Stewart Lee Press


BBC2's Attention Scum is in line for a Golden Rose award. But it's already been cancelled. Director Stewart Lee knows why.

Stewart Lee
Monday March 12, 2001

The last TV programme I worked on was cancelled before broadcast. Three weeks in advance of the comedy show Attention Scum's BBC2 run we were told there would not be a second series as "it didn't fit the new profile of the channel." It is currently showing at 11.50 pm on Sunday nights, without any trailers, following apologetic announcements warning that it "may not be to all tastes".

But last week Attention Scum was nominated for a Golden Rose of Montreux, the neutral Swiss accolade of excellence that makes a British Comedy Award look like the worthless industry back-hander it obviously is. I wonder if the BBC will fly us out to Switzerland to acknowledge support for a show they have shrugged off?

There is a precedent for shows apparently buried by the broadcaster receiving unexpected international accolades. Now so much television is a damp photocopy of Cold Feet, it's hard to believe its pilot was originally scheduled in a graveyard slot, and only repeated in primetime after this programme nobody in the UK had seen or heard of won the Golden Rose.
And the rest, as they say, is indicative of the fact that commissioning editors can never truly second guess how broad-minded the public might be.

Attention Scum was originally commissioned as a block of four, to be shown, inexplicably, on consecutive nights, after BBC2 controller Jane Root had seen the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe show by writer and protagonist Simon Munnery. Munnery had been developing his League Against Tedium character, an impotent and frustrated would-be intellectual and dictator, for more than a decade, and the shows were given a budget of 60,000 each, which is between a third and a quarter of normal spending on BBC2 comedy half-hours. A small top-up fee was agreed, if there could be six shows instead of four, and the pointless idea of showing it on successive nights was abandoned for a mid-week slot.

Producer Richard Webb asked me to direct Munnery, traversing the country lecturing to random crowds from the top of a specially constructed van. The fact that our uninvited audiences accumulated like leaves in village squares and rural car parks rather than Studios saved money, though the ungainly repetition of certain locations and characters still reflects budgetary limitations. The Fast Show used repetition as a stylistic device. For much new comedy, it is a financial imperative.

On viewing the rushes, word from above was encouraging and we were enormously proud of the final result and I expected that Attention Scum would be recommissioned on a budget that allowed us to do it justice. Then we heard, having been teased with prime time, that Attention Scum was scheduled for Sunday at 11.50pm, and then dismissed.

On BBC Choice's Liquid News, 250,000 info-face Christopher Price called Attention Scum a success, only to be informed by Simon that it had already been cancelled. Price assumed this was due to its huge cost, but it was made for little more than his fee. On the whole, the show has garnered superlative reviews (particularly given its low profile) and the buzz on internet comedy message boards has been plentiful and supportive.

"BBC2 really has lost all its charm to judge from the placement of Attention Scum in the death slot, and the refusal to follow through with a second series. It doesn't look remotely like a ratings winner, but this is exactly the reason I care about television. It ain't worth switching on the box without programmes this unorthodox," lamented one anonymous correspondent.

The sharp end of Root's reprofiling of BBC2, and the planned shift of all new comedy onto BBC Choice, where there is not enough money to make anything look accessible enough to "cross over", means that current Christmas Day bankers like French and Saunders and The Royle Family would also, like Simon Munnery, be shot in their incubators. In the meantime, the edition of Attention Scum currently scheduled for April 1 features a sequence with a monkey, a banana, and a Russian tank, which is the single moment of television I am most proud to be associated with. I hope the Swiss feel the same.

Source - Guardian Online