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It's great to have one woman on a TV panel show, but you need more than that

The head of BBC TV output has promised that there will be no more all-male panels on TV comedy shows. Ed Morrish, radio comedy producer, explains why he always tries to book more than one woman – it makes his show better.

So here’s a thing: “Danny Cohen, head of the BBC's television output, has promised viewers that the corporation will not make any more all-male comedy panel shows.”

If there are any TV producers reading (there aren’t). here’s some recommendations for funny women you could have on your panel shows: Rebecca Front, Danielle Ward, Susan Calman, Shappi Khorsandi, Zoe Lyons, Bridget Christie, Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Josie Long, Jenny Eclair, Roisin Conaty, Sara Pascoe, Sarah Kendall, Kerry Godliman, Isy Suttie, Lucy Beaumont and Angela Barnes. I can recommend them all from personal experience, because they’ve all been guests on a panel show I produce called Dilemma. In addition to those women we’ve had female journalists (Grace Dent, Ann Leslie, Anita Anand, Samira Ahmed, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Anne McElvoy), musicians (Louise Wener, Cerys Mathews), presenters (Fi Glover, Janet Ellis, Cerrie Burnell), actors (Clare Grogan, Cush Jumbo), DJs (Annie Nightingale, Gemma Cairney), and a cricketer (Isa Guha), all of whom were funny and clever and interesting. 

Now, before you elect me King of Feminists*, I should point out that we’ve had more male guests than female – 40/36 is the split over three series and an Edinburgh special, although if you add the presenter Sue Perkins into that, it shifts to 40/55. 

Personally, I always thought the point of panel shows is to generate spontaneous discussion. I produced The News Quiz for two years (where, it’s fair to say, I achieved nothing like the figures above) and it struck me then that in terms of “jokes about the news”, there were only so many actual gags to be done – the value of the show was when Andy said something, Sandi queried it, Jeremy came back with something else, Sue took it further and Fred topped it. That’s what you can’t do at home – it’s four different minds working together in ways that can’t be predicted.

So when we started making Dilemma, a show where moral and/or ethical dilemmas are played for laughs – the idea of a diverse panel was central to the show working. If all four guests are the same age/ethnicity/gender/occupation, their moral choices are more likely to be similar, surely? Because morality and ethics are informed by our background and experiences. If you put a moral dilemma in front of four male comics in their 30s, you’re more likely to get an agreement than if you put in front of (say), one male English comic in his 30s, a female Australian comic in her 30s, a DJ in her 70s and a cricketer in her 20s**. And it’s that disagreement that make the show worth listening to.

We’re lucky of course to have a comedy format that bears non-comics. If the question is right – as, for example, in last week's show – then almost any answer can be funny; the comedy comes from thinking it through, and ending up somewhere unexpected. Some formats however seem to be more designed as a one-liner delivery system. That’s not a value judgement, these shows can be very popular and very funny, but if you’re just going for punchlines then you’ve limited yourself to a particular sort of comedian. And let’s not forget that broadcast comedy is not representative of the population of a whole, it’s representative of comedians, the people who chose to go into comedy. There are more men doing comedy than women so you’d expect there to be more good men than good women (although proportionally they’d be the same I imagine). There are also way more white people doing stand-up than non-white. As more women/ethnic minorities start doing comedy, the broadcast numbers will even up; but Chris Rock says it takes ten years to get good as a stand-up, and there wasn’t an even split ten years ago. (You could argue that more women would go into comedy if they saw women doing good comedy, and I think you’d be right.) And then there’s the fame issue – people are more likely to tune into a show where they’ve heard of the guests then where they’ve not, so producers book people you’ve heard of. You’ve heard of more male comedians than female comedians, so that’s who they book. It’s not particularly fair, but I can understand the impulse on the part of the producer.  

The last thing to bear in mind on this point is that one woman on a panel show can be quite isolated; she can be seen as “the woman”, a representative of ALL women. So we try to have two on each show as that immediately puts an adjective in front of each one. The young woman and the middle-aged woman; the Southern woman and the Northern woman. It’s harder to generalise when youve got two different people on. (We have on three occasions only had one woman as a guest, but a) we have a woman presenting the show so they’d never be the only female voice on the episode and b) we had one episode where there were three women guests, so that cancels one of those out.) Basically, I book two comics (one male, one female) and two non-comics (one male and one female) and try to get a variety of backgrounds from within that formation. And all for the selfish reason that it makes my show better.

The dilemmas for Dilemma are devised, by the way, through a series of brainstorms, which the show’s devisor Danielle Ward then takes away and writes up. We try to get a mix of people involved in these, because if white, black, gay, straight, male and female people in a room can agree that something really is a dilemma, then it will work on the show no matter who we book. A room full of only people like me might create dilemmas that only people like me think are dilemmas, and that’s not just a problem for anyone on the panel who’s not like me, but also for anyone in the audience who’s not like me. Our audience is about a million people. As sexy a thought a million versions of me might be, we have to accept it’s not likely, and some of the audience might be different. So rather than have 999,999 people shout “HOW IS THAT A PROBLEM?” while I nod sagely, I invite a few women to the brainstorm. I say a few; we had more women than men involved in this series. The guinea pig question I linked to above? Sue Elliot-Nicholls came up with that.

Anyway, to any TV producers reading (none of you), get in touch if you want the contact details of any of those women. They’re all really good.

This post first appeared on Ed's blog at edmorrish.tumblr.com and is crossposted with his permission. Dilemma is on Radio 4 at 6.30pm on Tuesdays.

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*Also, you don’t elect Kings.

**Series two, episode six

 

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage