Picture the scene: there are five guys in a room. So many brilliant TV comedies have been dreamed up by five guys in a room and here’s another. The writers battle their way out of the room by wading through a sea of discarded pizza boxes, their only sustenance having been slipped underneath the door all the time they were finessing the funny lines. They blink at their first glimpse of sunlight in a while, and then send off the finished scripts – destination ITV.
What, the same ITV which hasn’t produced a decent sitcom in what seems like 40 years, and certainly not a consistent run of them like the 1970s classics Rising Damp, Man About the House, Doctor in the House, Please Sir! And The Lovers? Yes, that ITV.
It would, our all-male quintet reckon, be too obvious to send their show to the BBC, even though the work stands comparison with Fleabag, W1A and even The Office. Their show is perhaps not alternative enough for Channel 4 but equally it’s not trying too hard for a gold star for diversity; it’s just funny. Hilarious, in fact. And because it deserves a big, mainstream, not-too-trendy audience it’s bypassing Netflix and the other streaming networks to possibly spark a comedy revival at a station where the only laughs in recent times have been the unintentional ones provided by Robert Peston’s hair, Simon Cowell’s hair (head and chest) and the clunky change of facial expression when, just before an ad break in the grisly crime drama, the lead detective realises they’ve been chasing a red herring up the wrong tree.
Ah, but there’s a problem. ITV no longer wants comedies written just by men. “I won’t commission anything with an all-male writing team,” head of comedy Saskia Schuster announced the other day. She painted a picture of men dominating the scene: hogging her in-tray with their scripts and outnumbering those from women by five to one, almost to the extent she has trouble getting out of her door, and of them shouting loudest during the collaborative process. “Too often the writing room is not sensitively run,” she said. “It can be aggressive and slightly bullying.”
Bah, men. You can’t do anything with them, Jenny Eclair once declared from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe stage, and you can’t chop them up into little pieces, chuck them in a pot of boiling water with some carrots and call them soup. But they can be quite funny, and when they’re at their funniest and the gags are flying off the page, they invariably paint the male of the species as complete berks. They may occasionally dominate the writing room but there’s a long tradition, in the finished product we see on screen, of women dominating the kitchen (narrowly avoiding chucking the men into the pot), the living-room and, yes, the bedroom. Men in our comedies are never conquering heroes but hen-pecked husbands, deluded regional managers of paper firms and – most hen-pecked and deluded of all – the foreigner-bashing, Austin 1100-thrashing snob proprietor of the hotel from hell.
Fawlty Towers was a genius collaboration between a man and a woman, John Cleese and Connie Booth, writing together in the same room and they survived. That is, they didn’t kill each other, although their marriage didn’t last. Basil was terribly rude about – and in braver moments, directly to the face of – Sybill but she definitely wore the trousers in that relationship. And would anyone seeking an equal voice for women claim that in the comedy of the year so far, the central character wasn’t a beautifully written portrait of a widow coping with loss, middle-age, suburban ennui, insensitive relatives, idiotic relatives and the most epicly snooty and cruel sister-in-law this side of a Mike Leigh film?
This was the just-finished Mum starring Lesley Manville and written by a man, Stefan Golaszewski. I don’t think Schuster would have been complaining about the lack of female input in the creative process if Mum was one of her shows but it was on the BBC. Fawlty Towers was a Beeb comedy, as was The Office, W1A – which had the most tremendous fun sending up diversity and gender quotas – and Fleabag, admittedly the only comedy here solely penned by a woman. So where are the ITV comedies? It used to be a struggle to name a good one; now it’s a struggle to name any, be they female-dominated, male-dominated or three-toed sloth-dominated. Schuster may be frustrated by the scripts she receives but ITV would seem to first have to convince writers that it is a good place to be, that it wants to make the country laugh in these gloomy times.
By the way, five guys in a room? That tends to be the American model. The British model has often been two guys, one pacing around and jabbering and the other typing. Some of the greatest and most-loved and still-quoted comedies emerged from such unpromising, female-free surroundings, including Hancock’s Half Hour by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the same duo who gave us Steptoe and Son, and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ The Likely Lads.
Steptoe and Son wasn’t heavy on women but the thought was there. Harold was always trying to don his velvet jacket and escape the rag and bone business and his dirty old man of a father to meet members of the opposite sex but never actually succeeded. And while Thelma in The Likely Lads was a bit of a dragon, the joke was always on Bob and Terry.
But under the new diktat none of these fantastic shows would have made it onto the goggle-box and neither would Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
That simply isn’t funny.