This week ITV head of comedy Saskia Schuster announced that she would no longer commission comedy shows that have only men on their writing team. She announced this and what she said was reported only nearly accurately. If you look at the inevitable criticisms she's had since saying this, you tend to find that they are really criticisms of what people said she said.
The truth is that if you are the new Galton and Simpson, don't worry about it. You're not going to have to become Galton and Simpson and Somebody Else.
Whereas, if you're producing a comedy that has a team of writers and every single one of them is male, well, what in the world are you thinking anyway? Comedy can be safe and predictable if you want, but it can also be challenging and difficult and brilliant. You're not going to get a lot of challenging different views out of a group of writers who are all male or all from one area, all of one age, all of one anything.
It is wrong that a broadcaster should impose any requirement beyond whether the script is good or not, but it's a wrong I agree with because it's needed. I am thinking of women writers, I am thinking of writers, but I'm also being selfish as a viewer.
We aren't getting enough women's voices in comedy, actually I don't think we're getting enough different voices of any kind, and it's absolutely no coincidence whatsoever that comedy is feeling stale. That one quietly sublime sitcom like Mum can stand out like a trumpet because so much else is just flat and samey.
If this is what it takes to get better comedy, good on ITV's Schuster for doing it.
Years and years ago, I used to go to television press events and while I've not said it before, I'll admit now that I didn't like the ITV ones. There were plenty of BBC people I didn't like, plenty of ITV ones I did and certainly the shows were as good at each event, but the ITV sessions themselves felt uncomfortable to me. I was a bit of an outsider, just popping in to the odd event when most of the attendees were long-time regulars, but still, it felt like a boys' club and I was excluded.
I've not worked in a writing team where we were all in the same room together or all on precisely the same project, but I was minded of this experience when Schuster described why she was doing this. “Too often the writing room is not sensitively run,” she said at the Diverse Festival. “It can be aggressive and slightly bullying.”
Mind you, I've also been in computer press events where it felt like port and cigars would be passed around any minute. And that the only reason the women wouldn't be expected to go to another room was that there were no women present. I'd say that you can't believe the smugness of technology men who know they're right, but I suspect you can.
Anyway. We've had decades where shows have not included women and if it takes ITV to say oi, cop on to yourself, well done Schuster.
Saskia Schuster is speaking at the Writers' Guild AGM on Monday, where I'm standing as deputy chair. Wait. There's something funny about standing as a chair. I'll think about that. But as well as looking forward to hearing her, I also think it's right that she's there. I'd think that anyway because of her job, but this announcement and her forming the Comedy 50:50 initiative last year makes it more so.
The Writers' Guild is behind the campaign Equality Writes and over the last year, we've seen many moves like Schuster's which have the same aims. We've still a long way to go, but it's going in the right direction.
If you think this is a good time to be a woman writer, I hope you're right. If you think this is a good time for better comedy, I'm with you all the way.