Five Great British TV Comediennes

Julia Davis and Ruth Jones in Nighty Night

To make a list like this in good conscience – it’s to celebrate the launch of Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show on BBC America this Saturday night (March 3rd) –  you’ve got to be fairly sure you’re not suggesting that these are women who are so good at comedy, they could almost compete with their male counterparts. That’s not just condescending and rude, it undersells the funny in their work by a considerable margin.

You’ve also got to be careful not to draw any kind of parallel between the actual work they do and their gender, as if all women think the same way. Victoria Wood couldn’t have written Nighty Night any more than Ricky Gervais could have, nor could Julia Davis or Steve Coogan come up with The Royle Family. And our final example wrote her biggest hit with a man! Go figure!

So, all I can really say is that this is a list of five of Britain’s greatest female comedy exports. By which I mean they are female, and they are great comedy exports, not that they export great female comedy. That’s not a thing:

(Note: we already did French and Saunders in Five Great British Comedy Double Acts, so don’t get narky.)

Victoria Wood
No one ever knew there was a gap that needed filling between Alan Bennett and Morrissey before Victoria Wood came along. This is possibly because Morrissey hadn’t arrived yet either, but that doesn’t mean the lineage isn’t there. Victoria’s ear for dialogue is her secret weapon, and one that sees her equally at home constructing comic monologues from overheard speech at the bus queue, writing a sitcom (Dinnerladies) in which everyone brings a little too much of themselves to work, or writing pin-sharp spoofs of bad TV (the ever-giving wonder of Acorn Antiques, the sketch that became a West End musical).

Here’s her pitch-perfect spoof on Brief Encounter. Don’t you just long for a world in which ANYONE still talks like this?

Caroline Aherne
To anyone who has never seen it, this clip possibly does not explain the full glory of The Royle Family – Caroline’s towering gift to British comedy, on a par with The Office in achievement – although almost every episode does continue in this vein from start to finish and only really changes when something moving happens. The gags are there, but they’re hidden. They’re in the little selfishnesses that families tend to settle into over time, and the tiny acts of kindness, and the conversations about nothing in particular, and the lies we all tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re doing.

Catherine Tate
In Britain, the arrival of Catherine in the TARDIS in 2006 was the bringing together of two mighty brands. Doctor Who we all know about, but The Catherine Tate Show was a huge hit at the time. Her characters, from the gloriously judgemental and sweary Nan to the unimpressable schoolgirl Lauren, became such a national obsession that she even got to perform a sketch with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Naturally, being a consummate politician he nicked all of her catchphrases.

Here she is, at the height of her Doctor Who experience, revisiting an old friend with a new friend:

Julia Davis
For all that comedy likes to flirt with darkness, no one has ever quite mastered the queasy art of being a black-hearted rogue with quite the disgusting glee that Julia did in Nighty Night. The character of Jill is vile, everyone can see that she’s a monster, she has no redeeming features whatsoever, least of all the charm to keep an audience watching a comedy show, and yet she continues to blaze a trail of destruction through the lives of everyone she meets. It’s the closest TV comedy comes to the act of watching a snake stalk a rodent, catch it, and eat it. And all in a delightful Somerset burr.

If you can, try and find Lizzie and Sarah, the one-off comedy Julia wrote with Jessica Hynes (who really should be on this list, I don’t know what I was thinking). It wasn’t commissioned for a full series, although it should really have been. Both women playing a fairly bleak situation with astonishing pathos, and then astonishing voilence. It’s the kind of comedy that makes you a bit scared, and a bit sad, but secretly thrilled.

Ruth Jones
As detailed above, it’s a nonsense singling out Ruth’s achievement in the creation of Gavin & Stacey, at the expense of James Corden’s. They did it together, although, credit where it’s due, Ruth’s Nessa is a true grotesque, compared to James’s more everymannish (but still very petulant) Smithy. Nessa’s backstory alone is legendary. She’s had relationships with former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Russell Brand and Dodi Al Fayed. She was one of the original members of All Saints. She shamelessly rigs the slot machines at work so they pay out to her. She can beat you up without breaking a sweat and she doesn’t share curry. And by the end of three series and a Christmas special, we still don’t really know her any better than we did at the start.

“At the end of the day….when all’s said an done….d’ya know what I mean?”

Who else should be on this list? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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