Laugh, I nearly did

The man with the funniest job in Britain (sometimes)

Originally published in The Financial Times magazine

In studio eight at TV Centre, a spotlight flickers over the floor manager. She wears headphones, carries a mic, and asks the audience for some applause, for some cheers. “And a big woo, please, for Mr Jon Plowman!”

At this, a shortish man in his 40s walks slowly into the illuminated space. He has red-brown hair and a broad, flat nose, wears sideburns and a suit in Prince of Wales check. Without stopping, he walks straight out again. Over that short trip, his expression changes from monkey grin to lugubrious affront. “He’s not happy,” says the floor manager. “You’ll have to do better than that!”

On receipt of a suitably big woo, Mr British Comedy walks back on. He’s the warm-up, he says, here to keep the audience happy between takes. Plowman was identified last year as one of the 50 funniest people in Britain, but that accolade had less to do with his warm-up skills than his position as the BBC’s head of comedy entertainment and executive producer on in-house comedy. Now that tonight’s show, French and Saunders, has reached the recording studio, the director is in charge. And Plowman is doing the warm-up because, as he explained to me earlier, “It’s less nerve-wracking than sitting up in the gallery, wondering what the fuck is happening… I might as well do something useful.”

To begin, he addresses the audience thus: “We need your laughter. That is the deal: you come in for nothing, we get your laughter. When the programme is shown, in October, on BBC1, you will hear yourselves. But eccentric laughter – don’t push it. You may be able to say, ‘That was me laughing!’ But the rest of the nation will say, ‘Who is that irritating twat?’

Roughly a third of the seats have been reserved for people associated with today’s production – many of them well lubricated after an hour or so in the Green Room. I’m sitting among them. And just in front of me there’s a tall black man, who slipped into his seat as the lights dimmed: the comedian Lenny Henry, husband of Dawn French.

Plowman continues: “Dawn and Jennifer have been working for the BBC now for 23 years.” (There’s clapping, and whooping.) “Yes, I think so too! I looked up on a website what else was happening in 1981. Reagan was shot, and the Pope was shot, and the president of Egypt was shot, and also French and Saunders was shot. All of them, in their own ways, disasters. No, I don’t mean that. But those of you who remember the jokes from that time will feel at home tonight.”

After a little more along these lines, he announces that Jennifer Saunders is already on stage, in a brightly lit set decorated like a living room. Suddenly her face appears, framed by a white turban, on monitors hanging above our heads. She grins, waves.

“OK, so we are now going to record the first sketch,” Plowman says, “and I need you to laugh like buggery…” And that’s what we do, after French makes her unforgettable first appearance, a triumph of physical comedy, combined with outrageous hair and make-up.

I hadn’t altogether looked forward to tonight’s recording, having been previously to a studio recording of Alan Partridge that dragged on interminably as lines and whole scenes were re-shot; and where the star, perhaps unable to come out of character, engaged little with the audience. French and Saunders are more congenial, welcoming the affection of the audience and providing wry commentary throughout. Also, many of the sketches are very funny. I’m not allowed to describe them in detail, but when I happen to catch sight of Plowman’s PA, Julia Cottrell, she is wiping a tear from her eye; and Lenny Henry particularly enjoys what he sees. It’s not that he laughs at absolutely everything but occasionally seems unable to restrain himself. Listen carefully when the series airs, in October, and you should have no trouble picking out his trademark, high-pitched splutter.

I first met Plowman two years ago, not long after the first series of The Office. I loved it, wanted to know more about the people who made it. I went to see Plowman and the show’s producer, Ash Atalla, and visited the set of the second series. I also became engrossed in other comedy developments – established shows and new ones too – and in short became carried away with enthusiasm for BBC comedy: the sketch-shows, the sitcoms. They’d given me much pleasure over many years, but – like everybody else, it seems – I’d fallen into a habit of lazily dismissing them. “Not as funny as they used to be,” I might have said – and you’ve probably said the same. Or: “Not as funny as the American shows.” Perhaps even, if you tend to be serious-minded: “Not as good as the BBC’s factual output.” I wondered how Plowman – head of comedy entertainment for the last decade – coped with this, and decided the best way to judge that was to follow him round for a bit.

