The BBC intends to give the nation some lockdown laughs later this month with a three-week comedy season called The Festival of Funny, featuring stars including John Cleese, Eddie Izzard and Stephen Fry as well as new talent such as Rose Matefeo.
To counter the Covid-19 gloom, the corporation is to air new comedies across radio and TV including a live standup show every night for a week on BBC2 featuring established names such as Jo Brand and Jason Manford alongside up and coming comedians.
The BBC’s comedy controller, Shane Allen, said the idea for the festival was born in December as a way to boost people’s mental health. “We need comedy to help pull us out of this. It’s the British sense of humour that gets us through the darkest times in life.”
The festival will include TV premieres of the tour shows of big names including Bill Bailey’s Limboland, Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies, Izzard’s Force Majeure and Cleese’s Live at the Acropolis, as well as pilots from new comedians on Radio 2 and Radio 4.
As well as TV specials dedicated to classic comedians, including one presented by Lenny Henry on Tommy Cooper to mark Cooper’s centenary and another hosted by John Thomson on Caroline Aherne, the festival will feature unseen footage of the late Dave Allen in a show celebrating 50 years since his first BBC appearance.
There will be Radio 4 standup shows from Eleanor Tiernan, Anna Morris, Stephen Buchanan, Patrick Kielty and Jacob Hawley. Radio 2 will air comedy pilots from The Delightful Sausage duo Christopher Cantrill and Amy Gledhill, Tommy Tiernan, the Welsh comedian Kiri Pritchard-McLean and a series about imperial India called The Empire, written by Anuvab Pal and starring Stephen Fry.
The BBC hoped initially the festival would start at the beginning of February, with the week of live standup being filmed across the UK. Plans had to change, however, because of the current lockdown. Allen said that despite it being a scramble, the BBC had adapted and would film the standups in a Covid-secure studio in London in front of a crew, using methods learned during the previous lockdown such as virtual audiences and piped-in laughter.
“We could just wait and sit for the world to tilt round to its right axis again or we can crack on. It’s hard but it’s public service, isn’t it? People have paid the licence fee and we’ve got to cheer people up … as long as everyone’s safe according to the guidelines,” Allen said.
Crews are being tested and film in bubbles, copying techniques used in the Christmas specials of BBC shows such as Not Going Out and Upstart Crow. The shows are performed to the crew to give the performers reactions, then laughter mixed in from previous episodes. The process will be explained in the programme’s credits.
“Comedy is a communal experience and there’s an energy that happens where the audience at home are expecting to hear that laughter,” Allen said.
Another reason for the festival was to help the comedy industry: “There could be a lost generation there if we don’t keep the wheels turning and give people stage and camera time to develop their careers.”
Allen said he had to be mindful that shows being made now would sit on iPlayer for years and so he had to make decisions on how much to reflect the pandemic outside topical standup series.
A forthcoming series of the hit show Motherland filmed between lockdowns features an episode that draws parallels with Covid-19 using an outbreak of nits, which causes the children’s school to introduce one-way systems and protocols.
“It’s a clever innovative way to reflect our world without doing it in a heavy handed or too depressing a way,” he said. “I’m intrigued how we reflect in a way that we can poke fun but without being undermining or insensitive. It’s a kind of social and cultural touchstone, it’s a part of this generation that we will always talk about.”