Sunday Times caption: Paul Merton sits alongside a Mulberry handbag, which producers preferred to Camilla Long as a guest on Have I Got News For You
A tip of the hat to Camilla Long for her piece in today’s Sunday Times. The headline in the print edition is:
It’s funny how women won’t own up to being wary of taking on Paul Merton
It’s softened in the online edition, with the removal of the implication of women being fearful of a man, to:
It’s funny how women won’t own up to being wary of Have I Got News For You
You can tell there’s a new series of Have I Got News For You on the box because Ian Hislop and Paul Merton have been wheeled out for the traditional incendiary interview in which it is yet again suggested that women are, shall we say, differently abled when it comes to tossing off endless dinner party jokes about novichok poisonings or Paul Hollywood’s love handles.
Yes, yes, women are always asked on the show, sighed Hislop, but are “too reticent”, to appear. But what does that mean? Too modest, too sensible, too wise? Or too cowardly, too stupid, or, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, just not funny enough? “The producers always ask more women than men,” said Merton. “More women say no.” The only female politician to have hosted, of course, isn’t even a woman: Ann Widdecombe.
It is a measure of exactly how mad this pointless woman funny/not funny non-debate has got that there have since been approximately 4,000 opinion pieces screeching that women shouldn’t have to offer themselves up to the cameras for Hislop’s preening delectation and that comedy panel shows are chuntering boys’ clubs and they’re outdated anyway and who wants to be professionally funny anyway and why can’t everything be like a slightly less lesbian version of Woman’s Hour?
Nadine Dorries, a woman I’d pay not to see on my television set ever, went as far as to claim she has not appeared on the show since 2012 because she found it “too vicious”.
Only I think Dorries is being a bit disingenuous here. I looked up the footage of her appearance and, my God, let’s just say that the real reason is probably something a bit more to do with the fact no one ever wants to be made to look like that much of a droning pillock by Hislop. Awkward, sniffy, defensive — she clearly thought he shouldn’t have dared pick her up on a single one of her ludicrous statements. And obviously, he should have done. That’s his job. It was her mistake to appear on the show, not theirs.
Therein lies the issue: isn’t the fact women don’t want to go on comedy panel shows a bit more their problem than it is the men’s? As Hislop shrugs: “It’s not compulsory.” They’re not going to cancel it, not after 54 series, because a few women, who are basically too frightened to appear but are also too frightened to admit it, are complaining that a show that takes the piss, takes the piss. This is not how life works.
For what it is worth, my own experience of the show has always been almost disappointingly courteous and gentlemanly. It isn’t a honking satirical version of the Presidents Club, however much women who have failed to shine on the show would like to believe it is.
I’ve never appeared in an episode where everyone involved isn’t willing everyone else, of whatever sex, to say something funny. Probably the only really “male” moment of my five appearances came during an episode with Jeremy Clarkson, when there was anxiety that no one would actually bring up “the punch”. I thought, he’s unlikely to punch me, so why don’t I mention it? So I did. Ironically, I felt I could because I was a woman.
Television’s tough. It’s gladiatorial, it’s merciless, whether you’re appearing on a cosy morning sofa or a prime-time jousting match. It’s a string of tiny humiliations: at one point I was asked on the show, only to be stood down for a £995 Mulberry handbag — not even another human being! The owner of the bag, Nicky Morgan, had been due to go on but changed her mind after a row at Downing Street over Theresa May’s trousers. I was put on standby, but then someone emailed to say, cryptically, they’d decided to go with “something else”.
Later, I found out they literally thought a handbag would entertain the people of Britain better than I would. If you wanted to characterise that sort of thing as “vicious”, I suppose you could. But it isn’t.
I think one of the reasons women find the show difficult is that they are worried about maintaining dignity. This is a curiously female problem instilled at birth. You are bestowed a constantly exhausting interior monologue saying, don’t show your knickers, don’t appear drunk, don’t laugh too much, why have I been replaced by a Mulberry bag?
You could see it in Dorries’s eyes: a woman worn down by a thousand tiny concerns. But there’s no point in trying to maintain one’s dignity at any moment in life. It is a virtue invented by women to keep other women in tears and longer skirts.
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