iBest of the bunch?

It’s new, it’s different, but is it funny? That’s the important question for Seamus Cassidy, Channel 4‘s comedy supremo as he launches a new series of pilot shows Bunch OfFive. Torn Lappin counts thelaughs.

With all four terrestrial channels jockeying for position in a rapidly changing market. the humble old sitcom has become a vital TV weapon. Previously it's been the early evening staple of the major networks, but increasingly the ‘minority' stations are entering the fray. On 3 June Channel 4 launch Bunch OfFive. a series of five pilots for new comedy series, which, all being well. could be appearing on the station over the next couple of years.

It seems rather an unusual step to be showing one-off tryout shows like this. especially as Channel 4’s commissioning editor for entertainment, Seamus Cassidy denies that there’s any form of audience research involved in the broadcasts. ‘lt‘s not a case of putting them out in front of the audience as a substitute for decision-making.’ he says. ‘You‘ve got to believe in something beyond seeing if an audience likes it. What these shows have in common is that they all bring new people to sitcom, be it performers or writers and they are quite fresh and funny.’

‘They get Cheers, Cosby and Roseanne out

Towers, Ste'ptoe, Blackadder out of the individual set-up. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong.’

That would have to be stretching a point in the case of DeadAt Thirty written by the proven talents of Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson whose credits include Harry Enfield and Vic Reeves. Dead At Thirty is a directionless and woefully underwritten piece which will hopefully be given a complete overhaul before being taken any further. Thankfully, it isn’t typical ofthe Bunch ()fFive series. but it does raise questions of the ability of sketch writers to make the transition to the sitcom format. It‘s a problem Cassidy doesn't believe is insurmountable.

‘Ifwe were any other broadcaster and ifwe didn't have a brief to try and be fresh and

ol the team-writing system. We get Faulty .

:‘ 3 V

Four ol the Five: Dead At Thirty, Blue Heaven. Mlle: Is Better, Shall We GatherAt The River.

innovative. then we‘d just take these stand-up performers. group them into fours and give them half-hour sketch shows. We don‘t want to do that. There are people like Paul Merton who work very well in the sketch format. but it’s more fun and more interesting to try to put together something a bit different. Frank Skinner‘s show Blue Heaven is more conventional in that respect. It‘s like a mini-version ofA/fie. It is much more of a sitcom. the monologues are much more like asides.‘

That said, the Channel‘s more successful recent ventures into comedy have been of the ‘actors with a tight script’ variety rather than ‘cabaret performers given a free rein‘. The critics are divided about the recent Sean '5 Show. although Cassidy defends the innovative approach. ‘People have talked about it being a deconstruction of the sitcom. which is bollocks. It‘s a vehicle for Sean. It’s a piece of television that showcases Sean as a

,very funny comedian.

‘It’s difficult because a long time ago Jeremy lsaacs said Channel 4 comedy was going to be broadcasting the best American sitcoms and not domestic shows. So historically there hasn't been that much money around. Despite that. Desmonds is very successful, Drop The Dead Donkey is a wonderful series and Nightingales is now recording a second series. Those are three shows that stand up very well against any other channel‘s sitcom output. If ITV had the same hit-rate in terms of quality then they‘d be doing very well.’

It is fashionable to moan that the home-grown comedy output is never on a par with classic

imports. but as Cassidy points out. that isn't the full story. ‘We see Cheers. (.‘oshy and Roseanne. We don't see the real rubbish. Those shows are the tip ofa huge iceberg. You go to the States and you see shows that would make you long for Two Up Three Down. really desperate stuff.‘

The British approach still relies on one or two writers who protect their creations and ideas from start to finish. a system at odds with the amount of

, personnel who work on American shows. ‘We might get closer to the American model.‘ says

Cassidy. ‘but there are things to bear in mind. Script development costs ten times as much. One ofthe secrets is that the huge teams ofwriters are rewriting up to the very last moment. They are absolutely brutal with the scripts. There's an awful lot ofwriters in Britain who aren't prepared to do that. And why should they have to? It‘s horses for courses. swings and roundabouts. cuts both ways

j and other meaningless cliches. They get Cheers.


Cosby and Roseanne out of the team-writing

.3 system. We get fawlly Towers. .Steptoe.

Blackadder out of the individual set-up. Who‘s to

, say what's right or wrong.’

Well. maybe. although Bunch ()fFii'e certainly won’t be spawning anything to match the above

; classics. What it does demonstrate though. and this is comforting, is a willingness to look for new


ideas, new writers and even the occasional new joke. That’s something.

Bunch Of Five starts on Channel 4 on Thursday 3 June at 10.30pm with Dead At Thirty.

58 The List 22 May— 4 June 1992