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Funny, Her Her

elderly couple laughing

[Photo by Jim Epler]

Recent research has shown that women over 35 make up the majority of UK cinema audiences, so why do so many films still seem to be catering to teenage boys? Martin Vovk tries to find out more.

Part of the problem is the lack of women involved at the top end of film-making. Depressingly, it’s still the case that only 12% of screenwriters and 7% of directors are female.

Rachel Milward’s Birds Eye View Festival has spent the best part of the decade helping to redress the balance, by showcasing the best female-led films from around the world. This year they focused on women in comedy, with showcases demonstrating the role they played in the origins of film comedy.

Female Comedians in Film

Now Birds Eye View have teamed up with the groundbreaking studio WarpX to create Last Laugh, an initiative aimed at getting our best female comic talent together and making great British films.

Last Laugh brought together 13 of the country’s most talented funny women for a weekend retreat in “the wilds of Wiltshire”, focusing on creating new comedy alliances and sparking ideas that will then be pitched to WarpX for inclusion on its development slate.

The participants included actors like Sally Philips (Smack The Pony), writers on shows like Green Wing and Tittybangbang and stand-out stand-ups like Lucy Porter and Francesca Martinez.

Caroline Cooper Charles from WarpX gave me an insight into how it worked and what they hoped to achieve:

“There were over 170 applications for Last Laugh, so it’s clear that there’s a shortage of opportunities, not of talent.”

WarpX meets Birds Eye View

Caroline says that the union with Birds Eye View seemed like a natural fit:

“We’d already been thinking about doing something that was about more than just ideas, that was about giving them a genuine opportunity to get those ideas into production, which at the end of the day is what everybody wants.”

The participants were deliberately chosen from diverse comic backgrounds. The uniting factor, though, was that they had to be funny:

“I wanted to avoid it being people from a conventional writing background wanting to move into comedy,” says Caroline. “I do actually think there’s a funny gene! If you’re funny, and don’t know how to write, we can help you. But if you’re a writer and you’re not funny, you’re never going to be funny.”

The weekend saw the participants drawing on each other’s creativity and benefiting from the expertise of some of those already succeeding in film, including Gurindha Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) and Debbie Isett (Confetti).

“It’s a networking thing,” according to Caroline, “All the women selected were very accomplished in their own field. And they all have their own contacts: stand-ups know stand-ups, TV writers know other TV writers. But I think they all feel a bit isolated from a ‘film world’ they don’t feel they have access to.”

Comedy Writing

It’s the new creative environment that really gets the participants excited. Known largely for turning up and stealing the show in ‘Boys Club’ sitcoms like Peep Show and the IT Crowd, actor/writer Catherine Shepherd (Peep Show, Harry and Paul) sees Last Laugh as an opportunity to break out and focus on her writing:

“I think the comedy scene can be quite a macho environment,” she says. “Particularly in writing meetings, women tend to disappear into the shadows, and you become the girl who rolls her eyes at the script… I think all actresses become really good at rolling their eyes, at the crazy boys. Before you know it, you start playing that role all the time, as an actress. I think it’s really interesting to be somewhere where none of us are there to play Blonde Girl Number 4! ”

Women in Film

Timing is everything in film, and writer Oriane Messina (Green Wing) reckons that there’s never been a better time for women to break through the celluloid ceiling:

“The Sex and the City film has made film studios sit up and think a bit,” says Oriane. “They were wary that nobody would want to go and see desperate forty-year-olds sort of… hanging around! But actually people do want to see that.”

“I think it’s reminded them that it’s not just about doing a tokenistic film to please the poor women, but that it can be a commercial thing too,” Catherine agrees. “It feels like the door’s opening a bit…”

Yet Oriane also acknowledges that the UK comedy scene still has a bit of catching up to do:

“I think in America it’s a lot more acceptable to be a funny woman than in the UK in a lot of ways. People are more open to it. Like Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman – they’re big stars in America. And I know we’ve got Catherine Tate over here, but there almost seems to be a kind of missing generation for people to relate to. When people want to describe you, it’s still as the next French and Saunders or Victoria Wood.”

Returning to Caroline from WarpX for a moment, it’s clear that putting British female comedians on the map is exactly what Last Laugh is all about:

“I don’t want them to come out of the weekend only thinking ‘oh, I might get a film made.’ It’s about creating something more exciting than that. It would be great if they left thinking ‘yeah, we’re the future of British Comedy!'”

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