The Cinema Museum, London

Terry Sanderson talks about his new show Funny Women

December 2012 · News

Phyllis Diller

Terry Sanderson’s new compilation show at the Cinema Museum on Thursday 20 December takes an affectionate and hilarious look at the history and development of female comedy over the past sixty years. Funny Women – Female Comedians from Yesterday and Today includes generous clips of some of the funniest women who ever entertained an audience.

Terry writes: “It hasn’t been easy whittling down such a wealth of great material to only two hours. Time restraints mean that, frustratingly, some superb comedy has ended up on the cutting room floor. I’ve included not only stand-ups like Jo Brand and Zoe Lyons, but actresses who specialised in comic roles in film and on TV, as well as sketch specialists like Catherine Tate.

The show starts with Mae West in a Hollywood Wild West pastiche. While hilariously seducing WC Fields she also single-handedly saves the train they are travelling on from an Indian attack.

From a similar era we have the unlikely figure of Gracie Fields involved in a fantastic slapstick routine. In this clip, Our Gracie (as she was affectionately known) gives us some top-notch clowning as she finds herself forced into performing an apache dance to get a part in a show. Gracie Fields was one of the most popular artistes of her time, churning out wildly successful films and becoming one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. Her career stretched well over sixty years.

Similarly, Lucille Ball (and what kind of tribute to female comedy would it be that didn’t include her?) is in fine form in this excerpt from I Love Lucy as she auditions for an advertisement for a vitamin tonic – unaware that it contains 23% alcohol. It’s a demonstration of Ball’s perfectly pitched timing as the whole thing slides into drunken chaos.

Over decades of touring the music halls, Hylda Baker developed a persona that was instantly recognisable. Here was a diminutive figure bristling with a whole raft of hilarious mannerisms and verbal tics which she later put to good use in a popular string of TV sitcoms. Baker is one of a fine line of Lancashire eccentric comedians on the end of which we find Victoria Wood and Julie Walters.

Joyce Grenfell was, in her heyday, one of the most popular voices on radio and developed a series of monologues that were both funny and insightful. Here we’ll see the famous classroom sketch, with its immortal line “George… don’t do that!”

Irene Handl and Patricia Hayes were familiar faces in British comedy for many decades. They both made solid careers as foils for the likes of Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Arthur Haynes and Benny Hill. Although Irene Handl didn’t start her theatrical career until she was forty, she landed cameo roles in dozens of films. It seemed at one point that no British comedy could be made during the fifties and sixties without Handl making an appearance. Whether it was as Tony Hancock’s awful landlady Mrs Cravatt in The Rebel, or Mrs Kite, the long-suffering wife of Peter Sellers in I’m Alright Jack, she always made the most of her brief appearances. Likewise, Patricia Hayes was never out of work in TV and radio, always dependable for comic support. She also won a BAFTA for her role in the TV play Edna, the Inebriate Woman. When, towards the end of their careers, the two of them appeared in an episode of the BBC’s In Sickness and in Health, they had honed their scene-stealing techniques to perfection. Even the loud-mouthed Alf Garnett stands no chance against them – and at last a man becomes their stooge. In the clip I’ve included, which is probably my favourite of the whole show, they play barmy sisters Gwyneth and Min who wring every scrap of laughter from the brilliant Johnny Speight script.

Also in the show we’ve got Patricia Routledge in her pre-Hyacinth Bucket days, dishing out idiosyncratic advice to the lovelorn.

Women-centred sitcoms are also included – Absolutely Fabulous and The Golden Girls among them.

Of the standups, we start with a woman who it is acknowledged opened the door for many others to follow. Phyllis Diller was a quick-fire gag-mistress who learned her craft while working with Bob Hope. When she died in August this year at the age of 90, a whole parade of modern stand-ups, from Joan Rivers to Roseanne Barr, acknowledged a debt to Diller’s pioneering career. 

Joan Rivers, of course, took the art of female stand-up to another level, and looking at her perform today one can see the very mixed reactions she elicits from her audience. Some of them are paralytic with laughter, others have their chins on the ground, open mouthed in disbelief at what this woman is capable of saying and how far she is prepared to go.

Ellen de Generes, on the other hand, was making it big as a stand-up in the USA and felt the time was right to tell her audience she was a lesbian. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready for this news and her career crashed. But when the dust settled, she made a barnstorming comeback and proved better than ever. In this clip we see her expertly working her audience with an enviably clever routine. The days, of course, she’s a much-loved fixture on US television.”

These are just a few of the fabulous females who will entertain us on 20 December. The show will be introduced by comedian Kate Smurthwaite and is a Cine Sisters event.