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TV review: Inside No.9 we find a glass ceiling

Christopher Hitchens famously argued that women aren't funny.

His theory was that men are unsightly creatures so have only their wits to rely on. Women use fashion and finery and pretty pink blusher to smooth their path but men, with their sweat and nostril hair and clunky Adam's Apples, need to be funny if they're to have any chance at passing on their genes.

The great Hitchens wrote his cheeky, brilliant essay back in 1997, but the matter of women and humour hasn't gone away, with the BBC saying they'll forbid all-male comedy panel shows. They are to be forced to include a woman.

There was no mention of whether said woman has to be funny. It's irrelevant. The important question is 'has she breasts and nice hair?'

They may as well say 'we're not concerned with comedy, but with chromosomes.' This is massively patronising, both to the guinea pig females they'll select and to the viewers at home. Don't we all deserve the best candidates, regardless of their appendages?

If we want to elevate women in comedy then why focus on panel shows? When loud men gather in packs on TV they tend to become boorish, concerned more with smut and sniggers than genuine laughter.

Where men seem to be funniest - at their absolute evolutionary peak - is when writing comedy in a partnership, not jostling for attention in some novelty gameshow.

Comedy seems to be men's highest achievement. I know they've invented such things as the wheel and paper and anti-biotics, but surely the comedies they've produced can be placed alongside these creations: Blackadder, The Office, Seinfeld, Father Ted, Peep Show...?

This tradition of brilliant comedy from a male partnership continues with Inside No 9, by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, of The League of Gentlemen fame.

It's an anthology series where we get a new story each week. Packed with bewildered, foolish, terrifying characters in situations to make you squeak and squirm, it's like The Twilight Zone stripped bare of its charming black-and-white cool.

This week's episode, Tom and Gerri, opens with a grouchy man complaining about the beggar beside his flat. His opinion is changed when the beggar returns his lost wallet to him. He softens and invites him in for some warmth and a drink, and that is when his whole world starts to crash down.

That is the hallmark of these episodes: they open with scenes of utter banality: a women searching in a room, a man eating tomato soup, or someone moaning about beggars. Then, into these tiny, tetchy lives comes chaos to make us flinch and cringe and laugh out loud.

The writers seem to love controversy and shock. So far, Inside No 9 has tackled child abuse, theft, transvestism and murder, and the writers' glorious talent lies in wringing humour from these taboo topics.

So when such gold is produced when men lock themselves away to write comedy together, why are the schedules so often clogged with garish panel shows, and why would the BBC have us believe women covet an appearance on them? Why not encourage female writing, instead of female shouting-to-be-heard-above-the-boys?

Perhaps it's because when a female partnership writes comedy they might just come up with Getting On, the brilliant sitcom from Jo Brand and Joanna Scanlan. It got rave reviews, but was weirdly denied a fourth series.

The BBC should be encouraging female writing talent, but writing can take months, even years, of quiet, behind-the-scenes toil, whereas getting a laddish blonde bird on Mock The Week can be sorted in minutes.

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