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 for help to a woman in spectacles with a penchant for flowery tops. Sarah Millican has a reputation for bawdiness that belies her 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 named her "boobs" Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes "because they're up where they belong". And she has been given her own television show, which begins 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". The Sarah Millican Show will be the first comedy-entertainment show made from the BBC's new Salford studios. "It was very important to Sarah that we made her studio- based 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."
She is also a woman, and her show launches after the admission last week by BBC director general Mark Thompson that the organisation maltreated female on-screen talent, specifically by prematurely curtailing careers. Women 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. "We are on the lookout and my team are making an effort to see a lot of female talent."
Having been a star of the Edinburgh Fringe, Millican learned her comedy chops in the unforgiving world of stand-up, unlike Miranda Hart (whose success has been another key factor in winning audiences round to comediennes).
The BBC is preparing to bring through other female comedic talent, such as Londoner Roisin Conaty and the sketch-based group Lady Garden, whose material includes "the world's most miserable hen party". Both are lined up to appear on the new BBC3 show Live at the Electric, which will be hosted by Russell Kane and goes to air in May. Such programmes, with multiple performers, play an important role in giving what Linsey calls "flying time" to talent that might go on to bigger things. He has high hopes for Andi Osho – who is already known to viewers of Mock The Week – and Ava Vidal, who took up stand-up after previously working as a prison officer. Both women, like Millican, are in their mid-30s and have had to wait for their chance to appear on camera.
Things are changing. The People's Choice Award at the British Comedy Awards (the one given by the 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."
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