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A history of contemporary radio comedy

This article has been created over a couple of months and is likely to have bits added and/or removed in future.  If you have any corrections, clarifications or comments as to what should (or shouldn’t) be included here, email me as usual.  Be warned: some of the prose gets a bit florid.  My apologies for any symptoms of dizziness which may result.

In the beginning...

In the beginning, all broadcast comedy was on the radio because that’s all there was.  As the people of 1930s America tuned in by the million to hear radio superstars such as Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers, the BBC fiddled about for a while with broadcasts of popular music-hall acts before coming up with Band Waggon (the stars of which, Richard Murdoch and Arthur Askey, were supposed to live in a flat at the top of Broadcasting House).  In Britain, this seminal show represented both the birth of sitcom and the creation of the first comedy format designed specifically with broadcast in mind, and a period of experimentation began which continues to this day.  Television first reared its head around this time, only to disappear again with the outbreak of the Second World War, and Britain during the hostilities was very much a radio nation.  It remained so into the 1950s, when TV was a growing but still nowhere-near universal phenomenon.  Even in the decade which followed, radio was at least an equal partner to television (and, of course, cinema) in the entertainment stakes.  This was the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of radio comedy, the era when speech radio still held mass appeal, and its output was a near-universal topic of conversation.  The names of shows from this period — from Band Waggon, ITMA and Danger: Men At Work, via The Goon Show to Round The Horne and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again — spring readily to the lips of anyone who lived through the period.

But in the end, inevitably, television came to dominate broadcast entertainment, and speech radio audiences tumbled from the millions towards the hundreds or merely tens of thousands.  The ‘Golden Age’ is now well and truly over.  The quality of radio comedy may be as strong as it ever was — many of the most rampant nostalgists would not deny this — but the mass cultural appeal has gone: today’s brightest shows are esteemed mainly by enthusiasts, people who go out of their way to give particular shows a hearing.   When did the transition take place?  Dennis Gifford, in The Golden Age of Radio, chooses the symbolic date of 30 September 1967, when the Home Service, Light and Third Programmes and their associated services were reorganised and rechristened as Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4.  Personally, I would place the true tail-end of the ‘Golden Age’ somewhat later, marking it with a programme which seems to fall into place as the last milestone in the illustrious procession of shows mentioned above: the last radio comedy which had an audible impact on British culture, which practically everybody knew about and talked about sooner or later, and which was — despite its infiltration into other media — known and appreciated for its radio origins.  That programme was The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and its final episode was broadcast on 25 January 1980.  The period from that point forward — described here as ‘contemporary’ — is the subject of this website.

The modern world

Obviously, there was a great deal of continuity from the past.  For instance, in the 1980s, just as in the 1960s, practically all new comedy fitted into one of three broad groups: sitcoms, sketch shows and panel games.  Sitcoms could be more or less rooted in reality but tended to feature a strong central situation, a group of regular characters, and self-contained storylines which always resolved themselves at the end of the episode so that the basis of the programme never changed from week to week.  Sketch shows were heavily derived from the university and theatrical revue tradition; sometimes the comic pieces were linked by some common setting or device, sometimes they just followed on from each other for half an hour.  Comedy panel games were built to an apparently inviolable basic formula: each show had a distinct theme, a relatively well-known host, two regular team captains supposedly in opposition and one guest on each side, plus a script to which all the participants would stick like glue.  These three staple formats were self-perpetuating, since new shows would be designed and commissioned in accordance with tried-and-trusted principles.  To a great extent, they are still with us today.

Early 1980s 
Home Again, Peter Tinniswood’s first radio sitcom, 1980... 
Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s first radio projects, Wrinkles and Wally Who?, 1980-2... 
Radio Active’s first series 1981... 
Semi Circles, an early sitcom from Simon Brett, 1982-3... 
Sally Grace joins the Week Ending team 1983 

Radio Active (1981-88) was probably the first significant show created in the 1980s, and usefully illustrates what had changed and what had stayed the same.  In terms of format, Active was basically a sketch show, and featured a solidly Oxbridge line-up of performers schooled in traditional revue comedy.  However, the elaborate setting to which the sketches were pegged, with its regular characters and sense of plot development, incorporated elements of sitcom, and there were scalpel-sharp topical music parodies in place of the more conventional novelty songs.  The established formats were increasingly being used to put across innovative ideas.  Secondly, the life expectancy of new shows had decreased markedly, as had series runs.  Active was more or less the last comedy show to be recommissioned on a perennial basis, and its total of 51 shows over seven seasons has not been matched since — the average now is around two series, usually of six programmes each — but this figure is dwarfed by most of the old favourites (compare I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again fifteen years earlier, which notched up over twice as many programmes over the course of its eight seasons). 