Our most recent meeting was in July, in Plowman’s office. He had a foreign trip coming up but had lost his passport. He searched for it under cushions, between the pages of a newspaper, everywhere. Meanwhile I noticed among the books and DVDs on his shelves a sizeable collection of rabbits: ceramic rabbits, glass rabbits, and rabbits in other materials. What did this signify, I asked. “That is rather sad, actually. It’s an inheritance from a girl who sadly died and had decided that I was like a rabbit in some ways.” In what ways, specifically? He thought for a moment. “In a sort of sweet and cuddly way.” Writing this in my notebook, I found it hard to imagine the head of other BBC departments saying something like this to a journalist.

Plowman grew up in Welwyn Garden City and first got involved in performing at school. “I was a skinny kid, and you divide, to an extent, into either the type of people who are good at games, or who aren’t. I was the kind who tried to get away with being funny.” He read English at Oxford, the first in his family to study there (“although I believe that my great aunt,” he adds in a bizarre non sequitur, “was once picked up by DH Lawrence”). Mel Smith, a fellow student, directed him as Polonius in a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “Mel still carries with him the idea that I thought the part was too small and therefore said everything twice. I would go: ‘The ambassadors from… the ambassadors from… Norway, my liege.’ I was a bad actor. And I’m what Bob Monkhouse would call a dressing-room comedian: I could be funny, but I have not got the ability to be a comedy performer.”

Recognising these limitations soon after leaving Oxford, he wrote and directed a play at the Edinburgh Festival that transferred to London. He got a job as assistant director at the Royal Court, worked with Lindsay Anderson, then toured America with Jonathan Miller’s Oxford and Cambridge Shakespeare Company. (Rik Mayall, just out of college, played one of the servant twins in the Comedy of Errors and broke Plowman’s arm throwing him into a swimming pool in Texas.) In 1978, he moved into TV, at Granada. Among other highlights was a stint on the Multicoloured Fun Factory. “I had to wear a boiler suit and herd kids around, looking like a jolly person. I don’t know what I intended to do, longer term. But one’s background and education leads you to think that you should be doing something serious – producing The Seagull at the National, that kind of thing.”

He joined the BBC in 1981, aged 28, switching channels with Russell Harty, then worked on Pop Quiz, the Old Grey Whistle Test, and Wogan for two-and-a-half years. “It was three times a week – live! With Sir Terry! Waking up in a sweat on Sundays because we often didn’t have any guests lined up and on Sundays you know you can’t do anything about it, you can’t phone agents, so fuck fuck fuck.” He got back into comedy when Richard Curtis, a friend from university, asked him to produce Comic Relief. In 1994, Plowman took on his current job as executive producer and head of comedy entertainment – an odd hybrid, because as well as being creative he’s responsible for expenditure.

“There have been times when I have been offered other jobs in the BBC, slightly more, what is the best word… slightly more bureaucratic.” (He’s also been offered lucrative jobs outside the BBC.) Happy in his niche, he turned them down. “I think if there was a choice between taking something seriously and not taking it seriously I would tend to laugh at it.” Is it a liability to be frivolous all the time? “Let’s put it this way…” He pulls a face, preparatory to uttering something silly. “No, let’s not. No, I don’t think it is. But it is more fun doing Ab Fab than it must be to do, I dunno, social observational films in Northern Ireland. It must be depressing making a documentary about young people shooting up and so on. And it’s harder doing comedy, you have your head above the parapet” – in the studio and also in the ratings. “The people doing serious films have no hesitation telling you how rubbish comedy is. They quite often say: ‘Well, I presume this was aimed at my children, and they didn’t enjoy it.’ But at least they watch my programmes.”

According to Plowman, the English feel that anything that gives them pleasure must be wicked. “So if I have a good time watching Ab Fab that is shameful and I should not admit it. Whereas if I have a tough time reading A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu that has done me good. That is Calvinist, isn’t it? But actually it’s bollocks.” He remembers watching Monty Python as a teenager. “My parents said, ‘Turn that off’. And I thought, hey, these people are on my wavelength, this is fantastic, it’s mine, I want to own it. Or look at The Young Ones: it spoke for a generation.”

