The BBC gets serious over a lack of funny female talent

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The Independent Online

The BBC will try to tackle a crisis in female comedy by offering new shows to little-known comediennes.

The strategy will be introduced early in the new year and will attempt to make household names of rising stars such as Catherine Tate and Jocelyn Jee Esien. Another comedy series has been commissioned to take place in a women's prison.

BBC executives admitted that the search for female comedy talent had not been easy and comedy club presenters said the number of women stand-ups was at an all-time low.

Killing Time, which is based in a prison, will be launched on BBC3 at the end of March and will feature 15 characters played by women with almost no professional experience in comedy, who responded to an advertisement. Stuart Murphy, the controller of BBC3, said he hoped the programme would represent "the next big push into female comedy".

BBC2 is to give a one-woman sketch show to Catherine Tate, who is best-known for her appearance in the cult comedy series Big Train and who was nominated for a Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000.

Jane Root, the controller of BBC2, has commissioned The Catherine Tate Show, in which the comedienne plays characters including a "rancid pensioner" and a "randy nurse". Tate also stars in the BBC1 comedy Wild West, where she appears with Dawn French.

BBC executives have been frustrated by the lack of female comedy talent coming through to complement established stars such as French, her showbusiness partner Jennifer Saunders and Jo Brand.

"Female comedy is not something that we get pitched a lot and I don't know why that is," Mr Murphy said.

BBC3 has been encouraged by the success of 3 Non-Blondes, a hidden-camera comedy sketch show which has moved on to BBC2 and has been commissioned for a new series early next year.

One of the non-blondes, Jee Esien, has been given her own show, Miss Jocelyn, in which she plays 35 characters, the entire population of the fictional town where the programme (billed as the "first hidden camera sitcom") is based.

But the growth in opportunities on television for women comics comes at a time when female stand-up is in crisis.

Noel Faulkner, owner of the Comedy Café in Shoreditch, east London, said no more than "a handful" of good female stand-ups were left on the circuit. The two most successful, Kitty Flanagan and Julia Morris, are Australian. "If you can get a woman on stage it gives the females in the audience a voice. But it's getting harder - there are fewer women," he said.

Female stand-up comics were often reluctant to dress as entertainers, he said. "Some women hide their sexuality on stage because they don't want men staring at them. They want people to listen to them for their wit and humour. That puzzles me because it's show-business, the business of show."

Peter Graham, the promoter at the King's Head comedy club in Crouch End, north London, said the atmosphere at many other clubs was often hostile to women performers. "As a female comic in the tougher rooms you have got to prove yourself as a lad before you can carry on," he said.