The defining characteristic of what I am calling the contemporary period, though — the reason this site exists — is a change in the way audiences respond.  The term ‘cult’ is sometimes dismissed as a euphemism for ‘unpopular’: radio comedy is certainly less popular than it once was, but it has also gained a kind of cult status, after its own peculiar fashion.  In earlier times, individual radio shows would — like television shows today — have dedicated fans and enthusiasts, but the greater part of those million-plus audiences always consisted of casual listeners.  Now that the days of mass listenership are behind us, a far larger proportion of the audience has a specific interest in the shows on offer.  At the same time, the almost total absence of media promotion for the delights on offer leads to a peculiar pride in radio humour as an institution.  Coupled to this is the fact that radio provides television with most of its greatest ideas (a phenomenon, oddly confined to comedy, which will be discussed at length in the next section): as a new TV show is trundled out in a blaze of publicity, the ‘radio fans’ are quick to point out — sometimes irritatingly, sometimes with a lot of justification — that they heard it first, usually in a rawer/purer/more sophisticated form.  As a result shows such as Radio Active, despite being thoroughly mainstream in content and presentation, now command what can only be described as a cult following.  True, there are no fanzines, t-shirts or internet discussion groups; merely a few thousand nostalgists who smile, nod and perhaps exchange a few words on the subject whenever it crops up in some seemingly irrelevant context.  But this is enough.

A little screen and pictures

Mid 1980s 
In One Ear brings live comedy to Radio 4, 1983-6... 
Grant and Naylor’s Son of Cliché, containing the seed of Red Dwarf, 1983-5... 
After Henry broadcast 1985-9... 
Delve Special is broadcast, later to appear on Channel 4 as This Is David Lander... 
Sue Limb’s Wordsmiths at Gorsemere, 1985-7... 
King Street Junior begins in 1985 and runs for thirteen years... 
Whose Line Is It Anyway? appears on Radio 4 with Stephen Fry and John Sessions... 
The Million Pound Radio Show provides an early opening for Harry Enfield... 
Week Ending taken off air during general election, 1987 

The middle and late 1980s were characterised by the rise of the radio-to-television transfer.  To begin with — and it seems strange now — sitcoms, rather than sketch shows or parodies, were the main feed for television’s gaping maw.  One of the first was Simon Brett’s After Henry (first aired in 1985, transferred three years later), which was typical of his style: undeniably and unrestrainedly middle-class, but more finely characterised and far more subtle than most sitcom projects of its time.  Indeed, it is unlikely that such a programme could have originated directly on television.  The same could be said of Up the Garden Path, which was originally a straightforward dramatisation of Sue Limb’s novel, and certainly of Second Thoughts, which began life as the winning entry in a new radio writing competition.  All of these shows were, in what became something of a pattern, initially nurtured by the BBC in their radio incarnations, passed over for development by BBC television commissioners, and duly snapped up by one or other of the independents and put out on ITV.  The Beeb finally managed to break the cycle with An Actor’s Life for Me, heard on Radio 2 in 1989 and seen on BBC1 in 1991.

By now, other shows beside sitcoms were coming through the pipeline, and the character of television's relationship with radio was changing.  Whose Line Is It Anyway?, chaired by Clive Anderson, had started out as a typical radio panel game.  It adhered to the regulation panel-game formula outlined above in every aspect but one: only the chairman was working from a script, since the theme of the show was improvisation.  This kind of idea had never really been tried in Britain before, and many people spotted a novel and exciting idea shut up in the standardised format.  After apparently being rejected by BBC TV in the normal fashion, the idea was picked up and presented on Channel 4.  The television incarnation was also called Whose Line Is It Anyway? and chaired by Anderson, but its panel-game origins were almost undetectable.  What emerged was a sleek and widely admired show, which became a night-time favourite for the station and established the careers of several of its stars.  Whose Line? demonstrated that radio was not merely a source of safe staple material to be routinely supplied with pictures and thrown onto the screen: used properly, it was a magician's hat from which all manner of unexpected rabbits and doves could be conjured.

