A few weeks ago, the head of ITV’s comedy department, Saskia Schuster, announced at Diverse Festival that the channel will no longer commission programmes written by all-male writers’ rooms.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it’s incredible but true: ITV really does have a comedy department. A quick check under the comedy category on the network’s streaming service reveals that the only new British comedy programme available at the time of writing is Keith Lemon’s Celebrity Juice, so quite what this department is filling its working hours with when it isn’t attending diversity festivals remains a mystery.
So taking issue with this decision to man-ban seems a bit churlish – rather like quibbling with the captain of the Titanic over the band’s set list for the night of 14 April 1912. But it shows where the heads of the television establishment stand.
Unlike the BBC, ITV exists to make money by attracting mass audiences. It was designed from its very beginnings to get bums on seats, the more the better. As the number of platforms multiplies and popular culture fragments into smaller and smaller niches, how can ITV best respond? I would suggest by concentrating on making programmes (such as Love Island) that buck the trend, and not by focusing on spurious diversity initiatives.
The writers’ room for TV comedy is very much a US invention, and it has worked out very well for them. Over there, they are essentially hothouses where writers gather to hammer out ideas, arrange them into episodes, structure the stories and craft the dialogue.
In Britain, the ‘rooms’ tend to be reserved for storylining conferences on soap operas, and it’s almost unheard of for scripts to be produced the American way – over days of intense conferencing, idea by idea, line by line, scene by scene by committee. For one thing, there just isn’t the money in the system to hire that many people for that long. So what we’re talking about here are more like long meetings where people pitch jokes.
“Too often the writing room is not sensitively run,” Schuster told the festival. “It can be aggressive and slightly bullying.”
But what does she actually mean?
Telling jokes carries an appallingly high risk of social embarrassment – not for nothing do stand-up comedians refer to a bad performance as ‘dying’ – and a correspondingly small glimmer of reward. It is competitive – and about pushing at boundaries of taste. Putting writing of any kind on the line to be judged is never a pleasant experience. As a script editor on a soap, I once had to pass on adding one of the greatest writers of his generation to the team because I knew he would be torn apart by it.
But I can’t think of anything less likely to produce good ideas, or indeed laughs, than to don the straitjacket of sensitivity and the safe space, of watching what you say, which tends in my experience to create a working atmosphere with all the easy, relaxed affability of Act Four of The Crucible.
Schuster’s comments are also telling for what they reveal about how women are viewed by this culture. Anyone who has worked in television for more than a week, and particularly around television writers, will be amused by the notion that it’s a group populated by thrusting macho men and demure little ladies.
There are two implicit suppositions behind Schuster’s statement. The first is that women will civilise the rough and tumble chaps, a view of the sexes plucked straight from an Edwardian drawing room. The second is that different levels of employment of the sexes in any workplace are entirely because of male privilege and power. I think there are more male writers for the same reason there are more male criminals – because men are on average more likely to do stupid, irrational things that have a high chance of ruin.
Schuster has founded a campaign called Comedy 50:50, whose aim is to reach perfect equity between the sexes in writing comedy. Encouraging women to write and removing barriers to entry are laudable goals. Schuster’s group has assembled a list of hundreds of female comedy writers, which is a concrete, valuable resource. An aim of perfect equity, however, is restrictive, an attempt to stuff individuals with wildly differing experiences and backgrounds into equal-sized pens marked M and F as if that were the most important thing about them.
The writer Brona C Titley – fabulously for a woke individual, she has the kind of name dreamt up by the Carry On team for Barbara Windsor – told the Festival: “If you have the same type of writers in terms of race or sexual orientation or gender, then you’re only getting one kind of joke.”
What a limiting view of people and of her fellow writers. Men do man jokes, women do woman jokes, homosexuals do homosexual jokes, black people do black jokes. Nobody has imagination or empathy or fellow feeling. We are apparently parrots loaded with one set of phrases, defined entirely by an arbitrary characteristic.
There is certainly a problem with the same kind of people telling the same kind of jokes, as anybody who’s watched or listened to any of the multiple shows “taking a sideways look at the week’s news” such as Mock the Week will know – the people employed are overwhelmingly middle class and Left-wing. But nobody seems in a hurry to understand or address this most glaring lack of diversity.
It’s also interesting to consider why this is happening now. The unspoken supposition is that television comedy writer is a prestige job with, in another grossly overused term imported from academia, a ‘platform’. But this is a shrinking sector, with fewer hours being produced than ever before: the days of ITV producing at least one half-hour’s worth of sitcom every night of the week – yes, younger readers, this actually happened – are long, long gone.
It’s just about possible to argue that the many tens of millions of viewers who tuned in to Only Fools and Horses or To the Manor Born were inculcated with monolithic cultural norms by John Sullivan or Peter Spence – but does anyone seriously think that coming up with gags for CelebAbility on ITV2 (highlights include the comedian Nathan Caton throwing cheese at people’s bare feet) is pushing society’s understanding of itself in any direction, and thus needs urgent gender representation?
This reflects a modern cultural quirk in the arts: an obsession with process rather than outcome. Think how often you hear theatre or television people proudly describe their adherence to quotas and fashionable nostrums of social change and representation as ‘important’, when the opposite is the case.
All art, even the desperately silly and trivial, is now regarded as political and with a mystic power to remodel society. The language of HR courses and inclusivity awareness workshops has cemented around the very daftest things. Somebody should write a comedy about that.