Jon Petrie's BBC Comedy Festival speech

Jon Petrie

As the BBC opens its inaugural Comedy Festival for industry practitioners today (Wednesday 11th May), the corporation's Director of Comedy, Jon Petrie, addresses the state of the industry and his vision for BBC television comedy in the years ahead.

Thank you, Charlotte, and thank you to everyone for joining us in Newcastle for the very first BBC Comedy Festival. This is a unique and incredibly rare opportunity for us to gather the great, the good and the slightly unhinged of the industry, put us all in one room and attempt to create our very own covid variant. Comicron?

The aim of the Comedy Festival is to create a kind of mini-Edinburgh TV Festival, but with less free tote bags and only for comedy, in which we can talk about the genre in a way that's serious, but enjoyable, like the way I play snooker.

Before I get into my full telly wanker speech, I just wanted to say a huge thank you to Liz Hadley, Emma Barnard and Hannah Rose, who have committed so much time and energy setting this Festival up; from the amazing invites with the festival programme, to the brilliant entertainment lined up over the next few days, you guys have been incredible bridesmaids, Sorry colleagues.

Also, a massive thank you to the rest of the comedy team who have taken on the panels alongside the day jobs. Thank you to Alison and the team at Northern Film and Media, and Lisa and Mark from Hot House, plus all the incredible talent both on and offscreen taking part in the panels and masterclasses. All for no fee; true public service!

Finally, for the thank you section, thank you to everyone in this room for taking time out of your schedules to come and hear us talk about ourselves for the next few days.

The blurb for this event said that I would be outlining my vision and plans for BBC Comedy, which sounds like you're about to hear my attempt to announce something ground-breaking or earth shattering for the genre, but the truth is, in the main, BBC Comedy is doing phenomenally well, because of my predecessor's brilliant work.

Coming into the job, I was genuinely blown away by the viewing figures that recent BBC comedies have been racking up.

To date, 7.4 million people have watched the first episode of The Outlaws, from Big Talk. The amazing BAFTA winning Motherland, from Merman, has now reached 25% of the population across its 3 series to date. Then there's the runaway success, Ghosts, from Monumental, which shows the evergreen quality of comedy, as audiences continue to seek it out on iPlayer. The first episode of series one has been watched by 11.5 million to date.

But it's not just viewing figures. iPlayer is full of critical successes like Inside No. 9, In My Skin and Alma's Not Normal. Authored pieces that empower talent to tell stories they care about and shows I am incredibly proud to inherit.

From the outside, I don't think I'd quite appreciated just how big iPlayer was. Last year, it enjoyed its most successful year ever - broadcasting over six billion requests with 538 million of those requests for comedy shows. Over half of ALL comedy viewing now comes from iPlayer directly. Despite all the competition, the BBC is still by far the biggest fish in the pond when it comes to comedy and the BBC Audiences team will go way more into detail on the audiences panel, tomorrow, at 10am.

So, we know we have lots of great shows that audiences are enjoying but I also want to talk about the way we work. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to spend time in a meeting room or on a Zoom with me, knows that it's hard to get through the hour without me shoehorning a mention of People Just Do Nothing or Stath Lets Flats into conversation. Funny how I never mention the less successful stuff I've produced. But I do like to think that my experience as a producer has helped me think about a vision for BBC Comedy that is both producer and talent friendly.

As much as an ego maniac as this makes me sound, it's about ensuring that you can go on the journey with your show that I was lucky enough to go on with People Just Do Nothing; from a pilot to five series, along with podcasts, radio shows, even virtual reality sketches and, finally, to a cinematic release! All of that achieved within the BBC. There is no other broadcaster that can provide that many services or are prepared to give that level of development support. Despite all the propaganda that will tell you otherwise, the BBC remains the best place to develop and nurture new comic voices. We can also offer the reassurance that established talent need that their ideas can be made in their purest form. So how do we keep it that way?

I think it's through our development process. Good comedy takes time to create. I know sometimes it will feel like you're having to jump through hoops, and it can be frustrating, but I can assure you we will only take things on when we really believe your show has a chance to go the distance, and when it does, we want to provide the best environment for you to succeed.

Our commissioning team can add value to the development process as well. I'm so pleased, and relieved, to be supported - quite heavily propped up, to be honest - by what I genuinely think is the most impressive, hardest working, collection of people working in commissioning.

Image shows from L to R: Tanya Qureshi, Emma Lawson, Ben Caudell, Gregor Sharp

Here they are! Make sure you go and drunkenly shout your ideas into their faces after this. Ben [third from left] really wants you to shout an idea into his face, look at him.

The team have all made comedy hits and, most importantly, like me, they've all made stuff that didn't work. You won't always agree with us, but hopefully most of the time you will, and you'll respect that we've been there, done that and moaned that BBC Marketing didn't make the t-shirt.

But that doesn't mean that we're going to rest on our laurels. Whatever laurels are. We want to invest more in our development process. So, along with scripts, pilots for BBC Sounds and tasters, we're going to double the number of half hour pilots that we make. They will be better funded, and they will all be non-TX. We want to show much less of our homework, allowing time and space to fail and for our new series to arrive as fully formed as possible. If, for whatever reason, your project doesn't work out with us, you will be able to find another home for it with a valuable piece of tape to help sell your idea, which won't feel spoilt from having been shown on TV or online, giving you the ultimate revenge when you win a BAFTA and can slag us off in your acceptance speech.

