Pat Stacey: Could pilots get RTE comedy off the ground?

Very few good comedy series spring onto television fully formed. It can take a few episodes, sometimes even an entire season, before everything falls into place.

There will always be a few exceptions, of course. Fawlty Towers, Father Ted and The Office are three that hit the target from the off.

But pilots — single try-outs, initially made as one-offs — are still the best way of testing the waters for a potential series. Many of the best-loved British sitcoms of all time began this way.

A BBC Comedy Playhouse episode called The Offer, about father-and-son rag-and-bone men living in a cluttered house in London’s Shepherd’s Bush developed into Steptoe and Son.

Prisoner and Escort, an episode of the comedy anthology Seven of One which featured Ronnie Barker playing different characters in separate stories, became Porridge (unfortunately, the anthology also spawned the drab Open All Hours).

ITV’s Rising Damp started life as a pilot called The Banana Box, adapted by Eric Chappell from his stage comedy. What’s more, Leonard Rossiter’s grubby landlord wasn’t called Rigsby but Rooksby, the character’s name in the play.

The BBC’s Motherland, written by Sharon Horgan and Graham Linehan, is a more recent example of a comedy that was tested with a pilot episode before being commissioned as a full series.

In America, especially, pilot episodes often aren’t made for broadcast. They’re primarily intended as a pitch to a TV network, as well as a means of fine-tuning scripts and characters, revising or removing elements that aren’t working.

In the unaired pilot of The Big Bang Theory, which can be found on YouTube, the characters of Sheldon and Leonard are very different to what they would become.

There’s no Kaley Cuoco as Penny, either. The female character, played by Amanda Walsh, who invades the nerdy physicists’ space is called Katie. She’s harsh and has an unpleasant mean streak, so it’s not difficult to see why the concept was radically reworked.

Pilot episodes can be invaluable; if you want proof, look no further than RTE’s slapdash approach to comedy over the years. One of the national broadcaster’s problems with comedy has been its failure to ask basic quality-control questions before greenlighting a series.

Are the scripts up to scratch? Are they funny enough? Does the concept have the legs to merit a full run?

RTE has struck lucky a handful of times (although not in a long time) and ended up with durable gems like Paths to Freedom, Bachelors Walk and the grossly undervalued Trivia, which was inexplicably axed after two fine seasons, leaving the fates of its immensely likeable characters unresolved.

More often than not, though, the results of this throw-it-and-see-if-it-sticks policy have ranged from the uneven (Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope), to the mediocre (Nowhere Fast, Finding Joy), to the puerile (Bridget & Eamon), to the downright atrocious (The Centre).The latter was was so amateurish and crudely offensive — to transgender people, Muslims and any viewer with two functioning brain cells — that any other broadcaster would have dumped the scripts in the nearest waste paper basket.

But there’s a small sign this mindset might be shifting. On Sunday night, RTE1 showed the first of four Comedy Showcase pilots: Headcases, written by Charlegh Bailey, who co-stars with Seána Kerslake as the joint owners of a hair salon in North Dublin.

It’s bright, busy and the humour and a couple of the characters are broad. It’s light on big laughs, though, and the late lurch into a more serious plot twist suggests “comedy-drama” might be a more accurate description.

Still, it’s coherent and has the feel of something that’s at least been thought-through. That in itself makes a welcome change.

Episode two of comedy showcase, Bump, is on RTE One on Sunday at 10.30pm.

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