Another instance of the magic act arose from a coincident development, the appearance of comedy on Radio 1.  Since its creation in 1967, the station had, with the exception of the tape-fiddling trickery of Jack Jackson and later Adrian Juste, failed to find any place for comedy output among its pop-and-prattle-filled schedules (unlike the similarly music-oriented Radio 2, where comedy has been a permanent fixture since the Light Programme days).  Since the end of the 1970s in particular this was network radio’s loss, as the younger station would have been perfectly positioned to capture new and exciting developments in the expanding world of club comedy.  Criticism of the existing output on Radios 4 (middle-class and metropolitan) and 2 (toothless and downmarket) was not always unjustified, and the initial explosion of Young Ones-generation alternative comedy had passed radio by completely.  Things were finally put right in 1987, when the station finally got its first ‘proper’ comedy show (ie, half an hour long and without a DJ).  Hey Rrradio!!!, as it was called, didn’t really set the world on fire, but it led to the creation of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, a cult hit which rapidly acquired a following, attracting large audiences in spite of its sometimes ridiculous timeslots.

The BBC, which had by now cultivated a little more acumen in this department, developed Mary Whitehouse for television (in association with the Spitting Image production company), and was rewarded with the expected larger-scale hit.  The show brought to prominence a new generation of comic performers: yes, as usual, and to some people’s irritation, they were a bunch of Cambridge graduates, but the new breed put as much distance as possible between themselves and the revue tradition.  As the show’s title suggests, its style was confrontational and cuttingly ironic while maintaining an air of the ridiculous: if the sharp division of the early eighties still meant anything, this was ‘alternative’ rather than ‘mainstream’ comedy.  It was during the buzz generated by Whitehouse that someone first coined the expression “Comedy is the new rock’n’roll”: true enough, comedy was fashionable again, and radio briefly became identified as the source from which the new fashion was emerging.  Most people who have experienced both the radio and TV versions of Whitehouse agree that the former was sharper, more immediate, more atmospheric, more... the cultish nature of radio comedy was extending to a new generation.

Around this time, the BBC successfully replicated the Whose Line? effect on its own behalf.  Have I Got News For You, first broadcast in 1990 on BBC2, was an initially innocuous adaptation of Radio 4’s amiable News Quiz — actually the youngest of Radio 4’s long-running comedy warhorses, but still pretty venerable for that, having been created in 1977.  Like Whose Line?, the independently-produced new show had a substantially different feel, with new performers and a freshened-up format.  After a couple of series, it mysteriously ignited and became the most popular show on the network, usually by a margin of three or four million viewers.

Late 1980s 
Peter Tinniswood introduces the character of Winston in The Village Fête, 1987... 
Up The Garden Path, 1987-93... 
Radio 1's first comedy, Hey Rrradio!!!, 1987... 
Little Blighty on the Down reinvents allegorical satire... 
Radio Active concludes, 1988; TV version appears a couple of years later... 
The Big Fun Show provides early roles for Paul Merton and Julian Clary, 1988... 
Second Thoughts, 1988-92... 
An Actor's Life for Me reaffirms Radio 2's comedy commitment, 1989-93... 
The Mary Whitehouse Experience puts radio comedy for a young audience on the map, 1989-90 

Televisual attention had now shifted away from sitcom towards radio’s other formats, and for a brief period it appeared that every new comedy on the radio was being tried out on TV, even if most of them never made it past the pilot stage.  The establishment of the radio-to-television transfer as standard practice in broadcast comedy had two major effects.  Firstly, it spelled a permanent end to the perennial recommissioning of radio shows, which had led to the multitudinous series of Radio Active and countless earlier programmes.  Nowadays, a rising young act generally aims to be on the television (and hence, by and large, off the radio) within a couple of series; in such a climate, performers who fail to achieve this usually perceive themselves as going nowhere, and likewise disappear from the airwaves.  Secondly, the realisation that radio was effectively television’s unofficial recruiting arm meant that its future was assured: since radio provides a way to find out, for a relatively small investment, how an untested act or writer performs when presented with a writing commission and/or a recording environment, the limited audience figures are not an important consideration.  In recent years, as will be explained later, the total output of radio comedy in recent years has not dwindled.  It has actually increased.