Thanks to streamers, we understand that it's becoming harder to find offscreen talent to make your shows. So, we know it's crucial that we give people opportunities so we can deepen the pool. That's why we've rethought our approach to short form and talent. We're consolidating Laugh Lessons, Threesomes and Comedy Shorts into the BBC Comedy Short Films. These self-contained films will help to shine a light on some of the best upcoming talent on and off screen with much more importance placed on the short film idea, rather than whether the idea could end up becoming a TV show. Again, this is all with the aim of making the development more meaningful for talent and offer them the opportunity to enter the major short film competitions and platforms like Vimeo's short of the Week and of course, pride of place on iPlayer.

We'll be expanding our current writing bursaries to include producers and directors into a 'ones to watch' style bursary collective. There'll be more information on all this at the Meet the Commissioners session tomorrow.

It's no secret the huge competition in the market and the impact of Covid, have significantly raised the costs of production. Although comedy doesn't need to cost the earth - the nation's favourite comedy moment is a man falling through a bar - we understand that we need to flex our tariffs to meet the needs of each show.

We can also help you put packages together. We have great partnership agreements with key screen agencies - in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Birmingham and here in the north east. Not only are they fantastic people to work with, but they are also committed to developing talent and bringing authentic portrayal to our screens. Many of the screen agencies will be with us over the next few days and we can help hook you up.

As well as screen agency partnerships, we also want producers to access the High-End Tax Credit, much more often. That's why we will be investing an extra £10 million over the next two years into comedy. This will enable more ambitious pieces for iPlayer where our audiences are increasingly discovering our new British comedy titles. The BBC will remain the biggest investor in comedy in the UK.

So, what are we looking for? More than anything else we want shows that connect with our audience - whether they're big and broad or weird and provocative. Worlds that the audience can see themselves in often connect in the deepest way - it's no accident that it's the family home and the workplace that have proved the most enduring settings for sitcoms. Some of the most creatively brilliant and popular shows of the last couple of years like Ghosts and Motherland have that classic DNA in them but we get pitched comparatively few of those kinds of shows. So, bring us more!

We recognise that it's a hard task to find new angles and distinctive stories in worlds that feel super familiar, but we know when we get that connection right audiences really appreciate it. The One Show recently asked viewers their most loved 20 BBC TV programmes. 11 of the top 20 were sitcoms. And not one of them was The One Show. It didn't even feature as one of its own viewers' favourite shows, poor One Show.

In an increasingly global SVOD world, we're still eager to make shows that feel uniquely British. We will roll out the red carpet for the right idea, and a very deep pile one for shows set in the Nations, genuine portrayal stories and we want to do more for disabled talent.

We really care about diverse voices, and diversity on screen and we want our shows to be relevant and resonant the to the whole BBC audience. It's worth reminding everyone that the BBC have prioritised £100m of our existing commissioning budget over three years towards diverse and inclusive content and this will be supported by a new mandatory 20% diverse-talent target in all new network commissions. We have a £2m diversity fund to support the development of diverse on and off-screen talent that can help you reach this target. No excuses.

We want relatable British characters with an angle we've not seen before, and we want high joke rates. We also want shows that talk to younger audiences. Want a lot, don't we?

When it comes to talent, unlike a lot of our competitors, we really don't need to sell our shows on a name, the most important thing is the characters, the idea and the quality of writing. We like our series to be lightly serialised, but equally, it's great when a viewer can jump into any episode.

The BBC remain very open to co-producing with our American friends and beyond, so you should never not bring an idea to us because of budget worries. We'll be hearing from some of the American lot tomorrow on the Co-Pro panel at about 5:30pm.

It's probably worth mentioning things lower down on the BBC Comedy Wishlist. At this moment, we are well served for comedy drama, comedy thriller, and sketch shows, but we totally understand you might want to send to us anyway, and don't let us stop you. Just be aware that we get sent them a lot and opportunities are currently more limited in these areas.

We'll be going into more detail at the Meet The Commissioners session, so if you'd like to ask us a question about anything because you stopped listening to what I was saying 10 minutes ago, you can drop us a line at and we'll do our best to get through as many questions as we can.

Don't worry, I'm nearly done, and then you can get on with the real business of slagging me off. Here's a quick little reminder of why BBC Comedy is the mutts nuts and why I feel like a lucky little competition winner to have this job...

That's it. Thank you to all the producers whose hard work goes into all these shows and thank you to everyone in this room for continuing to bring us, on whole, great ideas.

We hope you enjoy your time in Newcastle. Over the next few days, please do take the opportunity to strike up conversations with people you don't know. I know we're all awkward, but you can take comfort in the fact that all the venues will be stuffed with incredibly talented people like you, who are also, like you and me, anxiety ridden, oddballs desperate to not have a proper job. I've checked with our very own north easterner, Emma Lawson, and this was her suggestion for a song likely to go down well in Newcastle.

Have a great evening and don't drink too much tonight, remember you've got school in the morning...

In a later session, Petrie announced changes to how the BBC commissions shows and his team outlined their wishlist. Commissioning report

Published: Wednesday 11th May 2022
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