Monday, 10 February 2014

In which one isn't nearly enough

The other day I turned on an episode of QI. The show seemed different to normal, and it took me a few minutes to realise why: there were three women the panel. Three women and an Alan Davies. I blinked hard a few times, and checked the listings to see if it was some sort of QI: Oestrogen Special.

But hopefully soon such events won’t be astonishing at all, as this week, the BBC’s director of TV announced he was putting an end to panel shows with all-male line-ups. Danny Cohen told The Observer there was “no excuse” for the channel’s track record of testosterone-heavy casting, a promise that comes after a long campaign of criticism over shows like Mock the Week, which featured 38 male and only five female guest comedians on its most recent series.

“You can't do that. It's not acceptable," said Cohen. To which I think the only answer is "Obviously. But why stop at one?"

Before you splutter all over the comments section, let’s be clear that the end goal isn't a rigid 50/50 gender split of everything that ever goes on telly. Nobody's advocating shoehorning extra women into every possible scenario, just to make a statement.

As I see it, the ideal is to reach a point where we CAN have all-male panels again from time to time - because there would be enough all-female and fairly mixed panels to make the overall landscape a proportionate one. If you're hosting a panel on prostate cancer or male pattern baldness, by all means book a load of blokes – so long as you’re not booking them exclusively to comment on rape, maternity pay and abortion rights too.

Yes, it might mean token casting (though frankly, anyone who thinks we don’t have sufficient female comedy talent to fill the quota needs to get out/on YouTube more). Being the token anything is never anyone's ideal. But if a few years of tokenism can level the playing field to a point where it's no longer needed at all, sign me up.

The main issue we want to be fretting over isn't whether Cohen's rule will turn telly into a ladyfest full of token women padding out panels with their petal-scented opinions, but whether the minimum will also, through lazy resistance, become a maximum too.

Because one woman among three men is not, however you dress it up in novelty, very many women. It's half the amount needed to actually represent the population, and even fewer than the number needed to make up for years and years of all-male broadcasting at which nobody batted an eye. It's a ratio that will get you turned away from many West End nightclubs - yet one is better than none, and so it's on this crumb of progress we must feast for the time being.

And what's the alternative? We could sit back and wait another few decades for the balance to magically correct itself, all on its own. Maybe it will. But can we really expect a generation rich in fantastic female comedians and commentators to rise up and take the reins without a few more examples on TV to first let them know that it's possible?

Let’s fill the quota, overfill it, and top it up some more. Then when there are enough female voices on our screens, we can ditch the argument altogether – and won’t that be a relief?

The Scottish Patient

My boyfriend is ill. Everything smells of Olbas Oil. There is a trail of tissues running through the flat like a germy version of Hansel and Gretel, and at the end of it instead of a gingerbread house, there is a bearded 28-year-old whimpering under a blanket.

Naturally we like to avoid gender stereotypes wherever possible, and so we will just say he has… ‘hyperbolic flu’. The kind that renders you unable speak in any voice except that of a cartoon vole. Still, he’s a grateful cartoon vole. “Taaank-oo” he snuffled when I made him his third Berocca of the day. “How… how would I survive without you?” he rasped from within his underwater mucus world when I forced him to take some more First Defence.

“Ohh… I don’t mind,” he wheezed when I called to see what the invalid wanted for dinner. Broccoli was what he wanted for dinner, I decided in the end. With loads of garlic because I dimly remembered that it was meant to be good for lurgy. I even let him eat the rest of the Haagen-Dazs afterwards, because I am apparently some kind of saint, but he’s got a Kinder Egg in the fridge that I’ve been eyeing up for three days now.

The truth is I’m not great at the Florence Nightingale act because I’ve never really had to do it before. The sickly person is normally me. As a hypochondriac with a healthy imagination and access to Google on three separate devices, I am never not at least a little bit ill, while he is perpetually, resolutely tickety-boo. Apart from hangovers, I have single-handedly brought all the malady to this relationship.

Before we got together he was barely even familiar with the idea of pharmaceuticals, preferring just to be in pain or burn off a fever through the sheer power of stubborn ignorance. Then I came along and said, in what was probably one of the most useful things I have ever said to him: “why would you willingly feel terrible, when you could have a Lemsip and feel slightly less terrible?”

This has all come back to bite me now that he’s actually been struck down and I have to be matron. When I’ve finished writing this I have to make a fresh hot water bottle, pick up the tissue trail, plump the pillows, fetch the Strepsils, do some sympathetic clucking noises and say, “the bad news is, I ate your Kinder Egg. The good news is, here’s a tiny plastic car!”

But it’ll all be worth it in a few days’ time, when I catch the same plague. Then order will be restored.

