This is a critical year for BBC comedy, when it will finally seek to address previous failings in giving a television platform to the funniest women in Britain.
The track record is poor. It's now 35 years since Victoria Wood made her breakthrough on That's Life. Since then we've had Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as the women of the Eighties alternative comedy movement, Caroline Aherne emerging in the guise of Mrs Merton in the Nineties and, for some years now, Jo Brand as a lone funny-woman on panel shows.
The BBC knows it's coming up short and has turned to a woman in spectacles with a penchant for flowery tops. Sarah Millican, pictured, has a reputation for bawdiness that belies a homely appearance. "I might look like somebody who lives next door but I've a dark, twisted sense of humour," she has said.
She talks of having bought a new bra and of naming her "boobs" Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes "because they're up where they belong". And now she has been given her own show, on BBC2 next month.
Millican, who speaks in a pronounced South Shields accent, ticks boxes for an organisation that is acutely conscious of its obligations to serve the "nations and regions". Last week BBC1 handed a platform to 25-year-old Kevin Bridges, whose solo show Kevin Bridges asks What's the Story is made in his home city of Glasgow. The Sarah Millican TV Programme will be the first comedy-entertainment show made from the BBC's Salford studios, close to Millican's home in Manchester. "It was very important to Sarah that we made her show from the north," says the BBC's Controller of Entertainment Commissioning Mark Linsey. "She refers a lot to her family and life in South Shields in her humour. Her heart and soul is very much there."
Millican is also a woman, and her show launches after an admission last week by BBC Director General Mark Thompson that the organisation has maltreated female on-screen talent, specifically by prematurely curtailing careers. Female comedians have suffered from prejudice as much as older women news readers. "We don't have enough female comedians on television – that's something we are aware of and trying to do something about," admits Linsey, who is anxious that BBC scouts capitalise on an influx of women into stand-up. "There are more female comics now and that means that more will break through," he says. "We're on the lookout and my team are making an effort to see a lot of female talent."
As a star of the Edinburgh Fringe for several years Millican has learned her comedy chops in the unforgiving world of stand-up, unlike Miranda Hart (whose success has nonetheless been another key factor in winning audiences round to comediennes – her BBC2 show moves to BBC1 in the autumn). Edinburgh has also been a crucial testing ground for other female comedic talent that the BBC is nurturing, such as Londoner Roisin Conaty and sketch-based group Lady Garden, whose material includes "the world's most miserable hen party". Both are lined up to appear on the BBC3 show Live at the Electric, which will be hosted by Russell Kane and goes to air in May.
Such programmes play an important role in giving what Linsey calls "flying time" for talent that might one day justify a solo show. "All these people we try and grow them through guest spots on Have I Got News for You, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Would I Lie to You? They are great areas to give talent some flying time."
He has been talking to Millican for 18 months about the right format for her show. "Each week she'll look at a couple of television areas such as cooking, or DIY, or crime," he says. "She had a sex expert come on and tell her how to chat up different men, with the men in studio. There's some physicality about her humour."
Linsey hopes to give more "flying time" to female talent such as the black comediennes Andi Osho – already known to viewers of Mock The Week – and Ava Vidal, who began stand-up after working as a prison officer. Both women, like Millican, are in their mid-Thirties – a decade older than Kevin Bridges – and had to wait for the chance to appear before the cameras. But things are changing. The People's Choice Award at the British Comedy Awards (the one given by viewers) went last year to Miranda Hart and this year to Sarah Millican. "Over the past few years female comedy has been something we've wanted to focus on," says Linsey. "But I still think there's work to be done."