Women of an Uncertain Age
Why is so much comedy so male dominated? Damesnet caught up with Flip Webster and Maggie Bourgein as they prepare for their show Women of an Uncertain Age at London’s Canal Café Theatre to explore the issues.
Damesnet: How did you get started on your shows?
Maggie: Well, I live in Devon and Flip comes down in the summer quite a lot. We thought we might entertain ourselves by doing a serious piece about me at home being a carer — as I was then — but we just couldn’t get past trying to make laughs. We ended up with the idea of me being a Kylie Minogue look-alike in gay clubs, so we decided we might as well write some sketches.
Flip: So we did a scratch event at the Bike Shed, in Exeter – 20 minutes and five sketches. And it went really well. There are a lot students in Exeter, so we were a bit nervous because we thought our stuff would only appeal to women of our age but as it turned out the young male students, as well as the female students, and every other age group, seemed to appreciate it, and in fact it was the young guys who encouraged us to go on. People relate to it on different levels. Young people like seeing old people behaving badly, and as one of them said, ‘We’ve all got mothers and grandmothers. We’re just not used to seeing them in that way.’
M: The impetus for doing Women of an Uncertain Age is that we had a five-star review this year. So we thought we should build on that. It gave us the confidence we were doing it right.
D: How does mainstream comedy differ from what you’re doing?
M: It’s getting better as regards female comedy protagonists. Miranda Hart’s a good example of that, and the response to her goes to show that women were looking for something they could relate to a bit more on TV.
But largely it’s male dominated and it’s young men. Everyone thinks of the sketch show as a young person’s sport. In fact Stephen Fry said (a long time ago now — maybe he’s changed his mind): ‘Women aren’t funny.’ He also said sketch shows should only be done by young people. Well, he’s obviously got a very narrow idea of what’s funny and that’s reflected in the sort of comedy that we’ve had. It’s very Oxbridge-based. BBC 4 radio comedy used to recruit Oxbridge graduates for their producers, and if they don’t think you’re funny, then you’re not funny.
F: There is the example of French and Saunders, of course, but once the BBC found them they didn’t bother to look for any other women for about 20 years.
D: I’m sick of these panel shows in which the males gather together in their maleness, Oxbridge or not, and everything else is other.
F: It’s quite aggressive. It looks like there’s camaraderie, but there’s fierce competition between them. I’ve got a friend who’s been to the BBC comedy awards and I said ‘Oh, I’d love to go.’ ‘You wouldn’t,’ she said. ‘It’s like a bitch-fest. The atmosphere is really horrible.’ And I think this idea of Danny Cohen, who’s the guy from the BBC, saying ‘We’re going to have at least one woman on every panel show.’ — well, good try, but women don’t want to be on those kinds of shows. I don’t think that, per se, that [panel show] attitude is completely wrong, but it can get quite wearing. I just feel a bit battered by the end of, say, Mock the Week. Women differ from men in some of the things they find funny as well as the context and delivery. If you pay your license fee, you should be catered for.
There are some really feisty comediennes out there, though, and they are making a lot of good points. Joan Rivers was hard and in-yer-face, but at least her material related to things that we can identify with.
D: Are there any things that you would consider off-limits? What I’m thinking about is the way Joan Rivers’s comedy focused on facelifts and droopy boobs. Does this type of comedy actually give other people a stick to beat us with?
F: Well, we do take the mick out of ourselves as well, and we do take the mick out of other women, and we sometimes use stereotypes to do that.
M: We’ve got characters called Fee and Maggs, who are ladies who lunch and they’re worrying about Botox and so on. When we first did their hip-hop sketch, somebody said to us. ‘You’ve got to be careful about women of a certain age and how ridiculous they look.’ Interestingly, we have changed the thrust of that sketch, but we feel it’s OK to take the mickey out of them because they behave ridiculously. When we took on our PR person, who is a young woman, she said that sketch takes the mickey out of young people too. I think that’s why our stuff works on different levels. And I think it’s OK if you go away and think afterwards, ‘Oh, I don’t think I should have laughed at that,’ and you might have to examine why. I think you have to be able to laugh at yourself, otherwise you’re giving critics ammunition for having a go at you.
D: It’s just occurred to me that male comedians don’t do that. They don’t talk about their prostates and baldness.
M: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I think we do it because we know men don’t like it. Men can sit around drinking beer, swearing, farting, scratching their balls, and then the moment someone mentions periods, it’s like ‘Uuurrghh!’
F: Perhaps talking about those things would take away their masculinity, or power or sexiness?
D: How do you choose the topics for your comedy?
M: We’ve got a long list of topics. We want to do something about older children living at home. And being a grandmother: years ago, you would see your grandchildren every so often, but now, if you’re unlucky, you could be a carer five days a week. All those issues don’t get addressed in comedy. We also do a bit of social comment — generally, not just in relation to women. We’ve got one sketch about an unemployed older person being visited by someone from the Department of Work and Pensions, which is funny, but it’s a bit darker as well.
D: How do the responses vary according to the venues you’ve performed in?
M: In some places we’ve felt that the audience didn’t like the ruder stuff. But sometimes when you think that you didn’t get such a good reaction, people come up to you afterwards and tell you how fantastic it was. People may have been smiling all the way through, but not really laughing out loud because they’ve felt a bit restrained.
We had a sketch about internet dating that felt a bit smutty the first time we did it. We think that was down to the running order, but we’ve taken it out for now.
F: I think it’s down to the performance. Quite a well-known comedy actress did one of our close-to-the-mark sketches and she appeared to be enjoying it so it became . . . not very nice . . . whereas the way Maggie does it makes the audience feel a little bit safer. They can laugh Maggie’s predicament as well as at what is actually going on.
D: So do you tread carefully in relation to people’s entrenched attitudes to older women’s sexuality?
M: We won’t have any truck with that! If you’re still having sex when you get to our age, you’ll be saying, ‘Yay, look, that’s being mentioned on stage’.
When we went to Edinburgh, we targeted the audiences of shows like Nicholas Parsons and Paul Merton, an older group (as there was so much on offer for young people) . Then we found that the people who really seemed to appreciate it were middle-aged couples. The women were not only saying ‘It’s great that you’re dealing with issues that are pertinent to us,’, but the husbands could also understand where their wives were coming from. Some of the older men were the biggest reactors in the audience. We don’t knock men at all. That would just be cheap laughs.
D: How has your approach evolved since you started?
M: On one hand, you’ll have an idea and then start writing. And then there’ll be something in particular that we’ll be laughing at, and then we’ll go ‘Oh, actually . . . ‘ We have to try to interpret, to think a bit more deeply about what we’re going to say, that we’re not saying something un-PC.
But that’s a difficult one: when you’ve got characters who need to say something that’s un-PC, they should be allowed to. You’re portraying that character, not saying that that is your viewpoint. You have to see how things go down with an audience; ask your friends and people in the business.
F: We are constantly honing our material, tweaking the dialogue to get better laughs, and to incorporate topical references.
M: And we change the running order quite a bit, which in itself is a challenge. Some sketches you can’t put back to back because there just isn’t time for the costume changes. We’ve got some sound sketches to help with the changes; one features Dame Jenni Murray.
D: Do you foresee the material changing as you get progress?
F: We’d like to branch out into radio and television. We’d like to tour it. We’re playing to small audiences but they really appreciate it, and we think more people should have access to this sort of show.
We don’t just deal with issues that affect our age, it’s also observations of the age we live in. There’s a whole wealth of material out there to be farmed.
D: Do online channels offer you more scope for that sort of thing?
