ATX TV Fest Panel: Awkward & Amusing: A Look at Contemporary British Comedies
TV veteran Ben Farrell explains how the UK comedy sausage gets made
By Kimberley Jones,
12:45PM, Sun. Jun. 10, 2018
Veteran TV producer Ben Farrell (Peep Show) is the first person to admit the UK excels at making a lot of shows “about people drinking tea and having chats in a corset.” But its second bumper crop surely is the awkward comedy, and that’s where Farrell comes in.
Before he took the stage at the Alamo Ritz on Saturday at the ATX Television Festival, first he proved his bonafides with an extended sizzle reel excerpting current and in-development shows, including Fleabag and Victorian murder procedural parody Year of the Rabbit.
Fleabag – written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, riding a high with this spring’s BBC America hit Killing Eve and her winning turn as Solo's rabble-rousing droid L3 – became a crossover success when it debuted for American audiences on Amazon Prime. But British shows weren’t always welcomed here with open arms. For years, British TV talent got used to their shows being bought and redone with American casts, for American audiences - a practice that goes as far back as Sanford and Son (based on the British Steptoe and Son), Farrell pointed out. But now, with the proliferation of cable channels and the emergence of so many streaming services, there are a lot more ways for British exports to appear on U.S. screens, untouched. “Now there’s a home for a show as is.”
Comparing how the comedy sausage gets made in the UK versus the U.S., Farrell explained that British comedies typically are written by one or two writers – not the packed writers’ room as in America – and series orders are usually restricted to only six episodes, a far cry from, say, Friends’ 236 episode tally.
“Our longevity is more limited, but we have very bespoke shows,” he said. “I think what we gain is more personal stories … a more consistent vision.”
For Farrell, that means developing projects with strong female voices – including Fleabag and GameFace, Roisin Conaty’s autobiographical comedy – and having the office gender dynamic tilt heavily female, too.
“It’s actually not a good time to be a privileged white male in the industry,” he laughed. “Which I think is a good thing – so long as I’m okay.”
Awkward & Amusing: A Look at Contemporary British Comedies, Alamo Ritz, June 9
ATX Television Festival 2018, June 7-10. Tickets and info at www.atxfestival.com.
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