Thursday, 11 October 2012

Standing Up for Female Comics

I’m going off-piste today to write about an issue which has been bugging me for some time. In the last few days I have come across an unusually high number of articles, interviews and blogs which focus on the issue of women in comedy. It’s a topic which journalists keep returning to, despite the fact that one should assume by now that it is such a commonplace phenomenon it is barely worth debating. But debate they do, and yet nothing I have read recently has quite satisfied me. I am no expert on the field by any means, but appreciate good comedy as much as the next person and am a fan of stand up, sketch shows and panel shows. Some of my favourite comics are women and yet their gender has never been something that I have considered, as such. It is not as if I go through some kind of filtering process when first assessing the talents of a comedian: are they a woman? If so, are they good enough to be liked? And yet, there is in popular media an almost obsessive need to link sex to humour.  The question is brought up time and time again.

I am not the type of feminist which people associate with anger and tirades; indeed I barely register on the scale of feminism at all. I am absolutely pro-equal rights, however, and do get angered by examples one comes across in everyday life of where women are treated as second best, weaker or are objectified. Despite the leaps of progress that have been made over the last century, women are still not equal to men. The ‘Everyday Sexism’ project proves this (
). Perhaps the question about how women fit into comedy is always posited to comediennes because it gives them the outlet by which to justify themselves: to defend their profession and to have their say in a male-centred world. I am writing this not as a feminist rant but to merely speculate reasons behind why females in comedy are still a relatively rare breed and to consider the value of constantly questioning their place there.

The traditional environment of the comedy circuit can be intimidating. The stage in many clubs is something reminiscent of a bear pit, or a Roman Gladiatorial Arena. An entertainer is placed in the centre of the ring and has the task of making the audience laugh nearly constantly for their whole time slot. This audience are demanding: more often than not they are rowdy, drunk and apt to lose their normal inhibitions. It takes a great deal of confidence to step into that situation, especially when hecklers decide to make their voice heard. Many women are put off by this idea and it takes a tough kind of person to bat this off. Jo Brand has spoken about how invaluable her background in mental health nursing was in stand up: “hecklers aren’t imaginative and I have to say, hats off to them, psychiatric patients really are.” She adds that many women “find the knocks harder to take because they are naturally less self-confident...they could not stand the fact that they were being abused about their physical appearance endlessly every night.” Although some women stand ups do make it beyond the fringe and become more widely popular, such as Sarah Millican, it is noticeable that it is generally only male stand ups who can take their shows to arena tours or to TV shows such as Live at the Apollo.

Those brave enough to try have to be good. The old ‘women aren’t funny’ complaint could be blamed on the type of weak female stand ups who bleat about men, menstruation and motherhood. I was once at a comedy club and a female comedian stood up to take the stage. My male friend muttered, ‘Oh God, a woman. I bet she talks about her periods.’ Sure enough, her ten minute routine was entirely on that topic. It is frustrating that she should have been so unimaginative. This ranting, bitching style is not uncommon. Is this again a form of defence? Perhaps women feel it can appeal to the women in the audience whilst also fascinating (or at least appeasing) the men? To truly entertain the whole audience though, more originality is needed.

A recent article by Katy Brand in The Telegraph examined the link between women’s beauty and their comic talents. It asked if women could be both beautiful and funny simultaneously. The question that I was asking on reading was: why should this even be considered? Why are we still debating such issues, even if, as Brand does here, they try to suggest that looks shouldn’t matter? After all, no one would write a similar article about male comedians; their looks aren’t important. Instead, it is only their comedy talents which are judged. Brand does her best to make this point, but still, in the process makes comments such as “The cast of the film Bridesmaids was more of a mixed bag in the looks department (in terms of mainstream beauty), but they were all equally funny”. Here she tries to make a valid argument but undermines it by declaring who is good looking and who isn’t. Does anyone ever think about the relative attractiveness vs. funniness of the cast of The Inbetweeners, or of Mitchell and Webb? It seems females cannot escape the apparent significance of their physical appearance, even from the scrutinising assessments of other women.

