Comedy Unit laughing all the way to the bank

Scotland's Comedy Unit is laughing all the way to the bank with the commissioning, by ITV network centre, of a new sit-com set in the north of England that will help to more than treble the six-year-old company’s £2m annual turnover.

Sweet Charity, starring former Coronation Street actresses Thelma Barlow and Anne Reid, who run a fictional charity shop, represents a further milestone in the return of the sit-com to British television and the first incursion by The Comedy Unit into English territory.

The earthy street humour that gave us Rab C Nesbitt and Chewin’ the Fat is now to be translated into a southern setting - but the deal with ITV is only one of a number of exciting developments at TCU that augur a period of exponential growth for the Glasgow-based company.

Persistent reports that the sit-com in British television is dead appear to be exaggerated if the recent success of TCU in attracting fresh commissions is anything to go by.

BBC Scotland has commissioned a new six-part, 30-minute series to be broadcast this autumn featuring the adventures of an ‘unorthodox’ policeman. A fourth series of Chewin’ the Fat is also to begin filming later this year.

In fact, life is positively a bundle of laughs at TCU’s Glasgow studio. The company’s Naughty Naughty Hypno Show starring hypnotist Peter Powers is showing on Channel 4, and BBC Scotland has commissioned a 10-part panel show series for the autumn. Filming has also just finished on an alternative travel show fronted by football commentator Tam Cowan called Taxi for Cowan, soon to be screened by BBC Scotland.

In addition, the radio side of the business which provides a nursery for the discovery and development of comic talent is also booming with Karen Dunbar’s Radio Show and Watson’s Wind Up - both in production for BBC Radio Scotland.

For TCU founders Colin Gilbert and April Chamberlain, the present flurry of activity is a vindication of their brave decision six years ago to quit their posts at the BBC to establish their own production company specialising in comedy for radio, television and video format.

With lengthy lead-in times and significant investment in the seemingly intangible comedy collateral of people, it must all come as some relief. TCU, which manages the Glasgow Television & Film Studio in Maryhill, will now increase its production hours from nine to 25 this year.

A core staff of 12 backed up by freelance and contract support employees will be swelled to around 75 as production picks up.

It is a far cry from the days when TCU was set up with discarded BBC computers bought for 50 and cast-off desks and office equipment from Scottish Power. The company’s greatest assets then were Rab C Nesbitt, The Baldy Man and Athletico Partick, all of which it was able to negotiate out of the confines of the BBC stable.

The rights made TCU one of Scotland’s largest independent production companies. But success has come gradually and Chamberlain points to the sheer length of time involved in getting commissions into production.

"Comedy does have a lengthy lead-in time. The Sweet Charity script accepted by ITV, for example, was done four years ago," she said.

"Comedy is a specialised business. Like drama , it requires a different level of craft and expertise. It has a significantly higher cost base than programmes like chat shows." Nonetheless the focus at TCU remains firmly fixed on comedy and the company is acknowledged as being at the cutting edge for honing humour.

"We invest heavily in comedy talent," said Chamberlain. "We have a team of 10 script editors who work with people to develop their ideas. It is difficult to find writers and talent so we work carefully to develop both. That is where involvement in radio is so useful. It is a great medium to work in. It offers a great grounding for new talent."

As line producer, Chamberlain provides the business back-up to Gilbert - a writer and director whose instinct and genius for comedy allowed BBC Scotland to develop the only network comedy unit within the corporation outside of London.

When, in 1995, the pair decided to spread their wings and leave the BBC, the timing was just right. They were able to cash in on the income stream generated by video sales of the three programmes they had taken with them.

Comedy writer and television presenter Phil Differ, creator of Only An Excuse, has since been appointed a director of the TCU, confirming its primacy in the world of Scottish humour. He is currently developing a live version of Only An Excuse for the company.

With more hush-hush programmes in the pipeline and more announcements imminent, it is a case of carry on laughing at TCU .