The bitterest pill to swallow

Of course, it wouldn’t be January without discovering something new that is killing us. This year it is sugar.

Now that cigarettes are all electric and everyone is running marathons and we all know not to climb pylons or walk on railways tracks anymore, sugar is the bad guy. I know, it’s enough to make you choke on your breakfast doughnut.

Of course we were always vaguely aware that a diet of candyfloss sandwiches wasn’t going to help us live forever, but sugar always used to be the thing that comforted us while we worried about the scarier stuff. Saturated fat; alcohol; sun damage. Standing too close to microwaves. It’s the fanfare at the end of a meal, the reward after a dentist appointment, the reason most of us sing Happy Birthday To You in such loud, tuneful vibrato.

But then campaign group Action on Sugar declared it “worse than tobacco” and suddenly 2014, if the Daily Mail’s misery machine has anything to do with it, will be the year we all go cold turkey on the sweet stuff. And probably on cold turkey too, for of course even processed savoury food is being packed full of sugar.

White bread? Sugar! Pasta sauce? Sugar! Salt? Sugar! Think of anything tasty, anything at all, and the chances are it has a Willy Wonka’s factory worth of corn syrup running secretly through the centre. Sugar is now the drug of our times. Never mind all the strung-out psychedelia corrupting youth in the 60s – turns out The Archies were the real danger all along.

It probably goes without saying that I’m pretty into sugar. In fact, I just looked down and found a chocolate digestive in my hand that I don’t even remember acquiring. After half an hour spent trying to work out exactly why it is that I have such a sweet tooth, and all I’ve managed to come up with is, “because sugar is delicious.” But then, that’s the addled brain of an addict talking.

I flirted with the idea of giving up caffeine recently, because it takes my already anxious disposition and jiggles it up and down like a Shake’n’Vac, but abandoned the plan when I realised that without caffeine, my only vices would be sugar and awful TV. Neither of those are sexy. There’s nothing illicit and dangerous about staying in to watch Storage Hunters and gouge all the cookie dough from a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.

Or at least, there wasn’t – until the papers made sugar the new villain. Now I’m torn between weaning myself off it for the sake of my health, and pouring maple syrup on my sandwiches because it might make me a bit edgy.

If they did a modern remake of Grease (and please don’t, film people) Sandy would probably appear at the end with a Twix hanging from her mouth instead of a fag - which is a rebellion I could definitely embrace. Although I might struggle with the spray-on trousers.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

In which we're truly blue, but not because it's Monday

I’m writing this on Blue Monday - everyone’s favourite pseudoscientific PR stunt of a holiday! Next to Black Friday, Mauve Monday and Hide in a Wendy House Wednesday, that is.

Billed as the most depressing day of the year, it falls on the third Monday in January as a result of a made-up maths equation taking into account weather, debt, time since Christmas, likelihood one will have failed one’s new year’s resolutions and low motivational levels. Which all sounds pretty credible, if you don’t include people who like cold weather, don’t enjoy/celebrate Christmas, and are never happier than when they’re seeing off their resolutions with a bucket of fried chicken and another of gin.

What it also fails to explain is what happens on the third Tuesday in January to suddenly raise everybody’s spirits again. Maybe it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Emperor’s New Clothes of mood elevators – tell people that fictional Blue Monday is over and they’re immediately more inclined to go out and dance a merry jig?

But ultimately, the thing about Blue Monday is that it becomes even more so when everyone harps on about how the whole thing is rubbish, and you’re left confused because actually, you do feel quite sad.

I felt sad this morning when I discovered payday isn’t this Friday, as I had cheerfully convinced myself, but next Friday - meaning there’s a whole 10 days before I see the little chink of light from the bottom of my cavernous overdraft. Having spent the weekend thinking I was being paid this week, I also spent as though I was being paid this week. Oysters for everybody!

I felt sad when I discovered just now that we don’t have any loo roll. Or biscuits. And I felt sad when I realised that I’ve watched the last episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix and have to wait five weeks for the new series to start (if you’ve not watched it, by the way, do – like America’s Next Top Model but with drag queens, it is everything you’ve ever wanted from television).

I also felt sad listening to commentators on the case of Lord Rennard, who seem mistakenly to believe that harassment isn’t harassment as long as you claim not to have “meant to upset anyone.” Upset, you see – not anger, or objectify, or violate a basic human right. The men on the radio hoping nobody got “upset” is a little too close to a “calm down, dear” to do my Monday blues any good.

And if it’s weather that holds the key to banishing the gloom, we can’t be too optimistic there either – Ukip’s special brand of homophobic weather forecast predicts floods, ice, fire and brimstone for as long as gay marriage is legal. Still, at least that’s something to laugh about. Valentine’s Day might bring an avalanche and we can all go sledging.

In which January's all about frock and lol

Naturally, as a woman with functioning faculties and a passing interest in gauzy fabric, I love awards season. What more does one need to brighten the bleak, bitter mornings of January and February than the excuse to sit at one’s computer with a frothy coffee typing, “Amy Adams sideboob” into the internet for an hour? The hits, the misses, the turns and the tumbles. The opportunity to find out, once and for all, what the purpose of Taylor Swift is. It’s all such a jolly promise.

But the truth is that like karaoke parties, sashimi or movies starring Katherine Heigl, awards season is one of those slightly disappointing things you’ve always forgotten your disappointment at by the time the next one rolls around.

No sooner had I woken up, opened half an eye, reached for my laptop and groggily googled, ‘Gplden gLobes reD carpt’ than I remembered why I always finish the winter feeling vaguely dissatisfied by the world (it is definitely awards season, not all the refined carbohydrates and slipper socks).

Hollywood just doesn’t know how to choose a nice frock anymore. It’s as though sheer affluence has overwhelmed our stars to the point where they can’t tell, ‘pretty’ from ‘looks like something I once did with tin foil to punish my Barbie’. Armies of stylists and hoards of designers toil for months to achieve what any of the rest of us could manage with two hours, a Debenhams giftcard and some double-sided tape.

They tend to fall largely into three categories. Predictable but dull, which means anything Reese Witherspoon wears; original but odd, which involves a lot of peplums, high necklines and hair that has been woven into its own weather-proof hat; and half-dressed, which means the sort of kidney-chilling flesh exposure that might lead normal folk to assume your outfit was half stolen by tinkers on the way to the ceremony.

It’s a good job then, if we don’t have the frocks, that we do have the funnies. If you’ve not watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s opening duologue from the Golden Globes, do it now. From quipping that Gravity was “the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age,” to August: Osage County "proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60," the whole thing was a perfectly-pitched delight.

Here’s a plan, perhaps: while the comedy giantesses take the stage by storm, we could leave the red carpet to the men – who with the occasional exception of a jazzy bowtie or lumberjack beard, have been consistently letting the side down for decades. “What were they THINKING?” the magazines can scream, over photos of Matt Damon and Colin Firth in aquamarine lamé with daring necklines. That would see me through until March just nicely.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

In which I keep on running. Just not very far.

I have made two resolutions for 2014.

The first is to learn to say ‘no’ more. Specifically to say no to the kind of strictly unnecessary social events that clog up my weeknights and make me tired and poor. The ones that take me to far-flung bits of London to see a friend of a friend’s auntie’s hairdresser playing accordion in the back room of a pub, while all the dinner ingredients I’d bought the week before fester into dismal mush at the bottom of my crisper drawer. Quality, not quantity, that is the key.

The second resolution, and I now realise this contradicts the first one a bit, is not to give up running. That’s it – no distances, no times, no big charity races or mud-covered feats of endurance. Just to not quit.

If by this time next year I haven’t managed to run a single inch farther than I can now, but still put on my trainers and had a good bash at it with some regularity, I’ll chalk it up as a triumph and buy myself a tiramisu. Quantity, not quality, that is the key.

And it has to be the key, because the truth is that I am terrible at running. Really awful. After doing it three or four times a week for the last four months, I’ve made so little progress that it’s almost scientifically fascinating. It’s very possible that I’m actually getting worse.

In the interests of transparency and to prove I’m not being all, “poor hopeless me... oh look, I’ve done the Iron Man!”, I will give you actual figures. When I started running in the first week of September, I could just about do 2km. It is now January and I can do 3km. The most I have ever, ever done is 4km, all downhill, and afterwards I lay on the bathroom floor for an hour and wept.

I wept even more when I remembered that miles are bigger than kilometres, and so in London Marathon terms I’ve just about conquered the bit between Buckingham Palace and the refreshment van.

It wouldn’t be so frustrating if everybody else in the world wasn’t also running, and with much more success. Friends who I’ve always fondly assumed were no fitter than me will casually drop in the fact they did 8km before breakfast, and I will gaze at them, wide-eyed, like the mate of the person who discovered fire. Then, worse, they try to give me tips.

“Never stop and walk!” they say. “Stop and walk every three minutes!” they say. “Eat first!” they say. “Don’t eat first!” They say. “Take water!” they say. “DON’T TAKE WATER!” they say, as I regress to year 11 PE mode and bow out of the conversation pleading lady problems and verrucas.

So yes, I’m aiming low. Just to keep on running, a bit, for as long as I can before I fall over. And if all else fails, I’ll fall back on the other resolution - when people ask if the running is going well, I will simply say ‘no’.