How Hattie and Marti led the way

Why don't women feature more prominently in recent histories of comedy?

"Make 'em laugh: the actress Beryl Reid made waves in not just "The Killing of Sister George", but also "Alcock and Gander"

Are women funny? No, they’re not. They’re hilarious. So why don’t they feature more prominently in recent histories of comedy? “To say they’ve been written out is a bit strong,” says Dick Fiddy, who is curating a season at the BFI dedicated to the “queens of TV comedy”. “But they have been underwritten.”

The first British woman to have her own television show was Joyce Grenfell in 1956 but female-driven sketch shows such as Smack the Pony are still white-rhino-rare. Even now, women are vastly under-represented in the two dominant modes of TV comedy, panel shows and the stand-up circuit. Last year, 84.5 per cent of the guests and presenters on Have I Got News For You were men and 92 per cent of those on BBC2’s Mock the Week, according to analysis by Kira Cochrane.

Academic researchers are looking at why this might be (and asking whether women on these shows are interrupted more often) but there are already several potential explanations on offer. “It’s a shouty, aggressive form and usually the fixtures are men,” says Fiddy. Others think that when a particular woman stumbles, audiences are quick to condemn the whole sex.

Battle scars

Elsewhere, though, funny women have thrived. The names in the BFI’s season will be familiar to most, even if the performers are not as celebrated as their male peers. There are clips from Beryl Reid, Diana Dors, Sheila Hancock and Hattie Jacques, who show the different routes into comedy available in the second half of the 20th century: cabaret, music hall and acting.

Then came the generation led by Marti Caine and Victoria Wood (whom Caine beat in the 1975 talent show New Faces). Caine was, according to Fiddy, “a very male style of stand-up – a joke machine”. Although she is rarely mentioned by young comedians, she had ten years of top-rating TV shows. In 1988, when she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, which eventually killed her, she joked: “Does this mean I’m a lymphomaniac?”

In the 1980s and 1990s, another mini-revolution happened: the rise of female performers who wrote their own material. “It made them less precious – look at the pratfalls and physical comedy of Absolutely Fabulous,” Fiddy says. “Men might have been uncomfortable writing that stuff for them.” That legacy can be seen in the Bafta-nominated Miranda, which is an intriguing mix of old-fashioned (the mugging to camera) and new (inviting the audience to laugh at the physicality of a big, tall woman).

Now, even in stand-up, where women succeed, they do it spectacularly: Sarah Millican sold more than 150,000 copies of her debut DVD, Chatterbox, last Christmas. “I wanted to be able to prove I could do it with the big boys and I can,” she told the Telegraph. “It means the next time a female comic puts out a DVD and does well, people won’t be quite so surprised.”

“Trailblazers: Queens of TV Comedy” runs until 28 August at the BFI Southbank and the Hackney Empire in London