I think I’ve finally distilled in my mind what is wrong with British TV.

Like most world-shattering revolutionary and radical theories, it came through a lot of work and not inconsiderable pain. The pinnacle of pain was experienced last night whilst watching a new BBC 1 Primetime sitcom on iplayer that made me constantly question my own reality as to how this could exist within it in this millenium on primetime public-funded television.

In my eyes, the BBC shot itself in the foot about 30 years ago. By producing the series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, they proved that they were capable of creating work so sublime it achieves not just entertainment but art – and they’ve done this many times before and since. Although the gaps between such works of brilliance are fewer and further between. I can think of only The Office, the re-invention of Doctor Who and Outnumbered being ground-breaking examples of the last decade. Whereas I can list reams of shows on an almost weekly basis that are not just awful but almost remit-bendingly mind-boggling. For example, there’s a show called ‘Hole in The Wall’ where ‘celebrities’ have to jump through a hole in a moving wall or they get knocked into a swimming pool. Even in the inanity of the programmes of my childhood, the producers of It’s a Knockout went to the effort to dress the contestants up as big animals and offered a wide array of games that ended up with them being knocked into swimming pools. Now…. they just change the shape of the holes.

But my eureka moment was not Hole in The Wall. It was a sitcom called ‘Big Top’

If you’re as yet unaware of it, you probably won’t believe that this is a BIG BUDGET PRIMETIME BBC SITCOM – remember that that label has previously been used by classic TV like Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, The Office, Red Dwarf… you get the idea.

Big Top is a studio based sitcom (don’t see many of those since The Office – because they are archaic and cringe inducing) with a LOT of canned laughter set in a CIRCUS. Now, it’d be one thing if it was using the circus as an allegory or metaphor or exploring the notion of a circus in the modern world, but no, it’s just a circus. Possibly the first adult show about a circus because unless you’re going to do something interesting with the setting (like the genius work that is HBO’s Carnivale), it is puerile and rubbish. It’s a children’s show. But presented to adults.

There were a multitude of things I hated about it – the canned laughter, something I haven’t seen for years and used, presumably out of desperation. Were a real audience forced to watch it, the laughter track would be silent yet punctuated by long sighs. The use of a comedy foreigner as ‘the stupid one’, the completely unsophisticated storyline, the lack of comedy. These are all technical things. The cast list is incredulous…

Amanda Holden as the ringmaster – she’s… not a comic actress. Ruth Madoc from Hi-de-hi! Who knew she was still alive? Then, in the supporting roles Tony Robinson (Baldrick from Blackadder) and John Thomson (brilliant comic actor from the Fast Show and Cold Feet). The last two depressed the shit out of me as they are brilliant comedians clearly slumming it for a big paycheque. Good actors are in bad things all the time but you can’t predict how a show will work out. There is no way these two read this script and thought it was anything like the caliber of their previous work. No way.

The show is turgid archaic crap. It doesn’t have a single saving feature and is entirely inexcusable. Tired, lazy, rubbish. It was whilst thinking ‘how did this EVER get on the air?’ that I figured it all out.

Commisioning executives are almost exclusively idiots. Long gone are the days that TV stations are run by experienced programme-makers who understand quality and talent. It’s all media and PR and business now, half of the jobs are blagged by cocaine-huffing empty-headed media fools and the other half are shrewd businessmen who are wizards at profitability – which shows will generate more revenue. Quality is not an issue at all.

In all my industry experience, I only ever met one executive who knew how to read a script. A really cool woman called Mae Gibson who could see the commerciality of an idea but also give intelligent, direct criticism on full screenplays. I don’t know what she’s doing now, but I imagine it has integrity and greatness. Nobody else I met – from the BBC downwards – knew how to read a script or how to spot new talent. The best writers I have met in my life STILL haven’t got proper writing careers. Yet whichever fucking idiot (and I do mean fucking idiot who should be fucking shot for making a living pooing in the waters of culture) wrote Big Top probably exists in a bubble of tenuous kudos and pays his mortgage.I just researched it – his name is Daniel Peak. DANIEL PEAK IS A CUNT. Whenever anyone googles ‘Daniel Peak’, I want the following paragraph to come up….

Daniel Peak is a talentless writer who has crafted a tenuous career writing episodes of the three worst sitcoms the BBC has ever screened – My Hero, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and now Big Top. He has been fortunate to work in an era at the BBC where actual quality, vision or message is purely incidental. He benefits from a lack of self-awareness that allows him to actually leave the house and operate within a society where most people would feel at best awkward, if not suicidal, about the contribution they made to it were they the authors of My Hero or Big Top or Two Pints.

But we can’t exclusively blame Daniel Peak. He was just following orders. There’s lots of rubbish shitty writers out there, it’s not his fault he’s the one who managed to actually get his sticky turd to air.

So, I’m thinking ‘how does this get to air???? how? HOW?????’

and then I visualise the meeting…..


