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Will the BBC’s new boss deal with Left-wing comedy?

Tim Davie, the BBC’s new Director General, has only been in his job a few days, and he’s already making waves. It has been announced that he intends to tackle the widely-held perception that the corporation’s comedy output is disproportionately Left-wing “against the Tories, Donald Trump and Brexit”, and to make it more reflective of its audience. The Daily Telegraph has reported that some of its programmes could even be scrapped as a result. The reaction to this news has been predictably polarised, but is it fair? Is the BBC’s comedy output actually excessively biased and, if it is, how can that realistically be tackled?

We should first make clear what we’re talking about, because the BBC puts out a lot of good and enjoyable stuff. I’ve recently sung the praises of Semi-Detached and Harry Hill’s World of TV, and Would I Lie to You? is hilarious stuff. On the radio, Dead Ringers continues to get the balance perfect. No, when people have a go at BBC Comedy, they’re typically thinking of the satirical panel shows – stuff like Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week and The Mash Report, in which a panel of comedians respond to the events of the week. At least, that’s the idea, but there is justified concerns that they’ve become pulpits to slate the political Right.

Satirists typically respond to the governments of the day, and the Conservatives have been in power for the past ten years

It’s fairly clear that certain targets are in BBC Comedy’s sights, but let’s be fair – realistically, they should be. Satirists typically respond to the governments of the day, and the Conservatives have been in power for the past ten years. Until the outbreak of the pandemic, Brexit was the only significant domestic and foreign policy issue of the past four years. Donald Trump is the leader of the free world, and thus a clear and open target for jokes. Comedians would not be doing their jobs if they ignored these people and these stories, and it makes sense that the gags here are more numerous.

But there’s a difference between more numerous and completely one-sided, and that’s the line BBC panel shows often struggle to find. A 2017 analysis of HIGNFY over a five-week period found more than four times as many jokes about the Conservatives than Labour – the BBC claimed at the time that “over the years we’ve found the jokes tend to balance out”, but the numbers don’t support that statement. Conservative MP Ben Bradley said: “In recent years lots of BBC comedy shows are just constant left-wing rants about the Tories and Brexit. If the BBC is to truly represent all licence fee payers, that needs to change.”

There’s a difference between more numerous and completely one-sided, and that’s the line BBC panel shows often struggle to find

In response to the Telegraph news, an anonymous figure from BBC Comedy said that the real issue is that many Right-wing comedians considered by producers aren’t particularly funny. They said: “Internally we’ve been asked to make sure we have more balance across our shows – we are constantly on the lookout but there aren’t many people who have those viewpoints on the comedy circuit. Tell me the names that we’re missing out on? Some people aren’t very good. The issue is a shortage of rightwing comics.” As a result, we see names like Geoff Norcott and Simon Evans consistently booked to represent the ‘other side’.

This is one issue, as is the BBC’s London location. Most panel shows are filmed in London, meaning that the audience is demographically highly likely to skew to the left and be remain-voters. According to the BBC insider, “if you book a rightwing comic in London then the audience will be quite muted” – it makes sense for comedians to play to their audience, but it does result in fairly identical comedy that obviously cannot reflect the entire country. Indeed, the stuff goes down incredibly poorly when comedians leave the capital. Look at this clip from The Mash Report, where Geoff Norcott asks if there are any Tory voters in the room – the stony silence does tell its own story.

Most panel shows are filmed in London, meaning that the audience is demographically highly likely to skew to the left and be remain-voters

What’s the response – is some sort of quota system, whereby a certain number of Right-wing comedians and jokes are allowed on a panel show? No. Frankly, I can’t imagine anything worse than prescribing jokes – that’s a death sentence for comedy if there ever was one. But the current stuff is just painfully lazy – the punchline to every Trump, Tory and Brexit joke is that them, or their voters, are racist, stupid or both. Diversity is the key – sure, diversity of political opinions may be nice, but just some diversity of material would go a long way.

There’s a feeling that comedy should speak truth to power, but who really has the power at the moment? Sure, the Right is in government, but they aren’t the ones ending your career if you tweet something they don’t like, or use a word that they decided was highly offensive five minutes ago. There are so many absurdities here that comics could pick up on. In governments around the world, the Left is just as weak and clueless as the Right – Keir Starmer U-turns about as much as Boris Johnson, the US Democrats have shot to the extremes and Joe Biden doesn’t even know where he is. Good comedians could find material here too, and good comedians do – it’s just that you rarely find them doing it on the BBC.

Some jokes about the Left in a panel show is a very minor step, but it’s an indication that Davie recognises the issues

Scrapping a few shows or introducing quotas won’t tackle the actual issues in BBC panel comedy. It’s easy for comedians to fall to the same old jokes to please the same old audience – why would they ever change when their material gets applause night after night? But this discourse about comedy is really part of a wider issue about making the corporation actually reflect the entirety of the UK. The BBC is supposedly voice of the nation, yet it missed Brexit and the last two election results, and it continues to fall on the minority side of issues like the Last Night of the Proms. The future of the BBC licence fee is being questioned now like never before, and if Tim Davie wants to help the broadcaster survive, he needs to genuinely ask about the role of the BBC today. Some jokes about the Left in a panel show is a very minor step, but it’s an indication that Davie recognises the issues. He’s talking the talk – the question now is whether he can walk the walk and actually reform a corporation that is dead-set on driving the nails into its own coffin.

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