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Funny Women on TV

Comedy with a female slant

Main image of Funny Women on TV

Comedy on British TV (and radio) was a male-dominated medium for many years, with women used as comic foils or long-suffering supports to the male stars. However some women did make their mark early on in the medium, fronting their own series long before Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders kicked open the floodgates for the modern female comedians.

Comedy monologist Joyce Grenfell had been appearing in one-off comedy specials on BBC TV since 1946, but graduated to her own regular series Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure in 1956. Following quickly on her heels was musical cabaret star Jill Day, who fronted her own sketch show The Jill Day Show on BBC TV in 1957. Like Grenfell, Day wrote the scripts for her show; similarly, the American star Bebe Daniels, resident in the UK since the Second World War, was the major writer on her hit radio (1951-61) and later TV (BBC, 1955-56; ITV, 1956-60) sitcom, Life With the Lyons. Also in the 1950s, the variety star Hylda Baker got her own series Be Soon (BBC 1957-58), a showcase for her comedic talents in both sketches and stand-up routines. Other female stars fronted their own irregular comedy specials in the 50, such as the energetic Sally Barnes (Just Sally, BBC, 1954) and the glamorous Diana Dors (The Diana Dors Show, ITV, 1959).

The 1960s continued in much the same fashion, with only a handful of women given their own starring shows: Millicent Martin (Mainly Millicent, ITV, 1964-65; Millicent, ITV 1966); Beryl Reid (Beryl Reid Says Good Evening, BBC, 1968) and Dora Bryan (According to Dora, BBC, 1968-69). However women were becoming more prominent in the sitcom genre with The Rag Trade (BBC, 1962-63), Britain's first female-dominated sitcom (though written by two men, Ronnies Wolfe and Chesney), and other shows with the emphasis on their female leads: Wendy Craig in Not in Front of the Children (BBC, 1967-70); The Liver Birds (BBC, 1969-79) - written by a woman, Carla Lane - or equal strength male/female pairings: Prunella Scales/Richard Briers in Marriage Lines (BBC, 1963-66); Peggy Mount/Sid James in George and the Dragon (ITV, 1966-68); Hylda Baker/Jimmy Jewel in Nearest and Dearest (ITV, 1968-72) and Sheila Hancock/Peter Jones in Mr Digby Darling (ITV, 1969-71).

The 1970s saw BBC2 champion female-led shows with a new self-titled series for Joyce Grenfell (1972); the groundbreaking But Seriously, It's Sheila Hancock (1972-73) - a sharply satirical dark comedy show years ahead of its time - the sophisticated After That This (1975) which showcased the talents of Eleanor Bron (one of the few female stars to emerge from the 1960s satire boom); and Three Piece Suite (1977), a vehicle for international star Diana Rigg. However, the biggest female star of the 1970s was Marti Caine, a feisty stand-up who had been 'discovered' on ATV's New Faces talent show in 1975 and graduated to her own series Nobody Does It Like Marti (ITV, 1976) before becoming a BBC2 regular with many series of The Marti Caine Show (1977-84).

Outside the arena of BBC2, upcoming comedy star Pauline Quirk got her own show (Pauline's Quirks, ITV, 1976), a lively mix of sketches and music for teenage viewers. In sitcom, Carla Lane cemented her relationship as Britain's premier female writer of sitcoms - the ongoing Liver Birds; as a major contributor to Bless This House (ITV, 1971-76); Butterflies (BBC 1978-83) - while many other sitcoms of the period continued to create strong roles for female comedy actors, among them Prunella Scales and Connie Booth (Fawlty Towers, BBC, 1975; 1979), Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendall (The Good Life, BBC, 1975-77), Frances de la Tour (Rising Damp, ITV, 1974-78) and June Whitfield (Terry and June, BBC, 1979-87).

The 1980s was the decade where everything changed, where talents emerged that would challenge the accepted order and create a new style of comedy driven by women. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters fronted their own Granada series, Wood and Walters, in 1982 before moving to the BBC for the influential Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-87). Wood, like Marti Caine, had come to prominence via New Faces in the 1970s, and proved herself as a talented playwright before writing and starring in a host of successful TV shows and (later) a sitcom.

The other powerful female double-act of the decade - French and Saunders - emerged from the New Wave of alternative comedy which had blossomed at the end of the 1970s and brought a punk ethos to the genre of stand-up. The pair got their own BBC show in 1987 and became a fixture in the BBC schedules for the following 20 years, both with their ongoing sketch series and their solo efforts in smash-hit sitcoms (Murder Most Horrid, BBC, 1991-96: The Vicar of Dibley, BBC, 1994-2000; Absolutely Fabulous, BBC, 1992-2003). Other women with their own shows included Janet Brown, Karen Kay and Emma Thompson. Thompson had impressed as part of the Alfresco (ITV, 1983-84) comedy group and during the 1980s it was becoming the norm for such sketch troupes to include women among their number. Not the Nine O'Clock News (BBC, 1979-82) had been the pioneers in this policy, with Pamela Stephenson more than holding her own among her talented male counterparts, but most comedy groupings that followed included females on equal terms, unlike earlier examples like the Pythons and The Goodies. Three of a Kind (BBC, 1981-83) introduced Tracey Ullman; Who Dares Wins... (Channel 4, 1983-88) had Julia Hills; Naked Video (BBC, 1986-91) had Helen Lederer and Elaine C. Smith; Absolutely (C4, 1989-93) had Morwenna Banks; The Fast Show (BBC, 1994-2000) had Arabella Weir and Caroline Ahearne.

Also making a splash in the 1990s was Jo Brand, a self-deprecating stand-up star who had a number of series on Channel Four from 1993 to the end of the decade. The new century ushered in another wave of strong female talents, heralded by the all-girl sketch show Smack the Pony (C4, 1999-2003) masterminded by Vicky Pile and featuring Doon Mackichan, Fiona Allen, Sally Phillips and Sarah Alexander; and The Morwenna Banks Show (Channel 5, 1998) and Morwenna Banks Specials (Channel 5, 1999). Following in their footsteps were Catherine Tate (The Catherine Tate Show, BBC, 2004-06); female-driven sketch show Tittybangbang (BBC, 2005-07); Karen Taylor (Touch Me I'm Karen Taylor, BBC, 2006- ), Jocelyn Jo Esien (Little Miss Jocelyn, BBC, 2006- ), Ronnie Ancona (Ronnie and Co, BBC, 2007) and many others.

Dick Fiddy

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2003)

Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2003)

Hugely influential sitcom about a ghastly PR executive

Thumbnail image of Butterflies (1978-83)

Butterflies (1978-83)

Carla Lane's classic sitcom about an oppressed suburban housewife

Thumbnail image of French and Saunders (1987-)

French and Saunders (1987-)

Sketch show featuring longtime partners Dawn and Jennifer

Thumbnail image of Girls on Top (1985-86)

Girls on Top (1985-86)

Flatshare comedy with French, Saunders, Tracy Ullman and Ruby Wax

Thumbnail image of Liver Birds, The (1969-79)

Liver Birds, The (1969-79)

Classic Liverpool sitcom about two young women sharing a bedsit

Thumbnail image of Queenie's Castle (1970-72)

Queenie's Castle (1970-72)

Raucous Yorkshire sitcom with Diana Dors as a brassy matriarch

Thumbnail image of Rag Trade, The (1961-63)

Rag Trade, The (1961-63)

Comedy series satirising union activities in a clothing factory

Thumbnail image of Smack the Pony (1999-2002)

Smack the Pony (1999-2002)

Female sketch trio/quartet with a distinctive take on sexual politics

Thumbnail image of Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-86)

Victoria Wood - As Seen on TV (1985-86)

Hit sketch show that spawned celebrated spoof soap Acorn Antiques

Thumbnail image of Wood and Walters (1982)

Wood and Walters (1982)

First TV series for Victoria Wood, with long-term collaborator Julie Walters

Thumbnail image of dinnerladies (1998-2000)

dinnerladies (1998-2000)

Victoria Wood's only sitcom, set in a chaotic factory canteen

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