Just as the most successful female stand ups have to brush off aggressive comments, the most successful female comedians of the sketch show and sitcom genres don’t care about how they look. BBC staples such as Catherine Tate, French and Saunders and Miranda Hart prioritise being funny over looking pretty, much to the advantage of their shows. As it happens, they are all beautiful women, but this is irrelevant to their comedy and they would rather act behind a clownish appearance, cover up with makeup and prosthetics or generally do whatever they think will get the biggest laugh. Of course, some of their best sketches come from the sheer shock of their altered appearances once in that state – take French and Saunders’ ‘old men’, or Catherine Tate’s ‘Nan’ – but transcending this is their astute observations of the behaviours of these characters.

The media tells women to be beautiful. It tells them to dress, eat and behave in a certain way. Women are constantly bombarded with a huge set of ideals: from the covers of glossy magazines; dietary advice; television adverts and window displays. It is not surprising that to drop this ingrained image is hard therefore, especially for someone in the public eye. When considering the points I have made above, it becomes no shock to note that there are fewer women than men in comedy. They have to be able to supersede society’s expectations; not care about looking or speaking in a certain way, whilst being incredibly talented in an original and quick-witted manner.

In an interview with Stylist Magazine, Sheridan Smith made a good point when asked if ‘women have to sacrifice something to be funny’. She enthused about these types of comediennes who will break the mould and be outrageous in the name of a good joke. She gave the example of Kathy Burke as Waynetta Slob, not caring what she looked like. However, voicing a sad truth about the media industry, she then added, ‘That inspired me, because not being your typical beautiful girl, you’ve got to make the most of the roles you are given’. Even in a throwaway comment like that she summarises women’s position in the entertainment world. The ‘beautiful’ ones will get the best roles, the serious dramas and money-making rom coms, while everyone else has to be inventive and ‘make do’. It also suggests that a girl who happens to match society’s idea of beauty cannot or will not go into comedy: presumably men would be too distracted by her face to concentrate on what she has to say! Or perhaps she would be too afraid of making herself look silly as it would sacrifice the best thing she has going for her.

So, women stand ups must be unorthodox in what they say and comedy actresses unorthodox in caring about how they look. Women who appear on television panel shows, meanwhile, must compete with the men in terms of the way they behave. There are increasing numbers of women slowly creeping into shows like Have I Got News For You, Mock the Week and QI but they are still clearly in the minority. A recent episode of QI had all female panellists apart from Alan Davies and a huge point was made out of it. However, no one bats an eyelid on the weeks where it’s all men.

Panel shows of this type have something of a gladiatorial feel to them and contestants battle their wits, fast-paced insults and put downs. It is an intimidating environment in which one has to be faster, cleverer and crueller than the person next to you. Miranda Hart says of the matter, “comedy used to be about clowning about and being self-deprecating but nowadays because all the men are much more competitive it’s got much meaner; it’s about being the cleverest person not the stupidest person.” This puts many female comic off. Those who partake must harden themselves to it: Jo Brand says she can only get on there because she’s ‘mean’. She says that although she doesn’t always enjoy the experience, on good nights it’s great and she feels she’s ‘doing her bit’ for the female sex. No doubt she again employs her background in nursing to help, whilst other women get through armoured with different tactics. Victoria Coren, for example is quiet, contributing just a few things, but using her intelligence to ensure they are particularly relevant and funny. Sue Perkins meanwhile occasionally employs her sexuality as armour, at other times throws herself into the quiz, unafraid of making herself look silly and attempting answers to most questions, uncaring of whether they are right or wrong.

The type of female comedians who appear on these shows, therefore, risk coming across as too brash, snooty, loud or shy. As they stand out because of their usual absence, eyes are naturally drawn to them, with their behaviour analysed more than their male counterparts. These behaviours, as they don’t fit in with the natural idea of how women should be, can seem too rakish, particularly for some male audience members.

