As BBC Studios gears up for its annual showcase, where it introduces its upcoming hot projects to international buyers, U.K.-based Jonathan Blyth, BBC Studios’ director of comedy, and Kelly Miller, BBC Studios’ Los Angeles-based senior VP of scripted strategy, sat down with Variety to discuss what’s on their comedy slate, working with streamers and the biggest challenges they’re currently facing.
What do you look for in a comedy?
Kelly Miller (KM): It’s all about authentic storytelling, that lived-in experience, a talent who has something to say. Those are the comedies and the shows that are most resonant with audiences around the world, but particularly here in the U.S.
Jonathan Blyth (JB): Talent is very much at the heart — front and centre. If you look at our showcase slate, we’re working with some of the best in the industry, whether that’s Jamie Demetriou [creator and star of “Stath Lets Flats”], Daisy May Cooper, Romesh Ranganathan.
If people are pitching you, Jonathan, in the U.K., are you looking for shows or ideas that are going to travel?
JB: Not necessarily. [My team] manage all of our key production partners and work incredibly closely with a lot of brilliant talent, honing and really working those development projects, and helping to get them off the ground in the U.K. [But Kelly and I] speak every day so we couldn’t be more joined up. The U.S. is so important to our comedy business.
KM: Localization is no longer a bad thing. You look at shows like “La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist”) and “Squid Game” around the world — the U.K. was at the forefront of that trend of being able to be British and localized in that sensibility, but still travelling, even if it’s not something that’s completely recognizable to a U.S. audience or an audience from anywhere else in the world.
What is it about British comedy that’s so popular, even with international audiences?
KM: The wealth of talent in the U.K. is second to none. Some of the biggest global stars that we talk about on a daily basis are from the U.K., and a lot of them come from a comedic sensibility and most of those have travelled through the BBC and have been a really indelible part of the BBC brand.
In terms of commissioning are you thinking about what streamers might want, given they are often co-producing?
KM: I think the streamers have presented a really incredible opportunity to be unique. Broad is something that we’re incredibly good at on one side but on the other hand, having those unique storytellers that we’ve been talking about, especially in the comedy space, only helps us in the marketplace, because that is what the streamers want.
JB: I think “The Outlaws” is a great example, which is a show which we developed with the BBC. It was commissioned by BBC One, and then we set that up with Amazon for a number of markets [outside the] U.K. Our BBC production unit is actually making shows for those global streamers, “Trying” third series or “Good Omens” the second series are both in production at the moment.
Is there any danger that partnering on U.S. co-productions will cause comedy projects to lose their British flavour?
JB: I don’t think so. I think those American players, they do want those authentic voices, British voices, they don’t want an American version. […] With “The Outlaws,” with Stephen Merchant, Amazon have been a terrific, creative partner and have very much let Stephen run that without pushing.
KM: [When] I was a buyer a number of years ago at Hulu I think the imperative was to find a balance between global talents and then keeping a show intrinsically British. Where I feel like the pendulum has really swung [the other way] lately. […] I think in the early days, a lot of American streamers and buyers, linear networks, were asking for those recognisable faces so that they can market them here in the States. But because streaming has changed the game in a way that audiences find programming and what the barometer of success is, so much so that you can have success with a face that someone hasn’t seen before.
Does BBC Studios offer first look deals to talent?
JB: No, we don’t. I mean, we probably will start doing more of those deals moving forward. But our relationships are deep-rooted relationships with talent, which go back years, and we have that unique wisdom where they love working with us. I think they feel that we’re a great partner in finding the widest audience for their work and bringing some of the best partners in. A show such as “I Hate You,” that was created by Robert Popper, he’s one of the best writers in the country — we worked with Robert on his first project 20 years ago and really off the back of that experience he then wanted to develop “Friday Night Dinner” with us, which became Channel 4’s biggest rating sitcom in the last probably 20 years.
We have established ourselves as a real go-to for talent and yes, it is a hugely competitive market out there at the moment. But they love coming back and working with us because they do get that brilliant experience.
During last year’s Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, British comedian London Hughes spoke about how she had to relocate to the U.S. for her career to take off, which she felt was down to U.K. commissioners not giving her the same opportunities as her male, white counterparts. How do you find new talent, particularly diverse talent?
JB: Being inclusive in the way we work, the content that we make, is absolutely crucial to our future. Backing talent, working with a variety of comedy voices, is important as we look to tell new stories and explore new ideas for a global audience.
In terms of comedies […] there’s a brilliant new series called “Black Ops,” which was piloted a year ago. It’s a comedy thriller, it’s been created by Gbemisola Ikumelo who’s the BAFTA-winning actress and writer.
KM: From the U.S. perspective and as we think about the marketplace here, those ambitions are very well matched in terms of what the marketplace wants, and diverse storytelling, which is the right way to move. And in terms of the talent that we’re backing, supporting, spending time finding. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time for all of us to be celebrating these voices from all these different lived-in backgrounds.
What are you most looking forward to on your BBC Showcase slate?
KM: I’m personally very excited about “Am I Being Unreasonable?” from Daisy May Cooper (pictured), I think she’s an incredible talent who will soon enough be a household name. It’s just incredibly audacious and different and genre-bending. And she has something to say so her being a talent on screen, and penning the script and the story, creating the world has been incredible to watch. So I’m very excited about that one.
JB: I think the exciting thing about “Am I Being Unreasonable?” is that it’s in the comedy drama space, which is so fertile at the moment. “I Hate You” is a laugh out loud, noisy comedy, very different to “Am I Being Unreasonable?” It’s about two 20-something best friends and finding their way in today’s messy world. It stars, Tania Reynolds [from] “Sex Education,” but also Melissa Saint. […] It’s so much fun. So I think that’s going to be become a big hit show.
There’s a lot of talking about so-called “cancel culture” impinging on comedy. Is that something you have to be mindful of when commissioning?
JB: All BBC content is obviously made in line with editorial standards, there’s clear guidelines around, harm, offence and this shouldn’t affect creative freedom to pursue those ideas or stories which really do push those boundaries and challenge perceptions.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
(Pictured: “Am I Being Unreasonable?”)