At 11pm on a Tuesday night just before Christmas last year, Radio 4 broadcast a topical comedy panel show. There were debates, a couple of games and lots of jokes, all presided over by a sardonic host. Nothing unusual there, except for the fact that all of the voices – bar one “token male” – were female.
Now Where’s the F in News returns for a full series on primetime Radio 4. This time there will be no token male, all five guests will be female, as will the host, Jo Bunting.
The fact that Bunting, a forthright and experienced broadcaster, has been a producer on Have I Got News for You for the past 13 years adds a certain frisson. The BBC’s flagship comedy panel show has come under scrutiny for its gender balance, most recently when team captain Ian Hislop declared in an interview with Radio Times earlier this year that women were “too modest” to host the show.
“This subject is an absolute bloody minefield,” says Bunting cheerily when we meet in west London on a hot June afternoon. Then she storms right into it, explaining that what drove her to create Where’s the F in News (“I’ve already had one complaint about the title. From a man”) were the headlines she was seeing day in day out. “I felt that the news had become very noticeably dominated by men. We’d just started the Brexit negotiations, we had Trump with his alpha-male administration, slavering to restrict women’s rights. It was slightly sinister.”
So she set about inventing a format that would “bring women’s voices to the fore”. It isn’t, she says, a female News Quiz, although it airs in the same slot. And neither is it Woman’s Hour with jokes. “If you see all women [on a programme], there’s an assumption – ‘Ooh, are they going to talk about diets and mascara?’ If you see an all-male panel, you don’t expect them to just be talking about beer and football, do you? I don’t want it to feel alienating for men.”
It’s an exercise in redressing the balance, then. She points out that most of the comedians “sitting behind a desk, telling me stuff” are men: Frankie Boyle, Matt Forde, Nish Kumar, Adam Hills.
“I don’t want to hear John Oliver telling me what he thinks about Harvey Weinstein. I want to hear an authoritative woman talking about it.” The pilot episode of Where’s the F in News featured jokes about courgette cake, Brexit and man flu, a discussion about Meghan Markle, a Star Wars challenge and a Weinstein-themed round where guests were asked to give tips to “confused sexual predators”.
“I don’t want it to be lovely, nice and cuddly,” says Bunting. “I want it to have an edge. I don’t want it just to be chat. I’m not overly keen on banter. Who is? Well, men.”
Last month Live at the Apollo aired two “All Girls” episodes. And last Friday (13 July) Eight out of Ten Cats Does Countdown kicked off their 16th series with an all-female episode, with Katherine Ryan replacing Jimmy Carr as host. Will we ever see an all-female HIGNFY?
“Well it would be difficult because we’ve got Ian and Paul,” replies Bunting. “It’s their show. They’re both men. We’ve got three slots, two guests and a host, so if you see one woman [panellist], you’ve got 50 per cent there. It’s not one out of five – that’s dishonest. Then you get to the host and our aim is half-and-half. And we’re nearly there.”
Is it, as Hislop asserted, difficult to find female hosts? “People say, ‘It’s not difficult, I’ll do it!’ Like Anna Soubry. We’ve asked Anna Soubry to be a guest endless times. We’ve asked every female politician endless times.” More often than not, they will only agree to go on as a host, Bunting says. “Ego, isn’t it? And the other thing is money, I suppose. You get paid a lot more. They’re not stupid and they’re quite greedy.”
Being a host requires a special blend of star power and smarts, Bunting adds. “I want the lights to come up and you see who the guest host is and you think, ‘Oooh, it’s Jo Brand, or Alexander Armstrong.’ I don’t think people are going to say, ‘Ooh, brilliant it’s Anna Soubry.’ It’s not good enough for our viewers.”
That said, she admits that the show “needs to up its game a bit”. Off-screen, she’s the only female producer and the writing team is “generally male. It’s nothing to do with gender – it’s a very difficult thing to do. Our standards are high. We’re not there to be a training school.”
Bunting always knew that she wanted to work in broadcasting. Her first job was at Radio Cambridgeshire followed by a stint in BBC Radio Light Entertainment and Anglia television. She was also – “the most bizarre part” – a panellist on ITV’s Loose Women for a couple of years.
Now in her 50s, she feels like a rarity. “I never see any women my age in television comedy.” She ended up in comedy by accident and is addicted to watching true-crime documentaries. “There’s a link because there are quite a lot of pretty much psychopathic people in comedy.”
Does she agree with the BBC’s Controller of Comedy, Shane Allen, that the age of the white Oxbridge male in comedy is over? “No, not really, because I really like Ian Hislop and he’s a white Oxbridge male. Let’s just look at people as individuals.
“I have had a couple of comments, framed as jokes – ‘You’re going to get your pilot commissioned Jo, it’s all women.’ What’s funny is that the men saying it have got absolutely no awareness that for the past 30 years, they’ve had all of those advantages. ‘We’re being over-run by women!’ No you’re not. Just because Sandi Toksvig is hosting QI and they’re commissioning a couple of female-dominated shows, don’t fall for that. We need to keep pushing.”
Where’s the F in News airs on Friday 20th July at 6.30pm on Radio 4