Racism and sexism in television and in comedy

On Thursday, I went to Bethnal Green to see the multi-racial comedy sketch group the United Colours of Comedy at the Oxford House venue. Three were very talented.

On Friday, I met a man who almost appeared on Mastermind on BBC1.

The man told me his specialist subject had been ‘Cricket before 1914’. He had gone through all the preliminary applications and tests and got to the final full-scale dry-run tryout. He triumphed, got the highest points and won it. The tryout, that is. A few days later, he received a phone call which told him he would not be on the actual televised Mastermind show because he mumbled. This sounds like a bad TV producer to me: you can direct people so they don’t mumble.

But the point is that a few months later this failed Mastermind contestant was talking to a lawyer friend he knows in Birmingham. The lawyer had handled the case of another potential Mastermind contestant who had been similarly rejected. She, too, had won her dry-run tryout. She had been very nervous and had been rejected – she was told – because, in her nervousness, she had waved her hands about a lot and been overly ‘twitchy’, which was very visually distracting. However, this failed contestant was black and she believed she had been rejected because of racial discrimination by the BBC. She unsuccessfully searched around  for a lawyer to handle her case. All refused until, eventually, she found this one in Birmingham. The claims and lawyers’ letters dragged on for months and, as my chum later heard it, in order to avoid a public court case, the BBC paid the woman a “substantial” out-of-court settlement.

I don’t believe it was racial discrimination. The real truth, in my experience, is that usually TV companies and producers fall over themselves to try to get non-white faces on screen.

I remember a production meeting for the Birmingham-based ITV children’s series Tiswas in which the then producer Glyn Edwards said he was uncomfortable because every Saturday morning – and this is in a city in the West Midlands, an area with a wide ethnic mix – the studio audience was a sea of totally white faces. I was delegated to get non-white children to apply to be in the audience, which I did by approaching regional and national ethnic newspapers and groups; but it was a fairly slow process.

Later, I worked on the long-forgotten BBC TV series Joker in the Pack in which the absolutely wonderful Marti Caine, at the time in remission from the cancer which later killed her, was dragged round the country to listen to groups of ‘ordinary’ people telling jokes in their workplace and in social groups. At the start of pre-production, I asked the producer if he wanted to specifically approach ethnic groups to get a mix of white/black/Asian faces on screen. He said, “Oh, it’ll happen naturally.”

“No it won’t,” I told him and it didn’t. Halfway through recording the series he suddenly asked for non-white faces on-screen and it was not something that could be arranged quickly, because non-white faces then as now tend not to apply to appear on TV shows; you have to find them and/or publicise in the ethnic media – both of which take time. The potential punters don’t see many non-white faces as TV contestants nor in on-screen audiences, so they don’t automatically apply.

The same thing seems to happen in comedy clubs, certainly in London. The audiences are mostly 100% white faces. Why? Presumably because anyone who goes to comedy clubs sees almost 100% white audiences and that non-racial-mix is self-regenerating.

Small comedy clubs can do little about this although they should perhaps try. On TV shows however, in my experience, producers do actively want non-white faces which reflect the UK population (although they are often too lazy or too tardy to do anything about it). And this can also be a problem where women are concerned. There are, for example, not enough female comedians on TV. But thereby hangs the potemtial problem of being too desperate.

And that brings us to Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow on BBC1, which records in different cities around the UK and has very few women and very few non-white comics appearing on it. Which is where good intentions have turned into bad practice.

One black female comic bombed so badly during the recording for an edition of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow in one city that the producers had to drop her from the televised show but allowed her to perform again in a subsequent recording in a second city so that she could be transmitted in the series. Whether this was because she was black or a woman or both I don’t know. I suspect it was because she was a black woman. But I have also been told two other English female comics who initially bombed during recordings for Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow were also re-recorded in a second city a second time (one was even booked to record a third time in a third city) to try to capture any acceptably successful comedy performance. This is not something I have heard being done for white male comics.

It says several things to me, one of which is that you can take PC too far – if they can’t be funny the first time, drop ‘em – and the other is that the producers of Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow have, in the past, been choosing the wrong female comics to appear. There are good female comics working out there.

For another view on what it’s like to be a female comic, read Janey Godley’s blog “A weird thing happened at the gig” about performing at a comedy club in Glasgow last Friday. The Daily Telegraph has quite rightly called Janey “the most outspoken female stand-up in Britain… The most ribald and refreshing comedy talent to have risen from the slums of Glasgow since Billy Connolly”. Inevitably, she has never been asked to appear on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.

Life.

Tell me about it.

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Television

One response to “Racism and sexism in television and in comedy

  1. “[Janey Godley] has never been asked to appear on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow.”

    Tis a shame, because I think the nation would absolutely love her.

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