Mock the Week comedian Milton Jones has said the BBC is wrong to insist on a quota for female performers on comedy panel shows.
Jones, who has appeared on more than 20 editions of the BBC2 topical celebrity panel game, has re-opened the debate about female comedians by insisting that a formal policy is “counterproductive” and that change should come by stealth.
He told RadioTimes.com: “I think the same as anything, with race or gender. Once there’s a definite rule about something, it can be counterproductive. I think you have to leave the spirit of it open to those in charge, and then try to get in as many women as possible. I think if you make a rule about it then the good will breaks down.
“I think the next generation will be better. In the 1980s, comedy was all about being non-racist, non-sexist, but actually, it was so endemic in the culture that it’s taken more than a generation to come through.”
Jones, a born-again Christian known for his gently smart one-liner comedy, filmed an edition of Mock the Week this week for the current run which aired last night [Thursday] and said that he appeared alongside comedian Katherine Ryan who earned her place because of her talents and not because of the quota. But he added that the producers on the show now feel obligated to obey the rule even though not all women are drawn to its blokey atmosphere.
"I suppose the feeling is we have to do it," he said.
On Mock the Week, the programme most regularly cited for being male-dominated ever since it launched in 2005, Jones added: “That kind of competitive atmosphere, the way it’s set up, it’s seven people trying to get through a door for two, always. But there’s a certain amount of testosterone flying around in the air in terms of competition to get a word in, and it doesn’t suit everyone. I’m lucky in that I’ve got short bits, so if I’ve got a word, get in, chuck a grenade and get out quite quickly.”
Jones, who has made ten comedy series for Radio 4 including Another Case of Milton Jones and more recently Thanks A Lot, Milton Jones!, added that more women were coming through the comedy circuit.
“I think there are more women doing it now as it becomes more of a job and less of a stepping stone to something else. I think if you go on open mic nights and stuff like that, I think there are more women doing it, and also, with things like Britain’s Got Talent and all those shows, it’s more of a family thing to watch and less of a blokey thing.”
Jones was speaking about the announcement by BBC director of television Danny Cohen in February this year that “we’re not going to have panel shows on any more with no women on them” and his description of the current state of play as “unacceptable”.
The diktat has divided many in the comedy world.
Mock the Week anchor Dara O Briain told Radio Times soon after Cohen’s announcement that he was opposed to the rule: “I wouldn’t have announced it, is what I’d say. Because it means Katherine Ryan or Holly Walsh, who’ve been on millions of times, will suddenly look like the token woman. It would have been better if it had evolved without showing your workings, if you know what I mean. Legislating for a token woman isn’t much help.
“It’s remarkable that this amount of time is spent debating women on comedy shows rather than, say, Question Time,” he said.
Jones is due to embark on a nationwide standup tour beginning in February. For ticket details go to miltonjones.com. The first edition of the new series of Mock the Week aired on BBC2 last night with a repeat on Sunday