On the whole, it is men who complain ‘women aren’t funny’. And to be fair, where do they most commonly see comediennes? At fringe, club or pub comedy nights, where a mediocre stand up may be speaking about her menstrual cycle, or on BBC2 where a woman there will be trying to get her say on a panel of bolshie men trying to out-funny one another. This is not reflective of the whole.

It is simply stupid to sweepingly claim that women aren’t funny, and any man who does is mad to risk saying so if his wife or girlfriend is within earshot. After all, just how many Lonely Hearts adverts request a ‘GSOH’? Humour is a part of life which makes everything more bearable, and it’s not as if the male half of our species give a constant running stand up show in order to make up this quota. So if the ability to be funny is evenly spread, with the potential to lie in everybody, then, like any other talent, it is bound to be more generously awarded to some than others. Therefore, you will get funny women just as you get funny men. Women are funny. But the media and the way women are seen within society can make it more difficult for the ‘fairer sex’ to always be seen as such.

But if you don’t believe me, let me refer you to Susan Calman’s blog, where she makes all of my points in a far more succinct and brilliantly coarse way!


Monday, 8 October 2012


When I’m feeling anxious or stressed, I dream I’m teaching. It never ends well: hoards of unruly kids (some real, some with an essence of the real) run around screaming, throwing things at the whiteboard and generally cause havoc whilst I stand motionless, hopeless and demoralised in the centre. A disapproving assistant will look on and sigh.

It was never that bad, for the record. But there were frightening moments when I did feel powerless enough to imagine it could descend into that. And I think, at the heart of things, it is that sense of powerlessness that is troubling me recently.

I have a decision to make. And neither choice will lead me to where I want to be, actually. But at least one would involve movement of some kind. Still, I feel I’m being dragged along with a current and I’m not at all sure that where it’s taking me is what I want. I may need to dive in, but it’s a risk. I sort of feel I have no choice though.

The one year anniversary of me working at the Gielgud has come and gone. I bought chocolates to celebrate. I figured the three of us left from that cohort needed something to enjoy in order to feel good about the day, or else we’d end up just being depressed. It gets harder, going into work. There is still plenty to enjoy about it though. I laugh nearly every night. Occasionally life there delivers little pleasures, like the amusing friendship I have with Nicko Grace; the night out lovely Tam organised with cast, crew and front of house or just simply an in-joke developing between the people I am closest with there. Perhaps in time the significance of things such as ‘right up’, ‘oh yes’, ‘I’m livid’, ‘it’s roasting’, ‘not on a matinee day’, ‘well, perhaps’, Lulu, Biggins, 9 inches, focaccia bread, Box A and banquettes will fade into the lost cobwebs of time and memory. If I wrote a novel about it, I expect no one else could appreciate it all.

To leave is to leave a lot behind, undoubtedly. I have met the most extraordinary range of people who have helped create a hoard of precious memories and made my year the best of my life. But the changes which have happened are too much to keep up with, and besides, I need to regain a sense of purpose. I don’t want to resent it there. It’s time to jump ship and be swept away with that current. Just wish I could be more sure that it won’t take me into far more stagnant waters.

I had the most amazing week in Serbia and Montenegro with Ollie and to return to life without him was so painful. But it’s almost impossible to do anything about that, either. We’re both drifting, unable to catch on to each other for more than fleeting bits of time. Hopefully though, in the grand scheme of things, all this will eventually seem very temporary. It’ll figure itself out in the end. It has to.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Yes, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? A whole summer has come and gone and with it a mêlée of happy times, sad times, Olympic madness and, of course, the everlasting presence of men running; always running.

I intended to report on the Olympics before now but never got round to it. However, perhaps it’s better, now it’s just finished, to be able to look back on it as a whole and write down a few highlights.

