British Universities Film & Video Council

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Funny Money

Picture by Queenie and the Dew

With Channel 4’s recent announcement that an additional £1m will be invested in the development of new British comedy films under the Film4 banner, it seems like a good opportunity to reassess the Channel’s record in this area. In a future blog we will revisit and chart 30 years of funny Films on Four, but for now it may be useful to understand what prompted this new investment.

The new slate is being commissioned by Shane Allen, C4’s Head of Comedy, who has been responsible for some of the biggest comedy hits in recent years, including Facejacker, Star Stories, Friday Night Dinner, Black Mirror and Comic Strip: The Hunt for Tony Blair. Allen was also, significantly, the executive producer behind The Inbetweeners hit TV series and film, and this investment can largely be attributed to the phenomenal success of the film. C4’s Annual Report, which came out on Monday, reported £44 million in pre-tax profits, which is down 19 percent from 2010’s levels. However the loss was mitigated by income generated elsewhere. Significantly C4 Chief Executive David Abraham cited the success of The Inbetweeners Movie and The Irony Lady in his dispatches on the figures, and the impact of these moves beyond the UK. The biggest boost in C4 revenues was from 4Rights’ DVD division, which saw an impressive increase of £21.3 million, largely thanks to The Inbetweeners Movie and other comedies. As Shane Allen recently remarked, as quoted in Televisual:

This is a fantastic adrenaline shot for more British film comedy following on from the overwhelming audience appetite we experienced last summer. The recent explosion in live comedy is because it’s a very communal experience, so with the huge expertise of Film4 it’s a brilliant opportunity to tap the cinematic potential of UK writing and performing talent.

What is interesting here is that Allen refers specifically to live comedy as a source for the new fund to tap into, rather than TV comedies. It’s important to remember that the £1m is a development fund rather than a production fund. Indeed it may at first appear to be small beer, especially in relation to the budgets of mainstream feature films. However, it would seem that the availability of development funding from Film4, BBC Films and the BFI makes the UK a better place to get an initial project off the ground than the US, where there is instead plenty of money for production and little for development.

Therefore the comedy fund would perhaps be best utilized as a means of fostering new and original talent rather than franchising existing ‘brands’. Or at least that is the impression that Allen has given in the above quote. BBC Films, for their part, responded to the success of The Inbetweeners Movie by announcing a couple of months ago that Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin are to write a film modelled on their TV sitcom Outnumbered. The comedy website Such Small Portions greeted the news as follows:

Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin, the team behind BBC TV’s Outnumbered are making a movie that ‘sort of is going to be like Outnumbered, but isn’t going to be like Outnumbered’, backed by BBC Films…It IS Outnumbered in the way that a family of two harrassed parents and their kids will take a road trip to Scotland for the grandfather’s birthday. It will also be filmed using the same techniques and methods as the show. It ISN’T Outnumbered because it isn’t going to actually be Outnumbered…The film is being backed by BBC Films who seem to be on a run at the moment, apart from their absolute inability to make comedy. You have to start reaching back to In The Loop, Tamara Drewe and Made in Dagenham to find any hits. We’re not really sure what this means but it seems significant ‘somehow’.

Aside from the fact that ‘reaching back’ to Tamara Drewe and Made in Dagenham is not reaching back very far, they do seem to be onto something. It is no surprise that Film4 and BBC Films are competing with each other again over similar cinematic terrain, but it also seems as if the Beeb has always tended to lag behind its ‘rival’ when it comes to comedy. The smash success of Four Weddings and a Funeral (penned by Richard Curtis, who scribed the BBC TV comedy Blackadder) was a major motivation behind George Faber’s major restructuring and expansion of the BBC’s single drama/film production in 1995. That same year Dawn Airey, Channel 4’s entertainment chief, bragged about how she had snatched a £1 million comedy film about football (Eleven Men Versus Eleven Men) – scripted by Hamilton and Jenkin, in fact – from under the BBC’s nose whilst the Beeb prevaricated.[1]

The idea that the BBC, with its reputation for producing much-loved and era-defining sitcoms would struggle to make really memorable successful film comedies, is somewhat perplexing. We might get a better understanding of why this might be the case by returning to Outnumbered, and the decision made not to use the same cast as the TV series in the film ‘version’. Were BBC Films worried of being seen to adapt ‘by numbers’, especially after announcing the forthcoming Ab Fab film? Will people always associate the BBC with TV comedy only? The ghosts of the 1970s loom large here, when TV sitcoms were spun off into full-length cinema versions, often by transporting eveything to an “exotic location” (Are You Being Served? Holiday On The Buses). Such Small Portions allude to this in their blog:

Confining it to a road trip to somewhere nice and domestic is wise, as ‘taking British sitcom format and putting it in somewhere foreign’ is a sorely-tested film format that doesn’t always work out amazingly well. The Inbetweeners managed it with pizzazz but was very much the exception. In The Loop was great, but it did have to sacrifice the wonderful Thick of It eye for political dead-ends and Whitehall backstabbing when it was largely set in someone else’s political culture. See also: all seventies sitcoms taken on holiday for films/specials. Or that time that EastEnders went to France.

I’m certainly not convinced that BBC Films have an “absolute inability” to make comedy, but their films do often seem to lack the irreverence, daring, and sureness of touch that has often characterised Film4 comedies. Of course this is a generalisation, and it calls out to be contradicted. In 2006, for example, BBC Films backed 2 successful comedies – History Boys and Starter for 10 – which, interestingly, both focussed on education and the phenomenon of the scholarship boy. Both films were a very different proposition from Borat, the big comedy hit of that year (admittedly not technically a Film4 production but one that featured a character originally developed in a C4 TV programme). What comedy films did TV fund in a particular year, and can a trend be identified and extrapolated from them? In the coming months Laura Mayne will look back at the history of Film4 comedies, and Anne Woods will offer some thoughts on comedies that have emerged from the BBC Films stable (and which may offer some exceptions to the ‘rule’ discussed above).

[1] Lisa O’Carroll, “Channel 4 Scores with £1m Soccer Film Deal”, The Evening Standard, 4th May 1995.