I never got to see Linda Smith at the Carbuncle — I think she cancelled due to ill health a couple of times — and that is a matter of much regret. I have many happy memories of her on The News Quiz and even Have I Got News For You?, and I have often quoted her line about denying someone the oxygen of oxygen. Warren Lakin, her partner, donated her papers to the University of Kent, where Dr Oliver Double was setting up the British Stand Up Archive. Presumably at the same time, they decided to institute an annual Linda Smith memory lecture, to be delivered by a comedian.
I’ve not had a good record of seeing these — it’s often clashed with something else. I saw Mark Thomas, where someone noisily and drunkenly walked out because he wasn’t just sharing memories about the times he spent with Smith.
This year it was Dusan Calman, again probably best known to me through her appearances on The News Quiz, and someone who didn’t actually meet Smith.
I hadn’t realised she was the daughter of Sir Kenneth Calman, former Chief Medical Officer of Scotland and then Rnfland and Wales. I think I knew she trained as a lawyer, but found it difficult as a lesbian in terms of fitting it with the culture of the profession. This is pretty depressing in the twenty-first century. She found a way out in stand up comedy, writing various ten minute slots as she tried to make it work. Eventually, another comedian told her to use the same material, but to improve it each time. This makes sense, of course, but you might not realise it was a tactic.
One of the elements in the Linda Smith collected scripts is memories from other comedians and one of the contributors — I think Holly Walsh — noted that whilst she knew Smith, they never performed on the same bill. Aside from specific feminist or all-women nights, there was an unwritten rule of only having a single woman at a comedy gig.
Because, yadda yadda, women aren’t funny.
Calman has found this to be the case still — which makes Radio 4 the dangerous exception, especially as programmes like The News Quiz may choose to have two women (and of course Sandi Toksvig had been the host). This can happen elsewhere, but is exceeding rare on HIGNFY or QI. At the same time, much as I love it, The Now Show is probably as much of a boy’s club as the rather infamous bear pit of Mock the Week. Calman just feels her humour isn’t suited to that format, but I fear the feeling is mutual. She bemoans the inability to be able to deliver a political monologue as a woman on TV in the same way as a man would. Perhaps she could do it as an outside broadcast? Perhaps it could be a conversation with the host? They will just about tolerate her as a female comedian, but they’d rather she wasn’t a woman and certainly not as someone discussing women’s issues. The producers patronise us with what they think we will accept.
Her former agent was repeatedly pushing her into material that could be cut into ten minute chunks for Live at the Apollo and Michael McIntyre’s Road Show, but she felt that that was not the way her talents lie. Bravo.
She also noted the television travelogue format, which might send two males somewhere (and I suspect sometimes a man and a woman), but has yet to feature two women. (Exception: Two Fat Ladies, but how long ago was that?)
Calman continues to do children’s TV (and a daytime quiz show), because she rightly sees it is important to be a visible woman on TV. Not just as a visible lesbian, nor as a visible, indeed audible, non-Londoner, but also as a role model, especially for girls. She laments a sense she gets of a lack of ambition in the part of young women, to aspire to something. It seems to be something we’ve lost, as it is claimed we no longer need feminism.
(Calman was asked about The Woman’s Party, which Toksvig had left The News Quiz to campaign for, but it was clear that this was not a cause she wanted to endorse — solutions have to encompass all sexes, clearly.)
It is depressing to note that, eleven years after Smith’s untimely death, we seem no more open to equal opportunities for comedy — and I confess that when I go to Edinburgh, I have to make a special effort to make sure I see female stand ups. How have I missed Bridget Christie in the radio so many times?
Must do better.