Working in comedy, you soon get used to your field being treated as drama’s idiot cousin. When Guardian arts correspondent Mark Brown’s wrote up Olivia Colman’s thoroughly-deserved BAFTA for her performance in The Favourite, he noted that, “It caps a stratospheric rise for the actor, who early in her career struggled for parts and was best known for comedy, becoming a regular in Mitchell and Webb television and radio sketches and Peep Show.”
I must admit to having a dog in this fight, because I wrote some of those sketches – but the phrasing suggests “struggled for parts” refers to dramatic parts. The comedy parts she regularly got due to being a brilliant comic actor were, by implication, just passing the time until proper gigs came along.
So it was cheering to see the balance redressed in a Radio Times poll of industry experts to find the best British radio shows of all time. The top two places are taken by Desert Island Discs and The Archers, but comedy is the dominant genre, with 11 entries in the top thirty. And though The Archers places higher than any comedy, it’s one of only two dramas on the list. (The other was the 1954 production of Under Milk Wood.)
Why does comedy fare so much better than drama? Partly because BBC radio drama has historically preferred the single play over the series, and one-offs are less well remembered than shows that ran for years. But I’d suggest people’s favourite comedies mean more to them than their favourite dramas – and on radio this relationship is intensified.
I think what people really love about their favourite comedies, more than the characters or situations, is how the show’s sensibility chimes with their own. Radio is a more intimate medium than TV: you feel more like you’re in the characters’ world and therefore closer to its sensibility. The world-building is crucial to this, and on radio you create the world entirely from what characters tell us about it. When a radio comedy works its world-building feels effortless, and that’s a very good thing – when you’re conscious of the work people are putting into making you laugh, you tend not to laugh.
People often assert that a favourite comedy was better on the radio. Sometimes this is simply one-upmanship, the comedy equivalent of having seen a band when they were third on the bill at the Dublin Castle. But maybe for them the show also feels weighed down by the effort of bringing its world into being for the cameras. The TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy had many good qualities but lacked the freewheeling ease of the radio version, which could conjure up epic imagery in a few sentences. On radio Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head and third arm is a passing joke that puts no further burden on the production; on TV it means saddling actor Mark Wing-Davey with unconvincing and distracting prosthetics.
Radio also focuses the audience’s attention on language and delivery, both crucial elements in comedy. There may be great dramas with fairly functional dialogue – but comedies can’t get away with being so basic.
So writers can spend an inordinate amount of time playing with a single line, swapping the order of the words, looking for a word that means the same but has a different number of syllables, putting in detail, taking out detail. Sometimes this is a sign you need to step away from the script for a bit, but often it’s the difference between a joke landing nicely and falling flat. On radio everyone is hyper-conscious of this – writers, performers, audience. It’s less forgiving when you fall short, but more rewarding when you get it right.
The days when radio comedy was central to the national consciousness – the days of Hancock’s Half Hour, The Goon Show and Round The Horne, all of which figured in the Radio Times poll – are long gone. But the upside is that radio is now a place where you can build more quietly. Comedy benefits hugely from being given time to find its audience, and radio is a less pressured environment than television. It’s hard to imagine a sitcom like Ed Reardon’s Week (number 28 in the poll) running for twelve series on TV, but radio can afford the space – and its audience develops a deeper relationship with the show as a result.
Yet radio comedy has felt embattled in recent years. TV seems to have given up looking to radio for shows to transfer, even though this system provided TV with decades of hit comedies, and the rise of podcasting has created competition where the BBC was previously the only real player. Most significantly the BBC has been forced into severe belt-tightening exercises and comedy – which is notoriously expensive, difficult to get right and viewed as frivolous – always seems an easy thing to cut.
But BBC Radio should look hard at this top 30. It’s what you’re best at. It’s what people like most about you. Keep doing it.
Eddie Robson’s work includes the Radio 4 comedy Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully.