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.