Radio 4 celebrates classic television and radio comedy with a new series and archive highlights

Radio 4 and 4 Extra will be celebrating some of the most-loved comedy classics in the coming weeks, hearing from the brains behind some of Britain’s biggest television comedies in brand new programme What’s Funny About… with Peter Fincham and Jon Plowman, and a new one-off Down the Line: Lockdown Special as well as broadcasting some cult radio comedy favourites.

In What’s Funny About… TV veterans Peter Fincham and Jon Plowman talk to writers, producers, and performers behind some of the UK’s biggest TV comedies to hear the inside story of how they brought their programmes to the screen. Episodes in the series include Dawn French and Richard Curtis on The Vicar of Dibley, Armando Iannucci and Rebecca Front on The Thick of It; Meera Syal and Anil Gupta on Goodness Gracious Me; Jennifer Saunders on Absolutely Fabulous and Hugh Bonneville and John Morton on W1A.

The first episode features Dawn French and Richard Curtis talking about much-loved sitcom The Vicar of Dibley. They discuss how to make a fundamentally nice character funny, Richard’s curious appetite for writing quite so many weddings, and Dawn’s strangest ever Vicar of Dibley gig. What’s Funny About… can be heard on Radio 4 Extra and BBC Sounds, new episodes broadcast on Wednesdays at 10.30pm from 13 May. What’s Funny About… is an Expectation Production and the producer is Owen Braben.

In the Absolutely Fabulous episode, Jennifer Saunders told Peter and Jon:

“I would never rule it out bringing Ab Fab back. I mean, it would make me quite happy to be honest. But we are quite old now and I just wonder… I don’t know if it would be the same. My biggest worry is that it wouldn’t be the same and we’d regret it. But I enjoyed doing it so much. I miss the rehearsals and the fallings over and the silliness. I really do miss that.”

Tony Pilgrim, Head of Programming for 4 Extra says:

“Radio 4 Extra has always provided listeners with treasures from our rich archive – but in these current times comedy is more important than ever. We’ll be delving into our archives to provide some joy to listeners and both Radio 4 and 4 Extra will bring back some of the most-loved radio comedy, as well as brand new programmes celebrating comedy classics. What’s Funny About hears from the best comedy minds in the business, and gives listeners deeper insight and behind-the-scenes access to some of the UK’s best TV comedies.”

Peter Fincham said:

“Jon Plowman gave me my first job in television in the mid-80s. Since then, we’ve both been lucky enough to be involved in some of the best comedy programmes of recent decades. So it seemed entirely natural that if we were going to make a programme together today, it should be all about TV comedy.

In our programme about W1A, John Morton, its creator, says: ‘I think generally comedy doesn’t last very well. I may be wrong about this, but I think it goes off faster than other things in the larder’.

The truth is that comedy endures longer than almost anything else on television. At its best, great comedy is timeless. And in these difficult days, more and more viewers and listeners are rediscovering the best of TV comedy, and enjoying it afresh. So this is a series that looks back with no anger at all at some wonderful television programmes made by some brilliantly talented people, some of whom are called John.”

Jon Plowman said:

“I worked on some of these shows from a distance but it’s always interesting to hear from the people at the heart of a project why they wrote it and then to find out why they think it worked.

I’ve sometimes been told that trying to  take a TV comedy apart to see what makes it work is rather like pulling the wings off a butterfly , or even a Boeing 747.  But I think we’ve found with this series that this is far from the case. The things that keep the ship afloat or the plane in the air, or the butterflies making butter is not a mystery , it’s the sheer talent of the writers and performers involved.

What makes a hit TV show funny? Frankly I’ve no idea, but the people we meet in this series have so let’s listen to them and learn.”