First, in summary, I have to say that it was without doubt a privilege to be in London this summer. I didn’t really know what to expect in the run up to the event: we were warned to steer clear of public transport and anywhere central because millions of extra people were going to be putting pressure on the network and it was going to be packed. Security would be a worry, getting to work would take an extra hour, it would rain, Team GB would achieve nothing and the Opening Ceremony would a madcap affair involving sheep.

Well, some of these concerns bothered me and others didn’t. Months ago I swore that I’d have to be out of the capital altogether by the time the Games landed, but of course life disagreed and I found myself very much still here in July. I was not as cynical as some, but still feared the congestion and queues and pictured myself having to walk the 6 miles or so into work every day.

How wrong we all were. It was dream-like. The sun shone, the tubes ran beautifully, Danny Boyle was declared the greatest genius of our times and we did rather well at the sports too, especially anything that involved sitting down. I have never seen Central London so quiet (everyone was in Stratford, apparently) and I got used to not even having to check to see if the Victoria Line was running a good service: it just was.

I first got swept up in the thing in the few days before the Opening Ceremony as the torch reached London. I was dubious about seeing it as I was picturing the horrific crowds of the Jubilee procession and thinking I’d rather steer clear. However, I learnt that on nearly its last day of its tour the torch would be chasing me round the city: in Islington in the morning and in the West End by evening. In fact, the PR people of Chariots leapt on the opportunity and arranged for Vangelis to appear on a podium as the flame was carried past the theatre, with his famous theme tune blasting out down Shaftesbury Avenue. This was something we couldn’t miss; plus I figured that if the crowds outside were too much we could always retreat inside the Gielgud to watch from a window.

That day I woke and was lazily browsing the net when I came across the news that Patsy and Eddie of Ab Fab fame would be torch bearing that afternoon on the King’s Road in Chelsea. Too tempting! So off I flew west, in the hope I could catch them. It was a glorious day, blazing hot with beautiful blue skies. The atmosphere there was fantastic. Yes, there were thousands of people lining the streets and yes it was crazy but everyone was so happy and excited it didn’t matter. Plus, I got a great spot and saw the ladies carry the flame down the street which was just brilliant.

Afterwards, I made the most of the sunshine by walking from Chelsea to the West End and paid my respects to the Olympic countdown clock, winding its way to its end.

 I then lazed about in a park for a while with a cold drink before meeting up with some work people at the theatre. There they had built a platform outside the front doors and had set up huge speakers. We caught them sound checking and the music could be heard all the way down the street. As the crowds gathered, a carnival atmosphere developed. It was great as nearly everyone who worked in the theatre was there: front of house, management, backstage crew and cast. Even our old supervisor, who had left in the dark period for Cornwall, turned up to join us.

The moment the torch went by was quite magical. I may be sick of that music now, but it definitely still holds a power, and hearing it blast out majestically as its composer and our two principals were elevated into view was something quite unforgettable. And all of a sudden, all cynicism remaining in me was lost and I could not wait for the Olympics to start.

(I then had to go inside to work, doing security duty in the foyer. This was unusual as Vangelis was inside with Jack and James doing interviews and then waiting to be collected, so I felt a little like his security guard for a while. Still, I am happy to have provided him a service since receiving a personalised signed CD of the soundtrack from him – he did one for all of us as a thank you from the producers for our help with press night. Quite a special little memento, I feel).

 The following day was the Opening Ceremony. Our show was moved to a matinee slot, giving us the evening free to go and watch it. I headed over to Victoria Park in east London to see it on a big screen with Sophie and some of her work friends. Once I’d battled and cheated the huge queues to get in, I found them at an excellent spot very close to the screen. The event was tainted by endless queues, one short sharp shower of rain and a two hour long journey home, but once the ceremony started those things couldn’t have mattered less. Being there was incredible: the ceremony was amazing; the crowd was fantastic and we were close enough to the stadium to see the helicopters overhead and the fireworks above the trees. Everyone there clapped, cheered, sang and danced all the way through and was so multi-cultural that during the athletes’ parade at least one person jumped up and screamed for so many of the countries represented.

