Arts: Banks on laughs

Veteran chameleon Morwenna Banks is headlining Channel 5's comedy slot with a mammoth 13-part series. Jasper Rees examines her malleable face
AS IT APPROACHES its first birthday, we've just about got the measure of Channel 5: a late-night chat show, a dash of sport, more quizzes and movies than you can shake a stick at, and a news programme that has taken to calling itself a hit. One populist area with which it has yet to saturate its schedules is studio comedy. Apart from the award-winning comedy quiz Bring Me The Head of Light Entertainment, there aren't a lot of scripted laughs made by Channel 5.

The idea is that this will change with The Morwenna Banks Show; only the idea has one potentially gaping flaw. As with all Channel 5 shows, in order to reduce production costs the series has been made twice the length it would be at any other address. And while that strategy might work for gardening, new comedy cannot be ordered by the yard. Banks's task is to deliver nearly six hours of laughter on slender resources, more than two-thirds of it written by herself.

"Not many people have done a 13-part sketch show," she says. "I've used nearly everything we've shot in this, which isn't a luxurious position to be in." Compare this with Tracey Takes On, Channel 5's recent purchase: Tracey Ullmann is Banks's nearest comic equivalent, a female chameleon who plays the occasional male, but she has the might of network dollars behind her.

It's a preposterous challenge, but if anyone can do it, it's Banks - a migrant worker in the laughter industry who has touched more comic bases than most. She is a graduate of the Cambridge Footlights, as well as the author of a history of women in comedy. She is a battle-hardened vet of Saturday Night Live, and a member of the Absolutely team who made four series of their Channel 4 sketch show and now deliver The Jack Docherty Show. Banks was the chat show's original series producer.

If Banks's face is unfamiliar even after four series of Absolutely, it's partly because it has the malleability that is so adaptable to the sketch format. Pamela Stephenson once said that her face was easily disguised on Not The Nine O'Clock News because it lacked distinguishing features, and Banks is in the same boat. The day I met her at an editing suite in Soho, I had just watched assorted clips from the new series, but didn't recognise her in top-to-toe dark-blue denim, bleached blonde hair and heavy, square-rimmed glasses.

The Morwenna Banks Show is in the Harry Enfield school of observation, in which all human life is boiled down to an essence of quirk and foible: Thai masseuse Miso Hawney, Vic the Spiv, Chloe the stylist. Dostoevsky it ain't. All the caricatures are new, save Banks's favourite, a mouthy, malapropistic child whose skewed view of the world goes with her age. Banks gave her her debut on Absolutely, took her to America to appear on Saturday Night Live, and is now using her in all 13 shows."It's like having that bedrock in every show, something I'm familiar with. Everything's new and it's tough to know the parameters of the characters, what's going to work and what isn't." There's also a regular item with the tasteful title Snatches from History.

A snatch from Banks's own history: she was born in Cornwall, where comedians are as scarce as they are at Channel 5, but she won't say when. "That's too easy a benchmark to judge someone by." (My guess is 36 years ago.) Her strange name translates from Cornish as "sea swallow", and an accent occasionally resurfaces in flat A's and hard R's. As a child, she showed some of the traits of her most durable creation. "I was a nutty kid," she says, "naughty but pious at the same time. The things that struck me as being funny quite often didn't strike anyone else as being funny."

At Cambridge she got hooked on Brecht and the Vorticists, but was never going to stay in academe. "I'm clever enough to know that I wasn't clever enough." She was in Footlights with one famous television presenter who has kept it off his cv, and she wishes she could, too. "It's the first time I've really talked about it because it's embarrassing; it has such nepotistic connotations which simply didn't apply. When we came out of Cambridge it was the least cool thing to have done. It brings with it so many preconceptions about background which also weren't accurate."

She fell into comedy when she met the team of Scottish men who formed Absolutely. They all sounded the same on radio, and they needed a woman's voice to vary the tone. More than a decade on, they convene as the board of Absolutely Productions, and still collaborate creatively. On The Morwenna Banks Show Gordon Kennedy is one of the two other performers, Peter Baikie is the producer, and Jack Docherty, John Sparkes and Moray Hunter have all written material.

In 1993 Banks moved to America for a year, then commuted back and forth for another two. She has only just given up her house in Los Angeles. She went because: "I was exhausted by coming up with my own ideas. I was commissioned to do a series for Channel 4 which I wrote and they then didn't want to make. I just thought, what do I do now? I haven't got another idea, and I'm not perceived as an actress who anybody would ask to be in anything. Somebody in America phoned me up and said, 'I've seen your tape, I think you should do a show over here.' It was the first time anyone had ever done that. I said, 'I'm going on holiday.' She said, 'Can I send this tape out?' I said, 'Yeah, do what you like.' And I got back two weeks later and she said, 'NBC are flying you out in 10 days and are interested in making a deal with you'."

The show never got beyond the pilot stage. NBC wanted her to write a show for herself as a young mother or a nanny, "and I just don't know how to do that". Instead she played a lot of young mothers on Saturday Night Live, worked for a comedy channel, Comedy Central, and made an improvised film with Spinal Tap's Christopher Guest. She also brought back some useful lessons on how to launch a daily talk show. "It taught me that what we could do on tiny resources was to be very well organised. I created a system where we wrote scripts two weeks in advance and then we updated on the day. We were never scrabbling around thinking, what's Jack going to say today? That was very much my domain. I felt proud of it when it came out, and I'm not given to feeling proud of anything."

There are few other comedians who have such a wide spread of roles behind and in front of the camera, and none of them are female. "People need to laugh," she says, "but I'm not one of those people who needs to make the world laugh. It's not vocational for me. It's not the only thing I could do or always desperately needed to do."

'The Morwenna Banks Show', C5, 24 Feb.