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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

 

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad