Audio: BBC: Comedy
Hosted by: Sarah Millican
Elephant In The Room is proof, if proof were needed, that there’s no concept so odd that it can’t be turned into a BBC comedy panel show.
Where The News Quiz has…fairly obviously…the news to hang its hook on, and Just A Minute has its 60-second format to define and confine its laughs, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue defines itself as the antidote to panel shows, recent innovations in the form have tended towards the social experiment with a tinge of desperation.
Statistics As Comedy
Dilemma, hosted by Sue Perkins, took moral conundra and challenged comedians to reveal the depths of their moral soul – which didn’t usually take long. Listomania, hosted by Susan Calman, focused on the phenomenon of list-making to get through life, and had rounds based on randomly collated lists of things.
Elephant In The Room has statistics as its key draw. As Millican says at one point “We’re doing maths on a panel show – if you can think of anything more Radio 4, I don’t wanna know what it is.”
More than even most radio comedy panel shows, the points in Elephant In The Room are dramatically irrelevant, which is odd, given that every round, two individual players are awarded some. The premise is that the Great British People are surveyed on questions as inane as “How many pets did you have growing up?” Each panellist gives their own answer, hopefully spinning it into comedy gold along the way, and then the GBP’s answer is revealed, and “points” – some random, unspecified number of potentially entirely theoretical points – are awarded to both the person closest to the public’s answer, and the person furthest away.
So you can “win” the game by either by either being an “Average Agatha” or a “Maverick Martha” – names change for these per round, and yes, absolutely, after a couple of episodes, you’re begging for the convention to stop.
As a formula, it undoubtedly looked good on paper. And Sarah Millican equally undoubtedly seemed like a good bet to host the show – she’s a phenomenal stand-up, works well in sit-coms, and as a writer and reader of books, she has a warm and conversational style.
Something about the panel show format doesn’t seem to “click” with Millican, though. While she rarely needs to keep order – it’s a Radio 4 comedy panel show, after all – there’s a sense throughout that Millican understands the strain involved in translating an oddish formula into comedy gold, and would altogether prefer something looser and less structured. Sarah Millican as a chat show host would be sublime, and Elephant In The Room would probably still work at least as well without the business of rounds and surveys. Millican asking her guests bizarre questions, not in a quest to find the most “Normal Norma” but just out of interest, would make for a much more entertaining half-hour show.
The point of which is that Elephant In The Room struggles to combine its premise, its host, and the idea of comedy. The premise is like overworked dough – if it hadn’t been handled so much, it might have risen to its full potential, but the need for rounds, and the conventions of panel shows that mean Millican has to almost constantly update the audience on who won which round, and then pause for polite applause, make it heavier and claggier than it ever should be.
Hemmed In By The Format
That said, with Series 1 and 2 you get 13 episodes of Sarah Millican and comedians of various vintages delivering snippets of material – some of which, true comedy nerds will have heard elsewhere (like Angela Barnes’ board game Fascism – “Any slight deviation from the rules and I will read to you angrily from the box!”), and some of which feels genuinely made up on the spot.
As such, the quality of responses is variable, and there’s little that will stick with you for hours after you’re finished – or indeed, demand a second listen. But that too feels like an issue with the format itself, rather than either Millican’s hosting or the ingenious comedy stylings of her panellists.
As a way to add to the experimental formats of BBC radio comedy panel shows, Elephant In The Room makes more sense on paper than it ever necessarily achieves when you flesh it out in a studio and try to make it work. That overthought, overworked element, hemmed in by the necessity to deliver the laughs in rounds, rather than anything more free-flowing, makes it at best a series of funny moments, rather than the free-flowing laugh riot you get a sense it could have become.
Hint for BBC comedy panel show planners – give Sarah Millican a Graham Norton-style couch and free her from the “And at the end of that round…” formality of the panel show conventions that puncture the laughs here, and you’ll be onto a goldmine.
As it stands, Elephant In The Room never really escapes from the conventional – and it’s the worse off for it.