“WE USE MORE JOKES IN A WEEK THAN GEORGE ROBEY USED IN A LIFETIME!”
Philip Jones, Controller of Light Entertainment
Alcock and Gander, And Mother Makes Three, The Benny Hill Show, Big Bad Mouse, Bless This House, The Bob Monkhouse Comedy Hour, Cribbins, The David Nixon Show, The Edward Woodward Hour, Father, Dear Father, For the Love of Ada, The Frankie Howerd Show, Love Thy Neighbour, Max at the Royalty, Mike & Bernie, Never Mind the Quality Feel the Width, Opportunity Knocks, Patrick, Dear Patrick, This is Your Life, Tony Bennett at the Talk of the Town.
Philip Jones, Thames Television’s Controller of Light Entertainment, began his broadcasting career in radio in 1948 and joined ITV in the North of England soon after it began. Always specialising in light entertainment and musical shows, in the last ten years he has been responsible for directing or producing many of Britain’s most popular programmes and for a string of export successes. Among his department’s latest productions are Love Thy Neighbour, Bless This House and – not yet transmitted – Tony Bennett at the Talk of the Town.
It has always struck me, talking to our audience after a show, that however much they may admire and praise a comedian they seldom appreciate how tough his job is. In the whole entertainment business laughter is the hardest thing to achieve, and television has made it even harder. The British television viewer, if he wanted to watch it all, could see 20 hours of light entertainment every week. We use more jokes in a week than George Robey used in a lifetime. (Yes, we still use some of his material: people don’t know it all yet!) But there’s nothing so dead as a gag you’ve heard before. And with at least a quarter of the population watching every programme we make, novelty isn’t easy. So I have the greatest admiration and respect for our comedians and comedy actors and equally for the writers and producers. The last twelve months have been very successful for my department, only because all these people work so hard and so professionally at the serious business of making people laugh – and at giving them something new to laugh at.
The problem is that with such a tremendous output we exhaust ideas, and people, very quickly. There is only a handful of entertainers who can consistently win a big audience, and even they have to limit their appearances. With the benny hill show, which is one of the very top comedy programmes in Britain at the moment, we make only 4 or 5 a year. Our Max Bygraves and Frankie Howerd shows are limited too. And although the clubs have partly replaced the music halls, there isn’t the constant replenishment of talent that there once was. We’re always looking for it. Our Opportunity Knocks with Hughie Green is still the only regular showcase on television for new professional talent, and several well-known names have been launched that way. But public demand is greater than supply.
There is more scope for innovation in ‘situation comedy’. In this field, the dramatised comic situations like Bless this House or and Mother Makes Three, it’s always tempting to take a successful programme and keep it running for ever. But there are very few series which stand exposure year after year. We have just stopped Never Mind the Quality Feel the Width, for example, although it was highly popular and I get lots of letters asking for more. But we want to offer something new, and so do our writers – even though we know that at first the audience is likely to be smaller, For the Love of Ada, which we have also just finished after quite a short life, was a case in point. Vince Powell and Harry Driver’s idea of a romance between two old-age pensioners was unusual, and the series took a while to establish itself. But it soon justified the experiment by becoming extremely popular both with viewers and critics.
I make no apology, incidentally, for separating them in that way, because critics don’t always reflect the feelings of our audience. We’ve just produced a programme called Love thy Neighbour, another innovation because it was the first comedy series about the problems of a black and a white couple living next door to each other. It’s simple straightforward comedy, always with this underlying serious theme, and it began by being poorly reviewed. I remember that one critic, whom I respect highly, attacked it from all angles. By coincidence someone else on his paper had talked to ordinary black and white families about the programme, and in the very same issue they gave their verdicts. They said not only that it was very funny but that they thought it was of positive value for good race relations. On their evidence the programme was successful at precisely the level we intended.
Now that doesn’t make the critics wrong. But there are times when their criteria don’t relate to what ordinary people want from their entertainment, which is what we try to provide. Through the people who write to us, and through talking to our studio audiences after every show, I think we have a very good knowledge of what they want (and what they object to) and of how we can best make a more seriously based comedy understood. So we are producing a second series of Love Thy Neighbour, not just because it is now one of the country’s favourite programmes – it topped the JICTAR Top Twenty last week – but because we think its message is getting across to our viewers.
We’ve also just begun a new comedy with Beryl Reid; we’re in production with new series for Max Bygraves, Patrick Cargill, Wendy Craig, Sid James and Harry Worth; and we are trying out four more new comedy programmes in the next quarter. We hope to turn the best of them into series, but that will take nine months or a year. We simply haven’t the airtime now to screen all the new things we would like to make, and of course we do want to carry on our existing successes for a certain period. Even our longest-running series, Father Dear Father, is comparatively new. Thames has only been making programmes for four years, and all our other comedy series have been introduced in the last eighteen months. We do have two series which are more than four years old: Opportunity Knocks and This is Your Life. But they are both what I would describe as self-rejuvenating programmes. This is Your Life in particular has never been more popular.
Once again, there will be people who criticise me for continuing with it and not ‘doing something new’. As it happens I believe that This is Your Life is one of the classic formulæ of television light entertainment, the equivalent of first class popular journalism. But even if that were not so, the real point is that you can’t replace an idea with an ideal. A brilliant new comedian or a marvellous new script can’t be wished into existence. I think it’s fair to say that Thames has produced more successful new comedy series in the last four years than any other company, including the BBC. But none of these series was introduced just because it was different. They all had to promise to entertain as wide a range of people as the shows they replaced.
Of course, it’s fashionable to despise such a simple yardstick as popularity. But in my area of television programmes I regard it as an important measurement. If, with only one channel, we can experiment as we did with Cribbins, then we do so. If we can introduce more serious themes in comedy, as we did with Never Mind the Quality and Love Thy Neighbour, then we do so. If we think a new series is worth the risk of a smaller audience at first, then we make it.
But popularity must always be part of my definition of programme quality. George Robey’s best jokes were the ones that made most people laugh.