21 Jan 2015
basac's picture


I was pleased to see an article recently by Robert Webb, in praise of the female characters created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain in Peep Show. There was a panel at last year's comedy conference featuring three top sitcom writers - Vicki Pepperdine (Getting On, Puppy Love) Tom Edge (Scrotal Recall) and Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly + tons more). Apart from the creation of great sitcom, one other ability they all have in common is that each is known for creating memorable, funny female characters.

In the days before feminism had become accepted as part of the world view, and before non-sexist comedy had evolved, writers like Galton & Simpson and the Pythons and Clement & Le Frenais didn't have to bother too much with women. I'm not criticising them, my favourite comedy shows included Dad's Army, Morecambe & Wise and Steptoe & Son, all of which rarely featured female faces. Those were different times. Then, if the BBC needed more female characters than Esmonde and Larbey could provide, they'd commission Carla Lane to write some new ones.

There has been a revolution in character types over the last 30 years or so, reflecting the revolution in our attitudes to race and gender, but TV drama - and comedy - is struggling to keep up. Nowadays as a writer, you should be expected to be able to write black and Asian characters, and guys, you are even expected to be able to write comedy characters for women. Because comedy is about human behaviour it should for the most part transcend questions of race and gender, but that doesn't always happen.

I spent part of the summer holidays watching eight hours of a gripping BBC drama in which three of the four main characters were women. The plot was exciting enough to keep me watching to the end, but a fag packet would have been too big a space to fit all the notes on characterisation of each of those ladies. I'd like to spend a short time with those characters now, in the hope that you recognise when you're creating something similar. In which case stop, and start again.

Purer than pure, whiter than white Our lead character, who as far as I could tell was as flawless as her perfect skin. Lots of Bad Things happened to her, but she coped with a stoicism and lack of anger or bitterness designed to make us admire her even more. I know this wasn't supposed to be comedy but whatever you're writing, unless your character has some major flaw there's no way for us to identify that this is a real human being.

I got to the top by being more macho than the men I despair every time I see this character, as I'm sure must the legion of late 30s/ early 40s attractive women actors, every time one of these scripts arrives at their door. This was the head of MI6, who at one point had to say 'In a room full of pussies I was the one who had a vagina', a line that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Whatever I am, don't expect me to act in any way other than a fierce lioness where my small child is involved This woman was probably the easiest to play of the three, she was entitled to be a little bit flawed and badly behaved, (oh my God she's having an affair with her employer's husband!!!) because her child had been kidnapped so she had an excuse for letting down the sisterhood.

Feminism is forcing writers to think differently about how they portray women. In recent months there's been a fairly nasty polarisation in the comedy world, and because social media requires all complex matters to be boiled down to simple binary options, the argument has roughly boiled down to 'we need more positive women characters' versus 'what's wrong with rape jokes?' 

One of the problems in comedy is that our favourite and most enduring characters are often weak and spineless losers, trapped in their frustrating worlds because they're too stubborn or stupid or lacking in self-awareness to change who they are - and thus become the kind of well-rounded person you can't write a sitcom around. It's difficult to create weak unlikeable female characters without worrying that you might be perceived as misogynistic. Difficult but not impossible.

(The same should be true about race but there's been even less success here. I'll come to that in a future blog.)

The everyday bile and sexism that spews across the internet is born out of a fear of women. It's a powerful hatred and it'll probably never go for good but it does appear to be in decline and is best ignored. On the other side however, there is a fear of offending women that makes some writers and producers shy away from portraying women beyond the cliches mentioned above. I know great male comedy writers who admit that they struggle writing good female characters. 

So what do you do? The simple answer is, in general, don't agonise about gender. In The IT Crowd, Jen is the perfectly wrong person for the job she has been given. But if she admits she is no good then she might lose the job, so she has to pretend to be good, which makes matters worse. And gives us loads of comedy. There's nothing about that character that says it has to be played by a woman, but there's some great dynamics to be had out of the triangle of the three main characters, and the boss being an incompetent woman. That's all a bonus, the main thing is the character.

What if being female is an inherent part of the character? In Bluestone 42, James Cary and Richard Hurst take the familiar archetype of 'she's more like a bloke than some of the men' but because this is the army in Afghanistan and not some office in London we get a sense that she's there because she really wants to be in the thick of the action. Gender is less an issue and 'Bird' ,played by Katie Lyons really can, and does, behave badly. But we're still rooting for her - and she gets some of the biggest laughs in the show.  

You can do a lot worse than look at the writing of Sally Wainwright, currently the best writer on TV. She writes lots of women, and men too, but her female characters are miles ahead of anything else on TV at the moment. For example, in Last Tango In Halifax, Sarah Lancashire plays the Head Teacher at an exclusive private school. She's very successful at her job, but has a difficult relationship with her mum, and a failed marriage behind her. Already, I hope, you're building a picture in your head, because she's a believable person and you will recognise her in people you know. You can see how Wainwright has already glided past the cliches - we don't know (or care) if she got to the top by sleeping with the boss or if she's a ball-buster. We accept she's there because she was considered the best person at the time for the job.

The main story concerns the mum character, played by the wonderful Anne Reid, and her blossoming relationship with her childhood sweetheart of 50 years earlier, played by Derek Jacobi. It's the sort of story that in the hands of lesser writers could have you reaching for the sick bag, but the writing never allows you to forget we're watching two believable characters learning to love each other. 

A simple exercise you should try when you're creating a new character is to ask 'what newspaper do they read'? It helps in a small way to build a rounded picture of the kind of person you're writing about. In 'Last Tango', the simple observation that she reads the 'Mail' and he reads the 'Guardian', is turned into a brilliantly prickly scene quite early in their courtship, that almost causes them to split up. 

There's not much point engaging with the increasingly vitriolic duologue taking place on the internet. As writers though we can make a small positive contribution by creating more comedy characters - weak, flawed, trying-to-be-good-but failing characters - who happen to be female.


Here's that Robert Webb article:


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