A Brief History of British Women in Comedy

With August 2016’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe picking up pace and Sandi Toksvig’s MAKERS video debuting on this site, there’s no better time to talk about women in comedy. While the success of the all-woman re-boot of "Ghostbusters" has left many a fanboy upset that, once again, it’s been proven women can be funny, over in the UK, there’s been a different sort of mourning. A very real mourning for the shortened lives of both Caroline Aherne and Victoria Wood. Both died in 2016 and both were Northern, BAFTA-winning female comedians, using comedy to mock middle-class presumptions of the working class, and to hold up a mirror to their earlier lives.

They were much-adored across the country and their sketches and sitcoms planted memories in the Great British Public’s minds that will live on for generations. But both faced similar obstacles many women face as they enter or exist in the public eye. Wood once said of her early efforts to  find a comedy agent: “I was going round seeing agents who were patronising because I was fat and a girl, which was a double whammy. I knew what it was to feel out-of-the-loop”. As for Aherne, she emigrated from the UK in the early 2000s and vowed to never appear on TV again in a bid to allay the intense media scrutiny of her private life. She later returned to front government health campaigns and voice "Gogglebox", a BAFTA-winning documentary series which watched people watch TV. Both women faced woman-specific obstacles, and both persevered. And they weren’t the first.

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In the Shakespearian era of comedy, female roles were played by young men as women were barred from the stage. This tradition wavered, and in the 1700s, at a time of great hedonism, women could be celebrated as actresses, but only if they abided by ladylike standards. After the Restoration, actresses became associated with prostitution and by the Victorian period, this stigma precluded them from performing. By the beginning of the 20th Century, music halls began to feature women, sometimes dragged up as men, and early silent cinema placed women into secondary, slapstick roles. Elsewhere, there were plenty of opportunities for women in magic shows, for example, being offered up as shrieking boxed-up 'victims' to be sawed in half. During the World Wars, female comedians such as Vesta Tilley (in drag) were important in entertaining troops.

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As film developed in the latter half of the 20th century, Julie Andrews excelled in comedy-musicals, such as "Bedknobs and Broomsticks", "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins": all geared primarily toward family audiences. Relatively late to television, the UK lagged behind the US in soap opera and sitcom, but in the mean time, Millicent Martin rose to fame in the early 1960s parody show "That Was The Week That Was", singing politically topical songs. 

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By the 1970s, the sitcom was a staple of British television, and regularly touched on gender issues. In "Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em", Michele Dotrice’s Betty was the straight-man to Michael Crawford’s effeminate Frank and Mollie Sugden sent up a snooty department store worker in her role as Mrs Slocombe in the double-entendre laden "Are You Being Served?" Also starring in the popular series as cockney Shirley Brahms was a young Wendy Richard, who would later go on to a much sterner role - Pauline Fowler in "EastEnders".

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As did Barbara Windsor, who, before appearing as landlady Peggy Mitchell in the soap, rose to fame in the smutty-jovial "Carry On" films. Although many of the jokes were aimed squarely at her upper torso, her star power is part of what made the film franchise so successful. In the late 1970s, Prunella Scales would marvel as Sybil Fawlty in the short-lived "Fawlty Towers", and the surrealism of humdrum suburbia was sent up by "Terry and June", the latter played by June Medford.

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The 1980s saw a boost in sketch show popularity, notably Pamela Stephenson mocking celebrities, news readers and politicians in her role in "Not The Nine O’Clock News". A stage version of this show featured Emma Thompson. Victoria Wood and Julie Walters truly established themselves as comedy and musical stars in the mid-1980s. Wood won a BAFTA for her sketch show, "Victoria Wood as Seen on TV", and she would go on to write and act in "Acorn Antiques", "Dinnerladies" and "Housewife, 49". Walters, meanwhile, shone in "Educating Rita" before starring in legendary British films including "Billy Elliott" and "Calendar Girls".

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Later in the 1980s, renegade stand-ups like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair and Ruby Wax spliced darker humour and surrealism into their shows. Out of the hugely successful eponymous sketch show "French and Saunders" came the critically acclaimed "Absolutely Fabulous" and "The Vicar of Dibley". The sitcoms looked at very different parts of life, the former a fashion PR’s bizarre lifestyle (Saunders), the latter the small-town lifestyle of a sex-obsessed female vicar (French). Jane Horrocks, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins all started their careers on "French and Saunders", moving, respectively into film (Horrocks’ "Little Voice") and light entertainment ("Late Lunch" and later "The Great British Bake Off"). Kathy Burke, a regular to Ab Fab, as it became known, dragged up as teenager Perry on "The Harry Enfield Show" and in the feature-length film, "Kevin And Perry Go Large".

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Burke proceeded to write and act in "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and continues to direct theatre and appear in film and television. Comedy in the mid-1990s wasn’t always so gender-non-conforming: "Men Behaving Badly" gave Caroline Quentin and Leslie Ash roles of downtrodden women weary of laddish men’s raucous antics. Still, both played the roles with aplomb, subsequently, Quentin provided the majority of the humour in murder mystery drama series "Jonathan Creek". Meera Syal’s pioneering "Goodness Gracious Me", the UK’s first British-Indian fronted sketch show, saw her fondly parody her own aunties.

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The late-1990s brought Caroline Aherne (who’d entertained many as Mrs Merton) and Craig Cash’s "The Royle Family" to the masses, showing a bunch of people watching TV to a bunch of people watching TV. Its charm and dark humour won it several BAFTA awards. Soon came entirely female-fronted sketch show "Smack the Pony", comprised of Sally Phillips, who also features in Bridget Jones, Doon Makichan, who’d previously wowed on "Brass Eye" and the Alan Partridge shows and Fiona Allen, who went on to feature in "Skins". The show, which notoriously re-created awkward dating tapes in a pre-Tinder age, won two Emmys and regularly featured Sarah Alexander, who went on to perform in "Coupling" and "Green Wing". Meanwhile, on radio, Linda Smith was a regular panelist on the BBC and wrote and starred in her own shows.

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By the early noughties, Gina Yashere broke out onto the stand-up circuit, Olivia Colman began her long and slow rise to fame as Sophie in "Peep Show" (which also paved the way for Isy Suttie’s stand-up popularity), Catherine Tate and Miranda Hart launched their own respective shows and Morgana Robinson and Ronni Ancona chided their share of female celebrities and public figures with their impersonations. Julia Davis’s black comedy "Nighty Night", won critical acclaim and a cult following. 

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Now, in the tail end of the 2010s, although you might not think it to look at the average late-night panel show, comedy brims with fantastic women; MAKERS’ very own Sandi Toksvig, Josie Long, Sara Pascoe, Bridget Christie, Bryony Kimmings, Tamsin Greig, Shappi Khorsandi, Katy Brand, Susan Calman, Katherine Ryan, Francesca Martinez, Shazia Mirza and Sarah Millican are all household names. With up-and-comers like Luisa Omielan, Michaela Coel, Andi Osho (a late bloomer to comedy, before 2006 she appeared in "Casualty") and Ava Vidal alongside the likes of Felicity Ward, Dian Morgan, Brigitte Aphrodite, Gemma Whelan and Bella Younger (Deliciously Stella) it’s clear that efforts to make comedy more diverse are working. May women continue to rise in the male-dominated world of comedy, laughing all the way. 

NEXT: Get to Know Sandi Toksvig »

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