And so I was hooked and loved the whole Games. Athletics is surprisingly addictive to watch and a few times I found myself wondering at my own behaviour when I realised I was staying up late to watch the conclusion of a volleyball match between Canada and Ukraine or something similar. It was with good reason though, as London was alive: people were happy; the sunshine remained and our show was busier than ever.

The last little final surprise of the Olympics came just the other day. Just as I thought the whole affair was gone and buried into the history books, a whole plethora of Team GB athletes were invited in to see Chariots of Fire and the medal winners amongst them were invited onto stage at the curtain call to meet the cast and to pose for photos. I happened to be ushering on stage so was posted in the wings waiting for the meeting and greeting to end so we could clear the level. However, who could resist when faced with all that bling? When we deemed it safe, those of us on stage edged in and joined in the mingling. The athletes were very happy to meet us all and show off their medals and so I got to hold a real gold (Etienne Stott’s) and have a photo taken with it round my neck. How amazing! One last sweet kiss goodbye from the Olympic Games.

 Other highlights of the summer include an escape to Dartmoor with Ollie: fed up with never seeing each other we at the last minute decided to pack our tent, pick up a hire car and drive to Devon. It was beautiful and such an idyllic weekend, hiking in the hills with just wild ponies and heather for company. There was also little Joseph’s first birthday party and I was a very proud godmummy watching him toddle around the house I did a lot of my own growing up in. I met up with a lot of old friends, and a new one in the shape of freshly immigrated Viv; we have been living out lots of old dreams. There was a nice few days at home to celebrate mum’s birthday and a fun day in London with Emily.

And then September hit. And, with a jolt, I realised that means I have practically been in London for a whole year. A whole year. This blog is nearly a year old; I’ve been working at Gielgud for nearly a year. Every time that the weather feels a bit autumnal or I see a flurry of brown leaves on the ground I’m reminded of the cycle of life and think back to last autumn and how everything then was so fresh and wonderful. I look back at my previous entries here and think fondly of crisp walks in Hyde Park, the wonder of approaching Christmas in the city and the lazy sunny October in Shepherd’s Bush.

The truth is that this, coupled with sadly increasing negative feelings about work and the lack of time spent with my boyfriend means that I know it needs to be time to move on. I feel restless and underachieving and frustrated. I am job hunting with increased fervour but with no luck so far. I don’t know what I want to do but will give anything a try that’s different and more challenging. I’m stagnating at the theatre. I’m sick of a show that’s just been extended all the way into the new year and very aware that selling ice creams was only meant to be a temporary thing. The lack of decent pay and job prospects didn’t matter before, not when I was loving it so very very much. But now I don’t love it quite so much, those things do matter more and I need to move on. So watch this space. I don’t have a clue what is next, but trust that fate so far has worked out things pretty well and hope that will continue in the next chapter.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Chaos Theory and Royal Company

I have to note down here the events of Thursday evening as although they will be memorable it is only right that I record the details in this blog. So far on this site I have traced the random path of events which started with my own ‘big bang’ of starting work in London nearly a year ago and some of the very wonderful and strange happenings which have occurred since. They have built up slowly so I have been able to take everything in my stride, although, as I have written about before, sometimes things happen which made me take stock and open my eyes in wonderment at the things life throws at me.

I was for a while rather unsure about attending Ben’s lecture, as it seemed foolish to spend money on seeing a guy I’d got used to so openly and freely being able to chat to. Additionally, the idea of me going to a science talk seemed ridiculous, as everyone who knows me will attest. However, I knew he’d make it interesting and when I suggested to him on twitter I came he said I should. I did want to see him again as I’d missed him and so the idea of a night off in favour of a trip down to the Royal Institution became simply too tempting.