Not long ago, Plowman calculated that, out of 17.5 comedy shows broadcast on terrestrial TV in a given week, 15 were made by the BBC. And that was being generous to ITV, he adds, because it included Frank Skinner (a chat show). “This shows you that comedy is a very high risk game.” Plowman only commissions comedy that he himself laughs at. “It’s impossible to judge except that way. You can’t say, ‘I presume there are some people who would find this funny.’ The most difficult thing is making sure you have enough people around you to represent all the different tastes. We have to make comedy for a lot of people.

“The reason for the flood of reality TV is that it’s cheap as chips. The pounds-per-viewer must be as nothing compared with what you spend on any sitcom. But I will lay money that next Christmas people do not go out and buy DVDs of I’m a Celebrity… or Crimewatch: The Director’s Cut. They buy The Office. Comedy is a long-term investment, not short-term.”

At weekends, Plowman usually takes eight scripts home and reads maybe four. Some might be on spec, others will be the next episode of something ongoing. And some are rubbish. Plowman scribbles on the back as he reads, makes marks down the side – a pencilled dot, or tick – where he thinks there may be a laugh. When he’s finished he scribbles his gut feeling (“very funny” or “none of this works”) and a two or three sentence synopsis. Then, perhaps two weeks later, he’ll meet the writer, peer at his scribbled notes, and ask himself: “What the fuck have I written here?”

Reading and responding to scripts and ideas is not a pastime devoid of danger. The following quote is taken from emails sent to an executive producer in Hollywood and subsequently published in an American magazine. They were written by a writer, actually rather successful, who believed the producer had stolen an idea some years previously. “You may not think you’re a thief, but most comics know otherwise. Get cancer… Everyone knows how you fucked over [another writer] on the new show. It must have killed you when the true genius behind it got nominated for an Emmy. I respect you zero. Die in a fiery accident and taste your own blood.”

As it happens, many of the scripts and ideas sent to Plowman never reach him. Some are read first, then rejected, by the comedy development unit. His PA, Julia Cottrell, filters still more. Wondering how difficult it must be for novices to break through, I asked if he only sees writers known to him already. No, he said, then got out his diary and scanned through forthcoming appointments. “Don’t know him… or her… sort of… do know him. Today I saw three girls from Factual, and I didn’t know them before. So maybe fifty-fifty. Oh, look, here is their proposal. It was a bit like a tutorial on how it wouldn’t work… But bless them for bothering.”

What are the usual problems with scripts? “You sometimes get a script and realise (a) how difficult it is to write a tight comedy and (b) that the person whose work you are about to read does not know enough, doesn’t know that comedy is about character, not about jokes. You have to have a proper idea at the centre of it. Sometimes scripts are not possible for reasons beyond the control of the writer, such as that another, similar show is already in development. But if someone sends you a script about somebody getting irascible in a hotel then you have to ask why they don’t watch TV, have they never seen Fawlty Towers? Still others, you can tell that they look down on the genre, either because they’re writing something parodic or they’re writing “down” to the audience. But I don’t think anyone sits down deliberately to waste my time with a bad script.”

According to Plowman, British sitcoms belong to the theatrical tradition, which include respect for the writer. “We take the view that you can’t sack John Osborne from Look Back in Anger.” Consequently, individuals and partnerships – from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (with Hancock) to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (The Office) – have created comedy with unique flavours, in the process helping to define the identity of individual TV channels, perhaps even what it means to be British.

American TV comedy, by contrast, tends to copy the movies – where writers work in teams and are individually disposable. In a multi-channel universe, the American model is attractive, as Jane Lush, controller of entertainment commissioning, told me: viewers need to know where they can find the programmes they want, and that’s best achieved by broadcasting series that go on for months on end. Individual writers can’t possibly manage that. John Cleese, Plowman points out, took three months to write each script for Fawlty Towers. (“They are, admittedly, masterworks.”)

Earlier this year, Plowman spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles: he caught the Golden Globe awards, spent time with the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and watched the veteran director James Burrows (who directed Friends) directing Will and Grace. Burrows has 12 writers on hand at all times, Plowman reports: “Between take one and take two, the writers will go into a huddle and put four or five new gags in.” But he rejects the idea that Britain should copy the US. “If you said, ‘Why not use the American model, with longer series produced by large teams of writers?’ I would say the reason is that we don’t have a big secondary market” – of cable and other channels to buy up the material for endless repeats. Even in the US, he points out, the secondary market for comedy is falling apart. So there just isn’t enough money to pay for big teams of writers.

