Here’s five ways to laugh – both with the Beeb and at the Beeb. All, incidentally, have been broadcast on the Beeb. The Corporation has always been self-assured enough to see the joke, and not to take life – and indeed the whole business of broadcasting – too seriously.
(1) Perhaps the most recent example of this tendency is the TV series W1A which began in 2014 and last year had a web episode during the lockdown.
Media commentators, including Charlotte Higgins (the Guardian) and Raymond Snoddy (FT/The Times/The Independent) have each observed that the humour in W1A is self-deprecating to the extent of being embarrassingly real.
Even so, I think it’s a healthy position to be in – to be able to laugh at yourself. The Beeb has a long tradition of doing this. Here are various examples from 2011, 2017, 1958 and 1992. There are others, but let’s begin here with these – for starters.
(2) The BBC’s long-running sitcom on Radio 4, Ed Reardon’s Week, included one episode, “The fourth sausage”, where he bemoaned modern-day news programmes for what he saw as their, “abandonment of radio journalism in favour of the reading out of asinine tweets.” That was first broadcast in 2011, and was a stringent barb towards current affairs shows that featured listener’s comments. Ouch.
(3) Another example also comes from Ed Reardon, in 2017. This time, in series 12 episode 5 Petroc Trelawny appears as a mindless brekky host. Five minutes before the end of the sitcom, Trelawny says, “Coming up, a new recording of Peter and the Wolf narrated by Marcel from Love Island.” It’s an outrageous thing to hear coming from a venerated presenter of a prestige national network breakfast show.
To explain the joke a little bit: Marcel was the actual winner of Love Island in 2017; Petroc is the really excellent breakfast presenter on BBC Radio Three. He’s able to send himself – and the station – up really well. I’m so glad R3 has a good sense of humour.
(4) Then there’s the Goon Show. Each week it’d start with a quirky joke at the expense of both the BBC and of the announcer. Here’s an example. It’s from the episode called Queen Anne’s Rain (sic). It’s Series 9, Episode 8, and was first broadcast on December 22, 1958. The script is by Spike Milligan and the show was produced by John Browell.
WALLACE GREENSLADE [BBC staff announcer]: This is the BBC Light Programme … The blame should be spread equally!
HARRY SECOMBE: He’s right, folks. There are so many in the BBC, the blame can be spread so evenly, it doesn’t notice.
GREENSLADE: Mr Strecham! How dare you reveal BBC cover-up methods!
SECOMBE: It’s my duty to protect the public, folks, and for this, I hope to get an OBE.
GREENSLADE: And what do you think you are going to do with it?
SECOMBE: I’d sing it.
(5) And the BBC also allows comedians to satirise its own slightly breathless sports-news style as heard over on BBC Radio 5Live. This is a quote from the great Alan Partridge. In series 2 episode 1 of On the Hour (BBC Radio 4, 1992), he begins his sports desk with:
“Soccer news: Troubled Chelsea have sold star player Clive Allen for a million pounds to Chessington World of Adventures. Clive will be kept in his own enclosure near the insect house.”
Now that’s surreal comedy. The somewhat boring reality was that Allen – an actual footballer – later transferred to West Ham. The theme park is real too. I’m sure that the BBC lawyers had legalled the show before transmission.
What’s your favourite BBC Radio comedy programme? Perhaps there’s one you listened to as a teenager? Let me know in the message box below.