Comic queens

A recent 'Radio Times' poll of female comedy greats ignored the crop of younger comedians, writers and directors who have been dominating television and winning awards. A puzzled Liz Hoggard wants to know why
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The Independent Culture

I'm on the set of Tittybangbang, shaking hands with Tom Cruise. Or rather, with actress Lucy Montgomery, who plays the star in series two of the cult comedy. Dressed in Cruise's trademark slacks, topped off with a wig and prosthetic bristle, Montgomery is disturbingly attractive. This is a pretty girl playing a pretty man, and unlike the drag of Little Britain, it's bloody convincing.

Tittybangbang knows how to push the boundaries. Whether you see its blend of humour as post-feminist silliness or a female Benny Hill, it has struck a chord with young audiences. Series one got the highest-ever viewing figures for a debut series on BBC3.

It's been a great year for women in comedy. Jocelyn Jee Esien is the first black woman to get her own TV sketch show, here or in the US. At the Edinburgh Festival, Josie Long won Newcomer of the Year, while critics declared Iranian comic Shappi Khorsandi a new star. On BBC1, Caroline Aherne is back with The Royle Family. Double Comedy Award winner Ashley Jensen returns in BBC2's Extras. Channel Five is showing series two of Swinging, which won Jo Joyner a 2006 Golden Rose of Montreux.

So why weren't any of these names on the Radio Times's recent poll of women comedy greats? Predictably, Victoria Wood came in at No 1, while the top 10 included Julie Walters, Jennifer Saunders and Jo Brand. Even Joyce Grenfell and Lucille Ball squeezed in ahead of Jee Esien and her contemporaries.

The RT poll could have been compiled in 1996 - or even 1986 - and looked the same. Apart from Catherine Tate, there were no new women performers. "You do wonder if the survey was compiled by four people in Sussex - or on the moon," laughs Jee Esien.

While no one would knock the achievements of Wood and French and Saunders, hasn't anyone noticed that a comedy revolution has been going on? Where was Julia Davis, creator of the triumphantly dark sitcom Nighty Night, or writer-performers Aherne, Jessica Stevenson and Ronni Ancona? Never mind the women from Smack the Pony and the Bafta-winner Green Wing?

Although French's recent TV series, Girls Who Do Comedy, was a great showcase, it was striking how few new names she flagged up. In her defence, French argued, "Victoria [Wood] and I were saying how surprised we both were that we hadn't been overtaken by a new wave of younger comedians. We both thought that once the way had been opened up, there'd be a new breed of female stand-ups playing all the big venues." When I read that, my jaw hit the table. She and Wood really ought to get out a bit more. Or at least stay in and watch Channel 4 and BBC3.

Once, stand-up was an all-male preserve. But now we're seeing deliciously out-there comedy created by women on TV. "There's a real range of tones of performance with this new generation," says Graham Smith, Five's commissioning editor for comedy, who brought us Swinging and the camp Suburban Shootout.

So are the new comedians just too edgy for the Radio Times? "What Victoria and French and Saunders did was reflect people back at themselves, so they felt quite comfortable," says Caroline Raphael, Radio 4's commissioning editor for drama and entertainment. "And they put themselves at the heart of the show. So it's French and Saunders or Victoria Wood or The Catherine Tate Show; they promote themselves, and why not? But performers such as Jessica Stevenson and Julia Davis don't do that. They prefer their fictional characters to take centre stage."

It's hard to define the modern "comedy queen". Everyone I spoke to for this piece felt that Victoria Pile (series creator of Green Wing and Smack the Pony) should be on the list. Two of the best British comedies of recent years - Festival (Annie Griffin) and Confetti (Debbie Isitt) - were directed by women, while the producer Myfanwy Moore is the woman behind Little Britain.

"With Green Wing there wasn't any single 'name'," says actress Tamsin Greig. "There was a team of writers and actors and we worked together, overseen by a visionary producer."

The critics have compared ensemble pieces such as The Book Group and Nighty Night to indie films such as Festen and Happiness. "I really like it when you don't know if you're supposed to laugh, where the humour isn't signposted and the viewer feels quite disturbed," Griffin argues.

Tate started out as an actor, and only put on a comedy show at Edinburgh to kick-start her acting career. She turned out to have a gift for comedy. But it's the fact that she writes her own material that gives her the edge. Paul Abbott calls her the writer of her generation.

Female writers do seem more interested in the minutiae of human relationships than punchlines. "It's about looking for the slow burn and more sketch-based pieces," says Raphael, who brought Little Britain and Dead Ringers to radio. "Women in stand-up have to be aggressive or cutesy, and that's very limiting," says Five's Smith. "I'd rather see character-performers, and I think that's an area where women find they can be much more creative."

Nighty Night was an evolutionary leap forward, and this autumn we have Dogtown, written by Beth Kilcoyne and her sister, Emma, about the surreal inhabitants of a fictional coastal town, for BBC3. They describe it as a narrative comedy about "just the other side of normal". The refreshing thing about Dogtown - seen as a successor to The League of Gentlemen - is that it isn't just about twentysomethings. "One of our characters is 73 and we've cast middle-aged people for the sex."

Wood, French and Saunders appear safe in comparison with the new generation - from Davis and Green Wing to Tittybangbang - who flirt with nudity and French maid outfits. Which is not to say that they weren't radical in their day. Anyone who saw Dawn and Jen on Channel 4's The Tube in the late 1970s, dressed in black bin-liners, will know just how unconventional they were. "It took them a long time to go from alternative comedy to being the nation's favourites," says Smith.

Yes, the RT poll was an own goal. But it's important to recognise who made the comedy new wave possible. "In a way, Wood and French and Saunders can always claim to be cutting-edge because they cut the edge off that I or Catherine [Tate] now don't have to negotiate," says Kilcoyne. "They did things you only do once in a generation."