Friday, 10 August 2018

Funny women

After n years on the comedy circuit, including regular appearances on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Natalie Haynes was depressingly asked the same opening question whenever she undertook a media interview: "Are women funny?". (There is more here, including Ms Haynes explaining how the Classics can be made funny.)

Michelle A'Court addressed the question extensively in this Guardian piece in 2014. She has the undeniable qualifications of being a woman and a comedian but I have the advantage of  being older and living through what was probably a significant social change, so here is my two penn'orth.

In the dark days before women's liberation, when comedy was hardly cerebral and women were always ladies to be respected - except for nagging wives and mothers-in-law - and not laughed at. (An outstanding exception from the States is that of Hillary Brooke whose performances as a stooge for Abbott and Costello I came across while writing up my piece on noms de guerre., but I cannot think of a British example.) So the question may have had some point then.

There have undoubtedly been funny women on the stage and later on the screen and radio since each of those media became popular. I recall Jeanne de Casalis (Mrs Feather), Gladys Morgan, Hylda Baker, Gert and Daisy, Joyce Grenfell, Mabel Constanduros and Suzette Tarri* from my youth. Earlier, there were Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley and others (who performed songs written by men). However, they were all outside the norm or of a certain age.

The break was probably made on the other side of the Atlantic earlier, but I would put Victoria Wood and Pam Ayres at the head of the revolution in the UK. Here were nubile women, writing their own material, who were not grotesques but who were still laugh-out-loud funny. To be sure, in Victoria Wood's character sketches there is a clear line of descent from Joyce Grenfell and Suzette Tarri (YouTube sample here). It cannot be a coincidence that when she appeared on the Michael Parkinson show, her walk-on music was Red Sails in the Sunset, which was Suzette Tarri's signature tune. Did Ms Wood choose it or did that adroit musical director Harry Stoneham? Since Tarri died when Victoria Wood was not yet in primary school, I suspect the latter.

Since the 1970s, there has been a spate of female stand-up comedians, too many to list. However, there should be mention of the very special Linda Smith who, like Victoria Wood, was taken from us all too soon.

* The wikipedia entry is surely wrong in citing ITMA. Rather, Tarri was a regular performer on variety programmes such as Monday Night at 8 and Music-Hall - and she had a regular show of her own (before my time). The cockney char in ITMA, Mona Lott, was played by Joan Harben.

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