Having one woman on panel shows as a one-off guest achieves nothing says Bury St Edmunds’ comedian Kate Smurthwaite

Comedian and political activist Kate Smurthwaite. She says it's 2016 and theres absolutely no reaso

Comedian and political activist Kate Smurthwaite. She says it's 2016 and theres absolutely no reason why panel shows cant have 50% women on all the time. Photo: Jon Cartwright - Credit: Archant

Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to Bury St Edmunds raised stand-up, writer and political activist Kate Smurthwaite about the lack of female comedians on TV and the power of laughter.

Smurthwaite says its scientifically shown jokes affect peoples opinions more than facts, debate, s

Smurthwaite says its scientifically shown jokes affect peoples opinions more than facts, debate, statements, etc. Its all the more reason why dismissing sexist remarks as "just a joke" is dangerous and misleading. Photo: Bronac McNeill - Credit: Archant

Kate Smurthwaite thinks former BBC director of TV Danny Cohen’s suggestion of having “at least one” woman per panel show was a highly progressive idea - if he’d had it in the 1950s.

“This is 2016. There’s absolutely no reason why panel shows can’t have 50% women on all the time. There are loads of great female comedians. In particular, we need to ensure half the shows are presented by women and half the team captains are women. Having one woman on as a one-off guest achieves nothing.

“One-off guests are paid less and have less opportunity to learn the format and develop a rapport with the regulars. Of course the presenter is always telling the guests what to do so it becomes a man ordering a woman about. Plus, when you have just one woman on, she becomes the representative of all womankind rather than just a guest, free to muck about.”

Known for her direct opinions and campaigning work, she’s often guested on news and debate shows ranging from Question Time to BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show among others.

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She also writes for the likes of Cosmopolitan and the Guardian.

Appearing on panel shows isn’t her priority but she’d absolutely do them if asked.

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“I actually think it’s a bit weird I’m a comedian who can get on Question Time but not on Have I Got News For You. I’m an occasional writer for HIGNFY so they definitely know my number.

“I think it’s because women in comedy are expected to have ‘I’m a woman’ as their ‘thing’. So male comics are known as ‘political comics, ‘surreal comics’, ‘angry comics’, ‘quirky comics’, ‘camp comics’, etc but women are just defined as ‘female comics’. People often send me articles about Sarah Millican. I love Sarah but her work isn’t really related to mine at all. My work looks much more like Mark Thomas or John Oliver.

“Comedy shows put on so few women. Half the (ones) they do put on are pretty models/presenters, not actual comics. Also, I was on Question Time after a petition demanded I be put on. Maybe someone should start one about Have I Got News?”

Feminism is a bit of a media buzzword lately. I wonder if men, and some women, are confused what the term even means today?

Smurthwaite doesn’t know what it means to people. The dictionary definition is the campaign for women’s equality. “To be honest, I think most people do know that but there have always been sexists trying to paint feminists as part of some evil conspiracy. They obviously haven’t actually met any.”

She’s not shy about speaking her mind on everything from abortion and prostitution to atheism and banking. Given her previous life as an investment banker, I’m curious how she’d fix the latter. The first thing we should do, she says, is close the tax havens - where a third of the world’s money sits.

“The tax havens belong to a tiny group of countries... Places like the Channel Islands. We should step up and remove their tax exempt status. People say it will scare away business but what is the point of attracting businesses that then use our infrastructure, employ people educated in our schools, nursed in our hospitals and pay zero tax? We need to just stop.”

Smurthwaite is clearly a rule-breaker. “The only rules I’m breaking are the ones about women being smiley and passive and not expressing strong opinions. That’s not a rule I’m interested in sticking to. Nor even one I’m capable of keeping to be honest.”

Her forthright approach recently saw her fall foul of a direct action group which booked free tickets to her charity gig at Goldsmiths College in London, then didn’t turn up.

An anonymous Twitter user claiming to represent them said the stunt was a “peaceful protest” against her “abhorrent” views on transgender people, sex workers and Muslims. Claims ardent equal rights campaigner Smurthwaite denies.

Only six people turned up to see The Wrong Kind of Feminist, staged in aid of Refugee Action.

“There’s a Twitter account that has claimed ‘credit’ - depriving an important charity of much-needed funds. But when asked for the reasons they accuse me of all sorts of things but have refused to provide any evidence - they’re saying things like ‘you once spoke on a panel with someone whose views we find offensive’ and they’ve refused to talk to the media so ultimately we don’t know.”

Can comedy make a difference to anything in the long run?

“It’s scientifically shown jokes affect people’s opinions more than facts, debate, statements, etc. It’s all the more reason why dismissing sexist remarks as ‘just a joke’ is dangerous and misleading. I don’t think comedy has to make a point.

“I love things like slapstick and clowning that can be daft and puerile. But I think if you’re going to make a point about something on stage you should make it a good one.”

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