F: Maybe. At the moment the impetus from the BBC is really using that as a way to keep young people interested. They tend not to watch real-time TV now. They’re using the internet, and watching DVDs and box-sets. If something works online it often transfers to BBC 3. We did actually get interviewed by a BBC 3 producer last year, but he was interested in an aspect of our show that we weren’t interested in pursuing.
F: But the only channels that seem to do sketch comedy are Channel 4 and the BBC. Sky does a lot of programmes for older women, but they tend to be more narrative, like Stella or Trollied. They say is that if someone turns on the television and there’s a sketch on and they don’t like it, they’ll turn off, whereas if it’s narrative they might listen a bit longer and get sucked in.
The BBC is a publicly funded organisation so we should be equally represented there. But where is the sketch comedy for us? There are some sitcoms that appeal maybe across the board. Bonkers came the nearest, though I could relate more to Pat and Cabbage. That didn’t really work with the audience, apparently and they decided not to commission a second series. It’s a shame when that happens because they go ’Well, no one wants to see comedy with older women in it.’ A lot of the stuff that young men have done has been rubbish at the beginning, but they’ve made another series and let it run its course until it worked. Jennifer Saunders said the BBC did this with French and Saunders.
D: Who are your influences? You’ve mentioned French and Saunders.
M: Well, we’re older than French and Saunders so our influences go back further: Beryl Reid, Dora Bryan, Lucille Ball, and then Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Dick Emery, Stanley Baxter. Some of French and Saunders I didn’t used to find funny, actually. A lot of it was, but a lot of it I found a bit lazy, to be honest. They might actually admit that sometimes they were bereft of ideas and came up with something because they had a deadline. There was Ab Fab — that was women behaving badly and they were brilliant.
We like things with intelligent writing, like the Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer series, As Time Goes By, and One Foot in the Grave. If you had to compare us, we are more Wood and Walters.
F: We’ve got ideas for sitcoms, but when you’re working on them, you do feel contrivance coming in. Sketches feel more organic — you’re not having to set up a car crash, or several strands that meet. It’s compact and linear.
M: It’s easier — that’s what she’s trying to say.
F: But we keep having to work through them to find a natural ending.
M: We work hard on our endings because so often you see sketches that end limply, so we try to make the pay-off as good as what’s gone before.
D: Are sketches easier when there’s just the two of you? Do you need a certain level of support to sustain a sitcom?
F: You do, actually. I think one of the reasons Miranda Hart isn’t writing any more is because the pressure on her to write a whole series was huge. She could have brought in other writers, but it would have changed her particular thing. I’m sure there are loads of writers who’ve had ideas about things that she could do. In fact someone I know knows her, and I sent one of my ideas over, only I never got a reply . . . because I’m sure she’s probably inundated.
D: What is your method of collaboration?
F: We tend to start writing on our own, or if Maggie’s particularly interested in something, or if I am, we’d say, ‘Well, you go and start on that, and I’ll go and start on mine.
M: For example, I’ve never had kids, and we want a sketch about a mother and a teenage daughter, but I wouldn’t feel confident in writing that.
F: Well, I keep thinking about it as two songs: one’s a rap song and one’s something else. But I need to sit down and think whether that will work. It might just be a kind of sketch. Or they might swap songs. And then you’ll notice something relevant to it.
M: Yes, we’ll be eating somewhere and I’ll observe a teenager, so you might say, ‘Well that’s where we could get that in.’
F: But then we usually finish the sketches off together. Because you’re bouncing off each other then. We’re not very good at being motivated on our own, so it doesn’t take off until we’re back together . . .
D: Is the Canal Café Theatre a new departure for you?
F: Yes. We’ve tended just to do festivals. It can be a bit intimidating doing something in London because Londoners like to think they’re much more sophisticated than everybody else, but our opinion is that the reaction we’ve had from the audience is the most important thing. What I’d say to London audiences is, don’t be patronising. And, well, we think we’re funny and people ought to come and see our show because audiences who have done appreciate it and there is nothing else like it out there.
Find out more about Flip and Maggie