The wrong way

I read this article in The Guardian the other day.

It’s about why the BBC are axing Ben Elton’s “The Wright Way” sitcom after only one season.

Their point is about how social media amplifies the instant negative reaction, not allowing new TV shows time to develop and grow, and how this means that shows that might have succeeded in the past, never get a chance today.

This is a fair point, social media is chock full of unfair shouty criticism, but it overlooks the key point: the show is rubbish.

Ben Elton set out to write an “old-fashioned mainstream comedy” and insofar as it is both “old-fashioned” and “mainstream” it works, it’s the “comedy” objective where it stumbles*.

Compare this to Elton’s very similar 1995 comedy “The Thin Blue Line”.

There are easy comparisons to make between the two, most obviously that both star David Haig as an officious self-important stickler. The difference is that “The Thin Blue Line” basically worked. This isn’t just because he played opposite Rowan Atkinson (who repeated the smart-arse Blackadder character), although that helped. It’s because even though it was old-fashioned and mainstream, the characters were good enough, and it was just about funny enough, for it to be a fairly decent, if formulaic, sitcom.

The BBC have a point – the instant vicious hyperbole that thunders around the social-media-sphere can mean that borderline shows get written off before anyone has had a chance to tweak them. Sure, by vociferous idiots on social media, but surely a channel of professional television producers should have the grapes to push ahead on the shows they believe in anyway?

This is a world the BBC are going to need to learn to live in: social media is the new reality, the BBC need to find a way to work with it.

Or … maybe the problem is not so much social media but more about the Beeb trying to pad out their schedule with a deliberately “old-fashioned mainstream comedy” and failing to recognise that Ben Elton is red rag to a bull in the social media sphere, irrespective of the quality of his writing. This toxicity isn’t fair, Ben Elton is a funny and talented writer with a string of successes to his name, but whatever he does will get torn down by those on Twitter who loathe the impure.

This suggests that the BBC not only don’t get social media, but they don’t really understand the demographic they were aiming at either.

The BBC needs to leverage the power of social media. Perhaps encourage feedback, but on specifics: which characters are working and which aren’t? Which jokes are funny and what just grates? How should the story arcs develop? Seek to engage via social media and you might just pull them onside.

This is a real opportunity for the BBC, but the BBC has always been a snooty closed-shop, and I suspect they will not be keen to open their gates to the masses.



* The fact that Ben Elton aimed his comedy guns at Health and Safety is particularly galling. This is an easy target, straight from a focus group of Daily Mail readers. He may as well have updated “Love Thy Neighbour” and made it about Polish immigrants from that EU.

But it’s not just that he picked a boring and obvious target, it’s that he then used the received opinion that health and safety is an unnecessary bureaucratic anti-common-sense nonsense as the engine that powered his comedy vehicle.

This is like those “wisdom”† emails that do the rounds …

… we survived being born to mothers who smoked fags and drank a bottle of sherry for breakfast while they lived in houses made of asbestos ..

Sure, this is called survivor bias: if you didn’t survive, you couldn’t read the email … I guess an email sent round by the families of those who didn’t make it would read a little differently.

† Anything can look like wisdom if it sounds like no-nonsense common sense. This doesn’t mean it should be taken seriously.


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