The seeds of Comedy 50:50 started in February 2018 when I attended ERA 50:50 at BAFTA. ERA stands for Equal Representation for Actresses and their mission statement is:
‘ERA 50:50 wants to see women represented on screen, in television and theatre in equal numbers to men. Currently women are systemically under represented. This does not accurately represent our society. It distorts our view of the real world. Equal representation for Actresses, for Audiences, for All. Equal means 50:50.’
It was an evening of uncomfortable facts and figures highlighting the level of female under-representation across the performing arts. But I think that for me the one speaker who really stood out was Miles Jupp.
Miles described how, when he was asked to host the News Quiz on R4, he made it one of the terms and conditions of his contract that the panels would always be made up of an equal number of male and female guests. At first he was told that ‘it will be too difficult’, ‘it’s unachievable’, ‘the quality of the show will suffer’. But he insisted and every episode ever since has been absolutely 50:50.
I’ll admit I heard that and I thought, ‘oh shit.’ So I went into work the next day and did a bit of an audit of my comedy entertainment shows and was mightily relieved to see that the producers I was working with were way ahead of me, and the results for on screen equal representation were really good. We were on track with 50:50 representation.
Then I looked at the writing teams on comedy entertainment shows and scripted commissions and I felt less good. An awful lot of my comedy entertainment shows are made up of all male writing teams. In scripted commissions there has been a significant lack of shows written by women or with women on the writing teams.
I next took a look at script submissions and the picture was that for every five scripts sent to me written by a man, I’d get one script written by a woman.
It would have been quite easy to say, ‘I can’t commission something I’ve not been pitched’ but that’s a defensive response rather than a pro-active one, and frankly if that were a main character in a script I’d be complaining that they weren’t driving the action. And as the comedy commissioner at ITV, it’s up to me to drive the narrative.
At that point I decided I needed to have better conversations with producers. When setting out my ‘commissioning wish list’ I placed emphasis on seeking female writers, and female led scripts – particularly for ITV2. But this had little effect and to be honest I’ve been doing that since I arrived at ITV five years ago and I haven’t seen results. Which is not to lay the blame with producers. But more on that in a moment.
Then I had a conversation with a female writer which really changed my thinking. She talked passionately about how hard it is for female writers to be commissioned, and how it is down to commissioners to force a change. So I started to look into why I’m not being pitched more scripts by female writers, why female writers aren’t on writing teams, why there is a block in the development pipeline and what can be done to address it.
I talked to loads and loads of people about it. To writers, producers, agents, performers, to the RTS, to ERA 50:50, to Funny Women, to The Writers’ Guild. There were many responses, many opinions, many personal stories and a lot of anger. Some views were conflicting, some slightly unrealistic, some impractical. But mostly the feedback was thought provoking, and inspiring so I’ve drawn on the most commonly shared observations and tried to create some practical solutions to implement change.
These are some of my findings:
Female writers aren’t being hired onto writing teams because they can’t compete with male writers who commonly have accumulated more writing credits. This reflects the long standing culture of comedy being male dominated.
Female writers find it hard to find producers to work with who ‘get’ their voice and can thereby develop a script to its full potential. This reflects the difficulty of broadening personal networks and producer/writer relationships – partly relating back to the problem of not gaining enough writing credits to even get that first meeting.
Female writers often don’t thrive as the lone female voice in the writing room. Too often the writing room is not sensitively run, it can be aggressive and slightly bullying. There can all too often be a sense of tokenism towards the lone female. Or the dominant perception is that the female is there purely so the production can hit quotas. Many women don’t want to be or don’t enjoy being that lone female.
Producers often don’t know how to expand their circle of female writers with whom they work and many feel frustrated that they know only a small pool of talent upon which to draw.
In response I launched Comedy 50:50 with these actions:
• I changed the terms of the Social Partnership Agreement. When a show is commissioned or recommissioned, the Social Partnership form is issued with the production contract. From today, this is an additional term of the commission:
Writing teams must aim towards 50:50 gender representation. The production will require commissioner sign off on the make up of the writing teams.
In returning scripted commissions the production must demonstrate best endeavours to include female writers in the writing room.
Now that last point could be achieved by commissioning a couple of episodes of a returning series from female writers. It’s not unusual to farm out episodes to hit writing deadlines. A lot of productions hire additional writers for gag passes, or hire writers for additional material. There are many ways of bringing female writers onto a production that are part of the existing production process.
In all honesty I don’t know how to change the culture in writing rooms. Incidentally I know plenty of male writers who want no part of those writing rooms because of the behaviour that is allowed to play out. I think the change has to be producer led. But I hope that drawing attention to it might start producers thinking about how to address it. I know that Merman has an all female writing room, and on productions where writing teams are mixed they have a policy of a minimum of two women on the team.
• We have created an independent database of female writers for producers to access. This consists of female writers with a minimum of one professional writing credit, whether from radio, television, theatre, film, short film or podcast. This database is free for producers to access, it is not ITV endorsed and it is for use no matter which broadcaster has commissioned the show that the producers might be hiring writers for.
• Regular, focussed networking events. We hold regular events where there is enforced networking. Producers have three ten minute introductory meetings with writers. This is the first step to broadening contacts. For more natural networking at our events, everyone wears a colour coded name badge (one colour for writers, one for producers, one for agents) so that at a glance it is possible to have meaningful conversations.
* We will be extending networking opportunities to unrepresented writers and agents.
• Mentoring. From speaking to some writers and agents, there is a desire to create more practical mentoring. Many experienced writers have noticed that the route by which they gained experience and a bit of nurturing is not happening so readily now. They are keen to continue this tradition. There will be more details on this soon.
• Shadowing placements. We encourage producers to offer opportunities for writers to sit in on writing rooms, table reads and notes sessions.
* Writers’ forums / support groups
* Talks and workshops by industry professionals
I’m aware that there’s a lot more that could be done, we haven’t even mentioned female directors or crew, but to start with I’m keeping the focus small, and the solutions practical, so that we can effect change quickly. But I hope this endeavour will grow.
Going back to Miles Jupp, I spoke to him recently about how it had planned out on the News Quiz in terms of guest bookings. He said that they have never had a problem. If a female guest drops out at the last minute there is never a question of replacing her with a male guest. This is now the accepted booking culture on the show and it is so natural and so unquestioned, it is simply normal practice.
Our aim is that one day 50:50 will be normal practice.