I arrived in Mayfair early, so killed some time in Starbucks before heading onto the venue. I was beginning to question my sanity again until I stepped inside the building: it was a hugely impressive place and the walls were adorned with portraits of famous lectures which had taken place there over the years. One’s imagination couldn’t help but be captured by it. There had been a time at school when I genuinely did love science, was fascinated by astronomy and enjoyed Chemistry and Biology enough to take them through to A Level. Of course, those higher level courses soon got the better of me and I defiantly bucked against them, throwing myself into literature and giving the labs as wide a berth as I could get away with. I lasted a year of AS level Chemistry and dragged my way through 2 years of A level Biology, hating every second; twitching painfully at any mention of fruit flies; genomes; photosynthesis or quadrats. By the time I left school, science had scarred me for life and all I wanted to do was read poetry, novels and drama texts. The humanities building at university was like a safe house where white coats, moles and sulphuric acid couldn’t touch me.

Taking my place in the crowded lecture hall, however, I was prepared to put aside those differences and be open minded enough to enjoy the talk I was about to hear. It was interesting looking around at my fellow audience members and trying to guess what had brought them there. I supposed it was a mixture of members of the Institution, people interested in the topic and Ben Miller fans. There were young and old people and an equal divide of men and women. Ben was introduced to the stage along with the scientist/journalist who was to lead the conversation with him. It was lovely to see him again and he was clearly in his element, getting to discuss his first love in a place so sacred to it.

The talk was very entertaining and I needn’t have worried about getting lost or confused in the science. It was filled with anecdotes and impressions; was funny and serious in happy measure and I learnt a lot. It really did appeal to the long lost teenage science geek within me and Ben’s enthusiasm for the subject matter really did shine through and was infectious. He performed an experiment for a bit of showbiz effect towards the end and took questions from the audience, amongst which were some treasures from the young kids there. It was announced there would be a book signing in the room next door and everyone started to shuffle that way.

I debated to myself when the best time would be to catch him: I couldn’t leave without saying hello at least. The opportunity didn’t present itself straight away and he was keen to get going with the signings so I decided to loiter in the signing room until I got the chance. The books were being sold at one end of the table he was sitting at so I queued there in order to buy one. When I got to the table he spotted me, grinned and mouthed a hello. I then waited for the very long queue to dwindle down. It seemed nearly everyone had stayed to get their books and it was a very odd feeling having to queue to speak to this person I’d chatted to so many times. At the theatre it was rare to witness him or any of the others in ‘celebrity mode’ as it were, although that had made it easier to befriend them as their fame could be forgotten about. They were always just normal people doing a job, the same as we were. Whilst I was waiting, John Sessions appeared, flitting about clearly waiting for Ben and on the phone making dinner reservations.

I was virtually the last in the room and by the time I got to the front it was just me, Ben, his partner, his publisher, John and his friend and a few scientists from the RI. And so finally I got to say hello properly; had a hello hug and kiss and a brief chat exchanging the normal pleasantries. He signed my book for me and asked me to join them for a drink afterwards. This was such a lovely invitation and although I felt a little nervous about being part of such an unusual group of people(!) I was flattered to be asked and couldn’t refuse! He introduced me to everyone as he packed up and we headed down to the bar. I stuck to him as someone I knew and we chatted a little about how the evening had gone, the enthusiasm of the younger audience members and they discussed their plans for the remainder of the evening.

We got to the bar and I talked to his lovely partner Jess for a while about her family and my theatre. I then talked to Ben about how his filming was going and he asked me more about the show and what else was new with me. It was strange being on the inside of that kind of situation, and he gave me some interesting insights. It was as natural and great to chat as it ever had been and it was so lovely to be included there and to meet Jess (who wondered if she’d met me before, when she’d been a ‘different shape’!)

Eventually goodbyes were said and he, she and I left at the same time. I headed back to the theatre as they got in their taxi home. Although I’m not going to go into details of what we talked about here, needless to say it was great to see him again and wonderful to reconnect with someone from that time. It’s great to be in touch still, not because he’s famous or well-connected or anything of that nature, but because he’s a genuinely lovely person whom I enjoy talking to. Long may it last! :)