Furthermore, Plowman insists that American audiences – and critics – complain just as much as their British counterparts. “When The Office won at the Golden Globes, the American press wrote all these stories saying, ‘Why can’t we be like that?’

In March, I visited the set of Dead Ringers, the impersonation-based sketch show currently in its third series, in an empty suite on one of the higher floors of a gleaming tower block in the City. They were shooting a sketch based on Hustle, BBC1’s springtime glossy drama series about con artists. As Dead Ringers’ producer, Gareth Edwards, put it to me: “A show that deserves a kicking.”

It was eight weeks till transmission. These sketches would run between more topical material, to be written and performed on the Sunday before broadcast. Waiting for Plowman to arrive, I asked Edwards what he thought of his boss. “He has a great eye. He does speak his mind, but his management style is laid back. He’s the type who would have ‘a quiet word’. He gives you enough rope…” For example? “At the time of the Kelly affair we wanted to start the show with Greg Dyke making an apology. “I apologise for…” – and then listing two or three particularly awful programmes. We started the show with that. Jon was all for it.”

Plowman duly arrived. He wore a black leather jacket, carried a heavy bunch of keys on his belt; but despite these details described himself as, essentially, the Duke of Kent. “I come down and swan around, then go away again.” At least, that’s the impression he likes to give. But he did more than merely observe.

Typically, on set, producers approach him and say, “Can we talk about the overspend?” Perhaps with that in mind, Plowman wandered towards a woman with a clipboard, whose job seemed to consist of repeating at full volume whatever the director said. “Are you behind schedule?” Plowman asked quietly. Not much, she replied, then barked: “Bit of hush, please folks, we’re rehearsing.”

Plowman went to watch a monitor with Edwards and the director, who decided to move the camera. While the crew obliged, Plowman slipped away for his quiet word with Edwards. “I was just suggesting a few things that had occurred to me,” he explained later. “Maybe they could ‘do’ Breakfast with Frost. They already do Newsnight. Gareth said that was something they had already thought of – a skeleton conducting interviews on a Sunday morning. It’s not like I say, ‘You will do this.’ Anyway, it depends on the kinds of voices the actors can do. Jon [Culshaw] does a good Paxman, but can anybody do Frost? You are limited by that. So Gareth might say at rehearsal, ‘OK, who does Frost?’ And one of them might say, ‘Me.’ So he’ll take them into a cupboard and audition them.”

When Dead Ringers was broadcast, two months later, I made sure to watch out for that send-up of Hustle. I’m sorry to report that it didn’t make me laugh, though other sketches did. To me, the hit-rate seemed more than adequate. The person I watched with took a stricter view: they shouldn’t record sketches, she told me, unless both (a) the script and (b) the impersonation are spot-on.

A couple of days later, over lunch, I mentioned this exchange to a naturally funny colleague. “I agree,” said James. “What about quality control? Look at Fawlty Towers – the attention to detail.” Then our conversation took a turn that recalled many hundreds before, stretching as far back as I could remember: the recitation of funny scenes and one-liners. James enthusiastic revival of Fawlty Towers – and other classic sitcoms – caused me to smirk, laugh, redden, put down my fork, laugh some more, then nearly choke. I asked how he recalled it so accurately. It turned out that he had bought several series on DVD, for his children to enjoy when they grow old enough. Plowman would be delighted, I thought, since this confirmed comedy’s enduring ability to bring in revenue.

