So BBC3 has been axed and will exist as an etiolated version of itself in the windowless basement of the internet. But that’s alright cos that’s what all the kids do innit? They watch dat stuff online.
Well, no. That’s what some young people do, the ones from families who can afford the internet. I’ve been overwhelmed with tweets and messages from people complaining that they only have their phones and nowhere near enough data to stream TV programmes. Surprisingly some have mentioned that watching (particularly comedy) has a social element, which is lost when hunching over a Samsung Galaxy. Who knew? (Russell Kane, “Kill BBC3 and You Kill Risk-Taking Comedy”, The Guardian, 7 March 2014).
An online-only version of BBC Three also limits its ability to function as a testing ground for new comedy — there can be too many variables when gauging online viewing to be able to clearly translate it into potential for television success. Kane also mourned the loss of this aspect of BBC Three saying that the channel “performed a unique role. It provided a not-too-commercial (i.e., not paranoid about ratings) environment for upcoming artists to take risks… Things that at first break a boundary, then harvest laughter, create new moulds” (ibid, Kane at The Guardian).
Kane is not the only one who’s spoken out against the channel’s closure. The SaveBBC3 campaign has been going for over a year. Stephen Fry was an early backer of the campaign and this June, an open letter to the BBC Trust was signed by more than 750 performers, writers, and directors (including many, many comedians). A Change.org petition to save the channel was delivered to the BBC Trust in February 2015, and its list of signatures continues to grow.
A second BBC Trust consultation was opened and runs until the end of September when a final decision will be made.
It appears that the move online is inevitable for BBC Three, though it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen. So many possibilities have been floated, some of which seem to lead to immediate backpedaling. On 5 September, Director General Tony Hall released a proposal that seemed to suggest that children’s programming and BBC Four may also be on the chopping block, but by 7 September, the BBC’s strategy chief James Purnell clarified that there were no plans to close BBC Four. However, Purnell made clear that “we are not ruling anything in or out”, and Hall said it was “inevitable” that services will be closed or cut (John Plunkett, “BBC Has No Plans to Close BBC4, Says Strategy Chief”, The Guardian, 7 September 2015).
Yes, the world changes. And yes, funding cuts have to be dealt with. But the loss of BBC Three is a big blow to television comedy. And sadly, that’s not so funny.