1990-91 
1930s Marx Brothers scripts recreated in Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel... 
Victor Lewis Smith pioneers the wind-up phone call as terrorist action... 
Radio 5 is launched, and delivers stand-up recordings of new comedians in Club Class... 
On The Hour throws away the rulebook and reacquaints the media with radio comedy

The reputation created by Whose Line?, Whitehouse and the various sitcoms was firmly cemented by the arrival of another ‘new generation’ (the span of a comedy generation is presumably about four or five years) in 1991.  This was the team behind On The Hour, an extraordinary parody of news presentation.  Significantly, the individual usually identified as ringleader of this clique was one Armando Iannucci, producer of The Mary Whitehouse Experience in its radio incarnation, and the performers and writers included a bunch of Oxbridge graduates and some ex-Manchester drama students — thus, in some mystical fashion, creating a blend of the revue and alternative traditions.  On The Hour ran for just two series, before the inevitable transfer to TV (as The Day Today), but its main achievement was the media and public recognition it achieved as a radio show.  Members of the On The Hour generation loom large in these pages: the series had one direct spin-off in Knowing Me, Knowing You (which likewise made the jump to television), and some fifteen other radio and TV projects ultimately have their origins in what was originally conceived as a radiophonic exercise in sophisticated messing about.

Five into One

A year or so earlier, meanwhile, new possibilities for radio comedy had been opened up with the launch of Radio Five, the BBC’s second UK-wide speech radio station.  The new network, which combined sports, children’s and so-called ‘youth’ programming, was often referred to as a ‘dumping-ground’, and gained a reputation for poor listening figures, on account of its almost non-existent publicity drive.  For the most part, it was actually a laudable attempt to provide quality material for new radio audiences on a very limited budget.  Comedy made a welcome appearance in Five’s schedules from the beginning: since Radio 4 tended, perhaps rightly, to stick to material suitable for middle-aged audiences, and with Radio 1 maintaining only a thin comedic dribble despite the tremendous success of Whitehouse, the new network provided a much-needed outlet for more acerbic or youth-oriented comedians and writers to make their voices heard.  As well as a number of children’s comedy-dramas, and the often brilliant comic components of its nightly, regionally-based music and chat programmes (which, sadly, will have to remain unrecorded in this index), Five produced its own distinctive comedy shows at a rate of ten or twelve series per year throughout its short lifetime.  Straightforward recordings of live performances were given a contemporary edge with Club Class and Empire Night, and the station scored notable hits with the innovative Room 101 and The Mark Steel Solution, besides giving birth to They Think It’s All Over, the humorous sports quiz which became a late-night BBC1 favourite.  None of this, sadly, was enough to prevent the axing of the station in 1994, when the tortuous path of BBC politics saw it replaced by a rolling-news-and-sport network which was christened ‘Radio 5 Live’.  With the exception of The Treatment, a weekly satirical digest, comedy has played little part in this successor station’s output, and the change saw a number of worthy and promising shows cast into the outer darkness.

1992-93 
Debut of Radio 5's Room 101... 
Nick Revell Show is first sitcom to feature a talking plant... 
Simon Brett's No Commitments first appears: five series 1992-8... 
The inexplicable Lee and Herring present the first of their six series for Radios 4 and 1... 
Alan Partridge, monster of chat, presents Knowing Me, Knowing You... 
Harry Hill's first radio appearance alongside Alistair McGowan in When Harry Met Ally... 
A Look Back at the Nineties makes a comedy star of newsreader Brian Perkins... 
Alan Parker spreads his truth on Radio 1... 
John Shuttleworth makes his first radio appearance over four consecutive nights... 
The Masterson Inheritance brings the impro approach to historical drama in the first of three series... 
Harry Hill welcomes us to his world over four series of Fruit Corner, concluding in 1997... 
Armando Iannucci's first show as presenter for Radio 1 

One or two ex-Five shows, including The Mark Steel Solution, were in fact subsequently fished out of the millpond by Radio 4.  The brief of developing comedy which was abrasive, heavily based on popular culture, or otherwise perceived as not Four-friendly, however, apparently passed — in a roundabout fashion — to Radio 1, which happened to be going through its own rescheduling agonies at the time.  Since Mary Whitehouse the station had maintained a more-or-less regular half-hour of comedy a week in its schedules, which had played host to the various talents of Victor Lewis Smith and Julian Clary, as well as spawning the successful Loose Talk, a cult comic discussion show which mysteriously collapsed on exposure to the glare of BBC2.  In 1993 this single half-hour slot had begun to host a wider selection of programmes, including The Comedy Network, the first Alan Parker shows, and experimental repeats of a couple of likely-looking Radio 4 shows.

1994-96 
Radio 1:4 Comedy Network project records audience shows in student venues nationwide... 
Radio Five is shut down; 5 Live takes its place on the dial... 
Radio 1 launches its hour-long comedy format... 
First series of Alan Davies’ radio show, Alan’s Big 1FM... 
Chris Morris categorically does not announce Michael Heseltine’s death on his Music Show of 6 July... 
Ballylenon begins a run of six series, to conclude in 1999
The Airport, first radio comedy with an all-black cast, begins announcing arrivals... 
Closure of Paris Theatre; opening of BBC Radio Theatre... 
Radio 4’s Late Night Opening strand launched, increasing output of experimental fifteen-minute comedies... 
Intrepid reporter Roy Mallard meets his first People Like Us... 
Goodness Gracious Me! launches a flowering of Asian comedy... 
Eamon, Older Brother of Jesus proves too unholy for Radio 4 

Unfortunately, the pop-based and DJ-driven Radio 1 was never really geared up to handle the thirty-minute comedy format: popular shows often ended up being shoehorned into ridiculously late slots, programmes did not appear as advertised in listings, and repeats would be broadcast in the wrong order or not at all.  It was presumably in an attempt to avoid this problem, and to increase the overall comedy output, that a radical and bizarre new policy was introduced in March 1994, shortly before Radio 5 was due to disappear: the prerecorded half-hour shows were ditched altogether, and new comedy — like all other features — was made in the form of hour-long shows interspersed with music, with the presenters linking the material live and acting as surrogate DJs.  Shows produced in this format included Alan’s Big 1FM, Bits From Last Week’s Radio, Shuttleworth’s Showtime (featuring unlikely 1FM star John Shuttleworth), Radio Tip Top and two further series from Alan Parker.

Sadly, the experimental format proved to be rather ungainly, often creating an unnatural feel which left talented performers struggling.  There were two very notable exceptions in Lee and Herring and The Chris Morris Music Show, both of which, coincidentally, featured members of the exploding On The Hour generation, and both of which employed an individualistic choice of music which could be assimilated naturally into the programmes.  (Morris’s Music Show was also, of course, the series which gave rise to the legendary ‘Heseltine Death’ incident, and which — probably more than On The Hour or its television spin-off — established his reputation as a provocative and sometimes alarmingly dangerous broadcaster, garnering sackfuls of complaints and legions of admirers in the process).  The ultimate solution to Radio 1’s comedy problem was rather too drastic for comfort: in 1997, the hour-long shows were scrapped as suddenly as they had been introduced, and the station’s comedy output was abandoned altogether (along with various features programmes devoted to films, music, etc, constructed along similar lines, which had been introduced at the same time). There is, however, a commendable but puzzling exception to Radio 1’s no-comedy policy: none other than Chris Morris, who has returned to present a late-night series entitled Blue Jam, now on its third series.

And on to the present

Throughout all of this, Radios 2 and 4 maintained their usual output, broadcasting, respectively, one or two and five or six comedy shows per week.  An important link with the past was broken in 1995 when the Paris Theatre, a former cinema used for several decades as the main venue for audience comedy recordings, was closed down: its replacement was the purpose-built BBC Radio Theatre.  The demise of the Paris, closely associated with both stations, was marked with a commemorative concert and during the broadcast of last show ever to be recorded at the theatre, namely the final show in series two of The Skivers.

