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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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge