12 March, 2008

Mark Freeland, BBC Head of Comedy, interview

Broadcast:

The BBC's head of comedy speaks to Katherine Rushton about why he's so pleased to be back at the corporation and leading the hunt to find tomorrow's talent.

Just two years have passed since Mark Freeland left the BBC for Hartswood Films, but after five months back at the corporation he cannot conceal his glee.

"I must appear like a born-again Christian," he admits. "People keep on coming up to me with a rather painful face and saying: 'Are you okay? Are you all right?' I say: 'Yes, of course I'm all right, stop asking me.' I must stop grinning."

Although he enjoyed his Hartswood stint - where he worked alongside Beryl Vertue and her daughters, who are all old friends - he felt removed from the commissioners who dish out the business.

"It highlighted how fantastic it is to be in this building. I actually have measured it out. I am exactly 153 steps away from [comedy commissioning editor] Lucy Lumsden and you cannot deny that just the physicality of being in the building is fantastic." He picks his words very carefully to describe life on the other side of the fence: "You are more dislocated - you can imagine that you are more dislocated."

Freeland returned to the BBC fold as head of comedy, replacing the legendary Jon Plowman who stepped down to get back to programme-making after 14 years in the role. It's a job that focuses solely on in-house production, but Freeland thinks he can still act to close the gap between the BBC and the outside world by nurturing new talent.

Earlier this month, Broadcast revealed his plans for a new BBC "comedy college", which will take on six writers or writing partnerships each year and coach them alongside established writers on long-running BBC series such as After You've Gone.

Freeland's next goal is to develop new talent online: "Online comes up behind radio as one of the most important talent training grounds that we've got. By this time next year, if we don't have the most interesting, dynamic, in-house comedy website out there, I'll think we have ignored a huge opportunity.

"We want to marry the BBC's in-house comedy know-how with the UGC stuff and eventually end up with great ideas for BBC3 and BBC4," he adds.

The other element of his talent search is BBC Comedy Presents, a regular, not-for-broadcast comedy show that bills up-and-coming comedians alongside stalwart acts. Freeland hopes the show will forge links between the Beeb and new comics, and also help to inspire all the -performers.

"We've got Pappy's Fun Club on the same bill as Dawn [French] and Jennifer [Saunders] and I'll tell you what, both are going to be looking across and going blimey, fuck me," he says.

The show will rotate between the BBC's regional headquarters and London's Soho Revue Bar. "It used to be Raymond's Revue Bar, which is where The Comic Strip started in 1980, and to have Dawn and Jen back there - I'm sorry, that turns me on."

He is also turned on by the likelihood that the regional shows will hook in new acts that will boost the cultural diversity of the BBC's comic talent. "It should be a mixed economy; it should be mixed voices.

"I'm very aware that comedy - particularly sitcom - can fall into a world that's this white, middle-class bubble where everyone lives in a house that's worth Ł2m. But viewers are savvy. In the great sitcoms of the past such as Only Fools and Horses, it all makes sense, it's a real world and they can see themselves reflected in it, so I'm incredibly aware that our output has to be varied."

One subject that fits the bill is In My Country, a sitcom in development for BBC2 that's pitched as "a multicultural Rising Damp". "It's about this landlord who's a slightly dodgy geezer on the make, and he's got a black tenant and a Pole and there's a Thai character in it. But we didn't sit down and say we want a multicultural sitcom. It was just a really good script."

Top marks on screen, but what does he make of Lenny Henry's accusation that in terms of racial equality off-screen, TV is still where it was 32 years ago? Freeland won't disagree with Henry outright and is at pains to point out the ethnic diversity of the writers working for him, which wouldn't have been the case in 1976.

He's clearly uncomfortable discussing it, however. "I don't choose someone because they're black. I choose them because they're a good writer.

"It's not an argument I want to get drawn into but when you make too much effort, you can go wrong. I think we've made strides but you can't manufacture this stuff. You have to be very careful that it doesn't misfire."

As far as Freeland is concerned, the BBC's comedy department is already trailblazing on diversity - both regional and racial. When Mark Thompson declared last month that he plans to devolve more power to the regions, he cited comedy commissioner Cheryl Taylor, based in Manchester, as the example of where that had already happened. Freeland also points to Kenton Allen's Comedy North operation and, somewhat ironically, a new Lenny Henry radio comedy, Rudy's Rare Records, which is "just dripping in Birmingham".

"When you hear justified diversity like that, it's very, very thrilling," he says.

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