Changes also appeared to be afoot in programming output when, in 1997, Radio 4 was finally compelled to try and accept the younger networks’ comedy brief — or, at any rate, found a small collection of shelved Radio 1 commissions in its in-tray.  Late-night shows such as Grievous Bodily Radio, Stereonation and Bussmann and Quantick Kingsize appear to be the upshot of this development: the fact that the first of these received the axe partway into its run, however, demonstrates that the older network is unwilling to come more than halfway on the issue, and there remains a considerable gap in network radio’s comedy profile to this day.

1997 
Radio 1 abandons its remaining comedy slot... 
Trust's second series scrapped with announcement of election campaign... 
Radio 2 re-records ITV's Shelley with a new cast... 
Chris Morris returns with Blue Jam... 
The League of Gentlemen, destined for television success, present their series On The Town 

The change which holds the most significance for radio comedy’s future, however, came in April 1998, when Radio 4 enacted a wholesale reorganisation of its schedules and content, closely identified with station controller James Boyle and usually referred to (seldom with much kindness) simply as “the Changes”.  Howls of protest greeted the displacing or scrapping of numerous cherished shows — one celebrated casualty being the satirical revue Week Ending, a programme whose existence stretched back fully ten years beyond the scope of this document, and which was rather pointlessly killed off during one of the brighter patches in its mottled history.  But amid all the fuss, it was very easy to overlook the fact that the Changes brought about a sudden, unpublicised and massive expansion in the comedy output of Radio 4.  In the fairly typical week ending 27 March 1998, the station transmitted six individual comedy programmes, of which half were repeats.  Two weeks later, with the Changes established, there were ten comedy slots in the schedules, six of them containing brand new shows.  This hectic rate of delivery has been in operation for almost a year now, and shows no sign of slowing off.

1998 
Wholesale changes to Radio 4 schedules; massive increase in comedy output... 
Week Ending scrapped... 
The Beaton Generation and The Now Show, among others, fill the satire vacuum in confused procession... 
Straightforward club comedy reappears in 4 at the Store 

Since the Changes, there have been many, many complaints that comedy on Radio 4 (which now, by the processes I have described, accounts for around 90% of national BBC Radio’s comedy output) has “got worse”.  It’s certainly true that the sudden step-up resulted in a few shows with frankly poor content, and many more shows which suffered from obvious production or technical problems.  It’s also true that there is more bad comedy simply because there is more comedy, and that a certain amount of promising material was, as a result of unfortunate timing, unfairly caught in the general backlash.  Certainly, there is enough funny, inventive comedy being developed as there ever was — although (to my mind, at least) the schedulers have, in juggling the various daytime, evening and late-night slots, managed with unerring accuracy to secrete most of the brightest lights under convenient bushels.

I mentioned earlier that comedy (as opposed to anything else on the radio) can, at least financially, make some kind of case for its continuing existence whether anybody is really listening or not.  Indeed, some of the best series of recent months can only have attracted tiny listenerships.  Overall, though, there is still a great deal of public interest, which shows no sign of dying off as long as the dedicated audience I alluded to earlier is with us.  In recent years, many programmes and personalities have attracted their share of committed and extraordinarily vocal fans: we can seen this in the word-of-mouth popularity of People Like Us; in Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner; in countless individuals’ devotion to Peter Tinniswood’s idiosyncratic scribblings or the semi-detached wonderland of John Shuttleworth; above all, in the hilariously snowballing adulation of Lee and Herring, an apparently harmless double-act whose cult rose to almost literal proportions.  The most obsessive devotees do not hesitate to ferret out even greater gems lodged in even greater obscurity (for the record, in my case this would include Aesthete’s Foot, Elastic Planet, The Young Postmen and The Blackburn Files).  The obscure but sheltered situation of contemporary radio comedy — if not underground, then certainly background — is its curse, but also its blessing.

James Sumner
February 1999


© JB Sumner 1999.  All rights reserved.  Last edited 19/2/99