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When Jon Plowman left the BBC after 27 years, 13 of which were spent as head of comedy, he said he wanted to “return to the coalface and give someone else a go at one of the best jobs in television”.
When he speaks to The Guide ahead of his appearance at The Space, he is midway through scouting a location for a new project by The League Of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
“They are doing six separate films, which are a sort of Tales Of The Unexpected, but really unexpected,” he says. “From time to time it felt like the original Tales From The Unexpected were sometimes fairly predictable. These have got a real twist.”
It carries on his work bringing some of the most original and celebrated comedy of the past 25 years to British screens.
His CV as a producer reads like a roll of honour, including the likes of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, Smith And Jones, Bottom, Gimme Gimme Gimme, The Office, Absolutely Fabulous, Little Britain, The Thick Of It and, most recently, Twenty Twelve.
He now works as a freelance executive producer, which he says is much more fun.
“It seemed to me what I was doing [as head of comedy] was going to meetings about meetings,” he says. He still gets sent about half a dozen scripts and script ideas a week, including suggestions that he make a comedy about where people work “because it’s so funny”.
“A lot of scripts feel like they are imitation sitcoms,” he says. “They are written by people who think they know what sitcom is – slightly quirky people telling jokes to each other.
“I don’t think that’s worth doing. I like scripts where I have no idea what it is about, but should give it a go. The ones where you read it and think, ‘I don’t know what these people are on but I wouldn’t mind some.’”
Plowman started out as a student actor, who became noticed when he wrote and directed a show for the Edinburgh Fringe.
“It was nicely reviewed and someone wanted to take it to the King’s Head Theatre [in London],” he says. “From there I went on to the Royal Court Theatre and worked with Lindsay Anderson [the legendary director behind cult films If, O Lucky Man and Britannia Hospital].
“Most of what I know I learned from him. I remember him describing himself as a ‘traditional anarchist’.”
He is quite self-deprecating about his work, pointing out that his enormous CV doesn’t include hit sitcoms Blackadder and Father Ted.
“You never know what a show will get in terms of audience,” he says. “It has quite a lot to do with where it is in the schedule and how much publicity it gets – whether its star has done lots of interviews. It’s not always about the quality of the thing.
“There was a show I produced called Beautiful People [penned by Gimme Gimme Gimme’s Jonathan Harvey in 2008], which I thought was really good but I wish more people had watched it.”
He feels that at the heart of a good sitcom is a good character.
“It’s the most important thing in comedy,” he says. “It’s more important than the jokes. When you watch Basil Fawlty going bonkers in Fawlty Towers, you want to know what will make him mad.”
Sky’s recent interest and funding of new sitcoms has been a good thing for the market, Plowman believes, especially after a period when budgets had got tight.
“It’s a time when people need to laugh,” he says. “We need shows that cheer people up.
“It is always tough finding people who are happy to write shows for the big, broad audience at the BBC. You have to have a good understanding of what makes something work. It’s tough writing for a mainstream audience.”
The Space host Briggy Smale will also be speaking to Oscar-nominated Hollywood costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, whose credits include The Blues Brothers, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and An American Werewolf In London. She has just curated a new Hollywood Costume exhibition at London’s V&A.
- The Basement, Kensington Gardens, Brighton, Tuesday, November 6. Starts 8pm, £10. Visit thespace.uk.com
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