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Q&A: Phil Clarke, C4 head of comedy

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02 December 2013

Phil Clarke, Channel 4’s head of comedy, on the kinds of shows he’s looking for

What was your opinion of C4 comedy when you took the job in January? I thought it was in good shape. There were some very good pilots which we then took to series: London Irish, Drifters and Man Down. There was also Toast of London, which I had produced. It was a bit strange that one – as an ex-producer of the pilot it would obviously be nice if it was made, but I needed someone higher up, like Jay Hunt, to decide on that. There were also some very good series and shows being made: Friday Night Dinner 3, Derek and The Mimic. Cardinal Burns was also winning awards and Noel Fielding was doing his thing.

What’s your strategy for C4 comedy?  C4 has always been an alternative channel. But the tone of C4 comedy has spread onto other channels. So the question is, as an alternative channel where should we be?

And where should you be? There are three strands to our comedy, including one particular strand which I currently  want to push. Firstly, there is the truly alternative strand, something like Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy or Matt Berry and Arthur Mathew’s Toast of London. I don’t think you would find shows like that on another channel. Both are clearly alternative, authored pieces, weird and wonderful and deeply original. Shows that are not frightened to really push the boat out.

The second is the show with a strong comic voice, and big jokes.  The IT Crowd is an example of that. And Father Ted. Man Down with Greg Davies has big jokes but is also well crafted and structured.

And there is a third strand that I want to do more of – clever, knowing, witty narratives that are adult and acerbic. Peep Show would have a foot in that camp. They are shows that are often witty rather than laugh out loud, that are clever and have an intelligence behind them. I want us to own that ground more. Other good examples of that would be The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve.

What’s the most important factor in a pitch? Well crafted writing. Traditionally a channel would attract top talent with a big cheque and then the work follows. But what I am saying is that the writing is everything, and the writing is what attracts established talent to do stuff that they haven’t done before. And also new talent.

What’s your budget?
  Around £30m for C4 and E4. We have 14 to 16 series running at any one time.

What has worked recently?
  An interesting show at the moment is London Irish. Some people are offended by it. My position is fine, be offended. Some people think that being offended is some kind of  human right, which it isn’t. I think London Irish is brilliantly written. It appears to be one thing early on – quite crude and they swear a lot at each other. But if you watch the whole series you will see the subtlety of the writing. It’s very nicely constructed – there is a little love story and it slowly bubbles to the surface. It is also original and genuine.

What’s your target audience? C4’s heartland is 16-34 year olds, but I think we shouldn’t worry about that too much – we should just worry if it is good. If it is good, then they will come.

What are you looking for? The headline is narrative, scripted comedies.

And for what slots? Of old there would have been a comedy slot, but now the comedies are all over the place. There is an editorial freedom in that.

How about film? I do have a budget to commission film scripts, and I am working very closely with Film4 so we have buddied up. It is a brilliant carrot to be able to offer people.

How important are pilots? I am trying to make more pilots. A lot of shows, Peep Show being a good example, are coming to a natural end and we need to get some more shows up and running. So particularly this year and next year I want to make as many pilots as possible. It perhaps means directing funds that would have gone to a series into making six pilots. But I think it’s important that we get a new coterie of shows, a smorgasbord of stuff to choose from.

CV: Phil Clarke
Jan 2013 - present Head of comedy, C4
2003 - 2013 Head of comedy, Objective Productions. Credits include Fresh Meat, Peep Show and Star Stories.
1999 - 2003 Producer, then comedy editor, Talkback. Credits included Bo Selecta, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Big Train, 
Brass Eye
1998-1999 Producer, Absolutely Productions
1990 - 1997 Producer, BBC Comedy

Top C4 comedy shows of 2013
Show (rating)
1. Derek (2m)
2. Black Mirror (1.9m)
3. Peep Show (1.6m)
4. The Mimic (1.4m)
5. Friday Night Dinner (1.3m)

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