Immediately after lunch, I looked up videos and DVDs on Amazon. I compared the “sales rank” and discovered that, of all the classic sitcoms, Dad’s Army was the most in demand. The co-creator of Dad’s Army, David Croft, published a memoir earlier this year. By turns amusing and elegiac, You Have Been Watching takes us through Croft’s career as producer, director and writer of shows that also included Are You Being Served, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-hi!, and ‘Allo ‘Allo! It reveals casting near-misses that, with retrospect, seem outrageous (David Jason instead of Clive Dunn, as Corporal Jones?); strategies for avoiding unwelcome interference (sending scripts to management only when absolutely necessary, and then wrapped in several envelopes and plentiful sellotape so that it takes a quarter of an hour just to open them); and contemporary attitudes to shows that bear little resemblance to today’s received wisdom. Dad’s Army, for instance, was initially expected to fail by Huw Weldon (then controller of programmes), John Le Mesurier (who played Sergeant Wilson), and three test audiences. Croft managed to suppress the preview report: “It was not good… if people had heard about it there probably wouldn’t have been a second series.”

I recently asked Plowman if he’d read Croft’s book. He hadn’t, but said: “He’s a great guy. A really good guy. A sort of gentleman producer who, once he gets in front of a typewriter or computer turns into a comic genius.” Plowman will be disappointed, when he does eventually read it, to learn that Croft was recently invited to lunch with Greg Dyke, then director-general, and the man who would succeed him, Mark Thompson. “By the time we got past the soup,” Croft writes, “it was clear they wanted to know what I thought was wrong with comedy.” But if Plowman is affronted by the implication that his own bosses think something’s wrong, he may, just possibly, take comfort from Croft’s diagnosis. “I took a deep breath and told them: return the power to the writers, producers, and heads of department.”

In writing about comedy and comedians, it’s commonplace to mention that the funny side masks something darker. Commonplace, because it’s often true. Members of Plowman’s team of producers, at any rate, combine comic exhuberance with, to varying degrees, the cynical, embattled stance of outsiders. And that’s hardly surprising, since their foes include TV critics (hiss!) patronising colleagues in the BBC’s factual departments (hiss!), perfectionists among the viewing audience and senior managers who, unaccountably, sometimes decline to commission their shows.

Every three months, Plowman goes through a BBC ritual known as “offers”. He approaches the various channel controllers and describes new programme ideas suggested by his producers. “We then go and pitch them even harder and say how much the programmes will cost. And there’s a third meeting, at which I decide along with them which things we will do. It takes a long time.” The latest round finished last month [July]. Immediately after, Plowman held a meeting with his team to report back. He agreed to let me attend only on the basis that I promised to conceal identities here and there.

There were two women, six men, all casually dressed and fiddling with pens and paper. (Five other producers sent apologies.) Cottrell took notes. Plowman had invited a guest from the BBC’s strategy department, a Canadian pumped up with executive enthusiasm whose interjections jarred slightly with the prevailing mood of droll cynicism. It was interesting to watch Plowman, himself habitually given to bathos and one-liners, assume the relatively straight role of manager.

He began with commissions for BBC1. One of the sitcoms he expressed great hopes for, when we first met two years ago, had not been recommissioned. But the Vicar of Dibley was coming back, and the creators of The Office had started work on something new for the BBC. (“So hurray, hurrah.”) Moving on, he noted drily that, among other matters, Dead Ringers had been recommissioned. “Gareth, you are still employed.”

Looking ahead, Plowman asked the team what they had for the next round of offers. One by one, they shot their best ideas forward, largely without either interruption or encouragement from others. Edwards, producer of Dead Ringers, outlined a new project in some detail. For good measure, he added: “Obviously, it’s a laugh a minute.”

Before the meeting ended, Plowman revealed the existence of a massive broadcast “event” in the offing, called Think Big, to cut across all BBC channels and genres, with oodles of money involved for the department(s) that win the job of producing it. Referring to the senior managers running this lucrative project, Plowman said: “They’ve had a lot of pitches, but most of them…”

“…were shit?” suggested one producer.

“No, I wasn’t going to say that. But most of them are factual and worthy. We have ten minutes to pitch next Monday. My guess is that we won’t get it. It’s not for…”

“…the likes of us?”

The pitch, as Plowman described it, could involve a competition to find Britain’s funniest person. “Which means all those people who meet you on trains and in pubs and say, ‘My mate is much funnier than anyone you see on the telly.’ This is our chance to prove they’re not. So there will be piles of videos to go through, the worst and the best will be shown to the world.”

“And if people walk offstage to silence from the audience,” asked Edwards, to the evident satisfaction of everybody present, “do we get to say, ‘You see, it’s not as easy as you thought’?”