FINELLA – a sloaney development executive adjusts her pashmina and sits in the empty office in an array of poses – trying to find the one with the most integrity. She settles on a crossed leg posture with slight intellectual head tilt. She whips a compact mirror out of her handbag and checks her nostrils for powder. The door flies open and BARRY marches in. Barry is a commissioning executive in light entertainment. He looks stressed but also vacant.

BARRY: Did you hear about Channel 4’s announcement?

FINELLA: The wanking over grannies thing?

BARRY: It’s  not wanking over them. It’s just called Wanking Grannies.

FINELLA: So what is it?

BARRY: Who knows? Who CARES? It’s called WANKING GRANNIES. Those genius bastards. I wish we could be that edgy. So who are we meeting?

FINELLA: The guys from Big Bear Films have a new sitcom idea!!!

BARRY: FINALLY! The guys who brought us MY HERO are stepping back up to the plate!

FINELLA: Who’d have thought that a sitcom about a superhero would get high ratings for FIVE series?

BARRY: I know, people said it wasn’t even funny but every Saturday night, right around dinnertime in an era before the wide choice of TV channels that we enjoy now, millions of people would have their tellies on and that would be on it.

FINELLA: Why did we ever cancel it?

BARRY: Well, we moved it to sunday afternoons and for some reason about 5 million of it’s devoted viewers just… went off it. TV audiences are hard to predict.

There is a knock at the door and MARCUS MORTIMER – owner of Big Bear Films and screenwriter DANIEL PEAK stride in.

FINELLA: Ah, Marcus! Dan! So good to see you, please take a seat.

DANIEL: Take a seat? Where will I take it…. to?

There is an awkward silence. Daniel laughs VERY LOUDLY. Everyone laughs.

BARRY: Marcus, how are you?

MARCUS: up three points according to the FT.

BARRY: Very good! Very good!

FINELLA: Would either of you like a drink?

DANIEL: I’d LIKE one…. but I wouldn’t HAVE SEX with one!

There is an awkward silence. Daniel laughs VERY LOUDLY. Everyone laughs.

BARRY: So tell us about this new sitcom idea….

MARCUS: It stars Amanda Holden – you know the leggy blonde on the cover of all the tabloids for various sexual exploits.

BARRY: Oh yeah!

MARCUS: Then it co-stars Ruth Madoc – she was the star of one of your biggest ever sitcoms of the 80s – people from the 80s will be delighted to see her again!

FINELLA: Yeah, that whole career revival thing is huge right now – look at Bruce Forsyth!

DANIEL: Look at him? I’d rather do that than SMELL him!

There is an awkward silence. Daniel laughs VERY LOUDLY. Everyone laughs.



MARCUS: The actor who played him, yes.

BARRY: Oh. Still….. he LOOKS like Baldrick!

MARCUS: He really does!

BARRY: And John Thomson from The Fast Show, Cold Feet and all of Steve Coogan’s shows! The show is funny, primetime and fit for FAMILY VIEWING.


DANIEL: BACKED UP…. but not like a toilet gets backed up.

There is an awkward silence. Daniel laughs VERY LOUDLY. Everyone laughs.


BARRY: It’s on! Let’s commission FIVE series! Shake my hand!

DANIEL: I’ll SHAKE YOUR HAND but not your willy!

There is an awkward silence. Daniel laughs VERY LOUDLY. Everyone laughs.

FINELLA: A successful meeting!

DANIEL and MARCUS head for the door. As they leave, Barry shouts after them…

BARRY: Oh, what’s it about?

MARCUS: A circus!

BARRY: Whatever!


You see, that’s what I’ve realised. It’s all about concept. Commissioners care about who’s in it and who it’s aimed at and how they can market it and sell the concept overseas but not… whether it’s any good. It struck me that all of the best TV shows can’t be boiled down to a very effective concept whereas all the worst can.

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – the writer of Seinfeld plays himself getting swearily angry at day to day life in LA.

MY HERO – the funniest character from hit sitcom Father Ted gets his own superhero sitcom aimed at the whole family.

CARNIVALE – a host of unknown actors play characters in a touring circus in depression-era America which provides the backdrop for an epic battle against good and evil

BIG TOP – comedy heavyweights Tony Robinson and John Thomson star with sexy celeb Amanda Holden in a comedy for all the family.

THE OFFICE – a cast of unknowns star in a faux-reality documentary about life in an office with a bad boss

HOLE IN THE WALL – a huge team of celebrities battle it out with hilarious consequences for all the family to enjoy.

It’s so so hard to convey quality through concept. Only commericiality. And if something is commissioned on that basis, it has very little chance of being good. The people in charge do not know how to read screenplays. Or how to talk to upcoming writers and directors and producers and see integrity in them. The best shows – the ones that will always be remembered started as great scripts and were produced by casting the right people for the roles – regardless of their celebrity status. Big Top is the culmination of everything that is presently wrong with the BBC.

That said, over on C4, Misfits is a bold commissioning choice. It’s not perfect but it’s the first time in many years in this country that a big budget genre piece with attitude and no stars has surfaced. Apart from Skins, but that was marketed purely on sex and shocks. Actually, so is Misfits. At least Channel 4 are sometimes stealthy about their agenda.

Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 11:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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