Tuesday 14 August 2012 saw the first night of the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Trailblazers: Queens of TV Comedy season as part of the 2012 Festival. The first event, entitled Storytellers & Cabaret Stars focuses on some of the leading ladies of comedies old and new, and their ability to weave deft narratives through characters and create comedy gold. The main focus was on two comedy greats, Joyce Grenfell and Victoria Wood, but also looking at other notable ladies like Sheila Hancock, Sheila Steafal, and Eleanor Bron.
The BFI’s approach to showcasing these talents in particular groupings is an interesting one. Throughout this particular programme of clips you start to gain an appreciation for the fantastic ability these comediennes had to completely embody a character and effortlessly populate an extensive and engrossing narrative either through monologue, like Grenfell, or song, like Wood.
What was particularly interesting was that not all the clips were meant to be funny, as several examples displayed prowess in storytelling where the comic element is less apparent or not at all present. Grenfell’s monologue about a woman giving an interview to the biographer of her philandering concert pianist late husband is absolutely heart-breaking and impossible to tear yourself away from. Whilst Hancock’s ‘Musings of an Amorous Waitress’, though cheeky and amusing, embodies a much darker pathos than expected, executed with the panache and timing that only she can deliver.
One of the few pitfalls of the programme is that some of the clips are so funny that you almost forget that there is an underlying theme, making moments like Grenfell’s dark portrait jolt, as you expect laughs rather than melancholy. Especially, with such side-splitting gems as Beryl Reid’s portrayal of an air hostess, or Bon’s bizarre yet hilarious ’animal magnetism’.
But perhaps what’s most striking is just how little difference there is in the quality of these acts despite the considerable timespan between some of them and the leaps and bounds that women in comedy have made over the decades. It’s a great example that women have always been funny and illustrates just why female comics have so prevalently broken into a genre that was then very dominated, and perhaps still a little so nowadays, by men.
It will be interesting to see if the season can keep up or even better its great start, especially with the untried format of having vintage clips link live comedic performances at the Hackney Empire. Either way, we’ll be sure to be laughing as certain as we’ll be there.
Trailblazers: Queens of TV Comedy season runs at the British Film Institute, London, SE1 8XT and the Hackney Empire, London, E8 1EJ at various dates through 28 August 2012. For more information and to book tickets visit www.bfi.org.uk.
Featured Image: Joyce Grenfell. Photograph: Courtesy of Rex Features.