From Joyce Grenfell to French and Saunders, female comics have been gracing British television from the 1950s. This month the BFI are celebrating the female comedy stars of British television past and present, in Trailblazers Britain’s Queens Of TV Comedy.
Screenings of rare and vintage material will be screened at BFI Southbank and at Hackney Empire, many supplemented by live comedy performances. The retrospective will culminate with an event bringing the story almost up to the present day, with a look back at the all-female comedy series Smack the Pony, now considered a groundbreaking production.
Scout caught up with curator Dick Fiddy to discuss the line up.
Why did the BFI decide to put on Trailblazers: Queens of TV Comedy?
The London 2012 folk approached the BFI with an eye for us getting involved in the cultural Olympiad and we discussed various projects which we thought may be a good fit. From the TV programming unit, I had been working a couple of years on an idea about those women in comedy on TV who managed to front their own shows before the likes of Victoria Wood and French and Saunders (who changed the game entirely). As these women were akin to ‘gold-medal’ winners in their field the 2012 people liked the idea and they suggested we collaborate with the Hackney Empire who were also planning comedy events as part of the Festival.
How did you select the clips and archive footage for the events?
Many of the early examples of women fronting their own shows sadly no longer survive in the archives but I knew from my researches that there was just enough representative material for us to make a decent fist of telling the story and highlighting a piece of British television history that has largely been ignored or at the very least heavily underwritten. So that meant many of the clips choose themselves as being the only extant examples but then some artists (Joyce Grenfell, Beryl Reid, Hylda Baker) were better represented and choices had to be made which, I have to say, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job.
What makes Joyce Grenfell so important to female comedy?
She was on TV from the 1940s and was the first woman to get her own starring comedy show (in the 1950s). The fact that her longevity and continuing popularity meant she was still appearing on TV in the 1960s and 70s meant that a lot of her material survived. Also she used her TV shows to showcase the material she had perfected over many years on stage, so the TV footage was a valuable record of her act.
How important were music halls for comics?
The music halls were the great palaces of entertainment especially in the early years of the 20th century and it was in that period that sketch and stand-up comedy as we know it was developed. Thus the music halls were a breeding ground for comedy artists who became very popular especially in the depression years and during the war when the population wanted escapism from the harsh realities of life. The music hall also allowed them to be more risqué than the more genteel arenas of legitimate theatre and radio which allowed certain artists to exploit (or in some cases nurture) that particular style of vulgar comedy (innuendo etc) particular beloved by British audiences.
What were the challenges female comics experienced in the 1950s?
Evidence seems to suggest that most commissioners of the 1950s were of the opinion that women weren’t funny enough to star in their own shows although were very welcome as support artists to the male stars. It seems crazy that an artist such as June Whitfield (who has supported the greatest male comic stars for over 50 years) has never had her own starring show. No one would deny that she can be exquisitely funny but she came from a time when most female comedy stars were destined to be support rather than lead. Of course the same wasn’t true everywhere – in the US Lucille Ball was the number one TV star and when her show arrived in the UK in 1955) it illustrated that women could not only be funny but could drive shows and excel at both physical and verbal comedy. The fact that Lucy was regarded as glamorous (rather than as a grotesque) also confounded many of the oft repeated truisms of comedy at the time but it took over 20 years for the same attitude to become the norm in the UK..
What makes Smack the Pony different from other sketch shows?
It wasn’t the first female driven sketch show but it was the first to appear at that moment in history when certain comics (and women comics in particular) were starting to rebel against the PC notions of behaviour that had been prevalent since the rise of alternative comedy in the late 1970s. Victoria Wood and French and Saunders had both come to prominence in the PC age but had survived long enough to have the confidence to (eventually) rely on their comedy bones to let them know what was funny. The sort of non PC, boozy, drug taking ‘women-behaving-badly’ nature of Ab Fab demonstrated that women were prepared to resort to slapstick and outrageous antics for laughs when in a show from a female writer. Although the writing team on Smack the Pony were mixed the driving force was creator Vicky Pile and the female performers who were willing to go to great lengths for their laughs. It impacted on the face of comedy and became hugely influential with all the leads later involved in interesting and crowd pleasing projects. Ten years on from the last show we can see how important Smack the Pony was and how its shadow still looms large over present comedy.
What challenges do female comics face today?
I’d like to think that bias, sexism and the old ideas of the rules of comedy (like the famous male BBC exec who confronted with the first Ab Fab script declared that “drunk women aren’t funny”) were a thing of the past but such prejudices take a long time to die, so I may be wrong. I think there is evidence that modern day TV has a very different attitude to female comics with commissioners desperate to find the next Miranda Hart and happy to give idiosyncratic talents like Sharon Horgan and Julia Davis the space to create their own edgy projects.