Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: Panel show quotas? Don’t make me laugh

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"Knock knock! Who’s there? A woman on every BBC comedy panel show from now on! Note to self: this needs work. Still, you have the gist. The director of television at the Beeb, Danny Cohen, has announced that from now on, there will be no more all-male line ups on comedy shows like Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You and the most infamously laddish of them all, Mock The Week. BBC entertainment controller Mark Linsey said that he was making it clear to production teams that “there’s no excuse for delivering all-male guest lists.”

I used to be wary of positive discrimination. It seems, at first blush, the very definition of patronising. And the risk that those essentially parachuted in would a) suffer from the hostility of those (conceivably genuinely) resentful of being passed over in favour of less qualified people who happened to tick some demographic boxes they did, and b) collapse under the strain of having to Represent All Of Said Demographic In Its Most Perfect Form At All Times seemed to me quite high.

I admired the idea of policies that sought to undo imbalances of power, influence and opportunity by retrofitting certain quotas to certain institutions, but I never had enough faith in those already in the institutions to embrace it as fully as they might. (I’ve been an amateur pessimist for years – I’ve only recently turned professional.)

Then I went to a very maledominated university and realised that in this, as in so many things, I am a twunt. For several terms, I and the only other girl in my group sat, increasingly cowed, increasingly bewildered, in tutorials and lectures given only by men, only about men, geared it seemed only towards men, interrupted and challenged only by men… it was very weird, and very draining. We clung to each other as drowning women to driftwood.

Then we got Charlotte. A young, female tutor who in a million intangible, indefinable ways did everything differently.

She was approachable, she didn’t despise stupid questions, she didn’t hide behind jargon – she spoke our language. It was like heaven and it made me realise how often we are cut off from the fun, the sheer ease that comes from engaging with someone who lives, in all the most profound ways, the same life you do.

She left after a term. “That’s that, then,” said Anna mournfully. “Up s**t creek without a Charlotte.”

Ever since then I cheerlead for retroengineering every chance I get. I think the value of those unexpected faces simply being there is far higher in practice than it would seem in theory, and worth the risks and potential difficulties it brings.

(That said, I don’t envy the first few cohorts of female guests after this BBC announcement. The associations, assumptions and doubts surrounding them for a while will be enough to make the job of making punters laugh even more difficult than it is already. I foresee a few unavoidable death spirals while it all beds in. Never mind, ladies. It’s only 30 minutes or so, and think what you’re doing for the sisterhood!)

Still, it’s hardly a complete solution to the problem. One welcome announcement from a BBC director does not an endless summer of liberation make. There’s still the matter of whether women want to be on shows that are, by and large, designed and commissioned by men and which often fail to play to the strengths of anyone other than the prototypical stand-up – male, mouthy and massively competitive.

Jo Brand, Victoria Wood and Caitlin Moran – all disgustingly talented, funny women – have said that this is not their idea of fun and that they’d rather do something else, usually self-generated. Wood has written her own one-woman show and TV comedies for years, Brand is now a novelist and creator of award-winning comedy drama Getting On and Moran is currently working on a new book and a sitcom.

It will be interesting to see whether the – enforced – presence of more women on the usual panel shows will cause the format to change slightly; whether it can be bent to their will (unconsciously, I mean, not via conspiratorial coven meetings beforehand) or even discarded as no longer fit for purpose.

I suspect what’s really needed is more female presence behind the scenes, at the devising and commissioning stages. But front and centre is a good start. A very good start indeed."

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