I was never an avid reader when I was young, and I confess that what I knew of Jane Austen was primarily from ﬁlm and TV adaptations. And with that limited knowledge of her work, it would be easy to ﬁle Austen under the category of ‘lovely, romantic, period novels’.
Nothing wrong with that of course, far from it. Watching Jane’s beautiful stories unfold on screen provides gentle escapism, not to mention an opportunity to harbour secret crushes on the romantic leads (or not so secret when it comes to Colin Firth as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. There’s a generation of women for whom no romantic partner can ever live up to Colin emerging in a white shirt from ‘that lake’!).
But when I was given the opportunity to play Miss Bates in the new ﬁlm version of Emma, I had to do my research. I read Austen’s work with a keen eye, and lo and behold, I discovered I was reading the works of a genius observational comedian. Yes, we rightly sing the praises of Austen’s expert story structure, shrewd characterisation and historic accounts of 18th-century society, but I was ashamed to say I had absolutely no idea how brilliantly funny she was. In her dialogue I felt I was reading perfect comedy sketches and sitcom characters who would still resonate today.
I remember reading excerpts of Miss Bates to my sister, desperate to share the excitement of who I was to be playing, and we really laughed as dear Miss B took what felt like half an hour to tell a story that could have been told in two sentences. That classic thing you hear such as, ‘I think it was on the Tuesday, no hang on, it was the Wednesday because it can’t have been Tuesday as that’s when I have to pick George up from school… or hang on…’ And you desperately want to shout, ‘It doesn’t matter which day, just get on with the story, will you?!’ Miss Bates is the stereotypical busybody who everyone goes to great lengths to dodge or they will be pinned for hours being talked at incessantly. She’s a comedy character we know well, but thanks to Jane Austen she is also a detailed, nuanced, vulnerable character, who in the end is the turning point in the story for Emma.
As I read more of Austen’s works, I felt more and more sure Jane’s writing has informed female comedy over the past 200 years. I sat back and whispered, ‘Thank you, Jane,’ to myself as I read it in a rocking chair in my office, which somehow felt rather apt. Indeed it would have been even more so if I had also been embroidering my initials onto a handkerchief. But my sampler-free hands were partly why I gave such heartfelt thanks to Jane, because if we argue that Austen was the pioneer of iconic women’s comic creations (and I really think we can), then we can argue that she also played a part in freeing women from conﬁnement at home, painstakingly embroidering initials onto various belongings.
For me, you see, it is comedians who have been my female role models. It is comedy actresses and performers who have set me free from the societal shackles of what a woman is ‘supposed to be’. The ﬁrst female writer and performer I remember watching was Joyce Grenfell. Hello to you older readers who might remember her too! I was very lucky to have a family that adored television comedy, and so I was brought up on the likes of Morecambe & Wise, Tommy Cooper, The Two Ronnies, Hancock. All brilliant. And all, for the alert among you, also men. I can distinctly recall how important it felt to be watching Joyce even when I was probably only nine or ten on ﬁrst setting eyes on her.
There she was, in all her glory – a woman standing alone on stage.
A rare creature. Women appeared in sketches, but they weren’t the stars of the show. They weren’t writing their own material. I was utterly mesmerised. And as I reflect on the sketches I particularly loved of hers, such as Stately as a Galleon about an inelegant woman trying to negotiate a dance lesson, and always having to partner with women because she was taller than all the men in the room, I felt heard. (I was always ‘the man’ in school productions – I became accustomed to britches and black tie as I looked on enviously, never able to play the female roles I so wanted). Joyce allowed me to be ungainly, to be silly and galumph around a dance floor. I loved to imitate her big strides and comic moves. No more cowering, it was empowering.
(Ooh, that’s a good line!)
The other woman I watched over and over in my formative years was Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan in Annie. (Carol’s comedy shows were not well known in the UK, but she was
a pioneer in the US, and arguably without her there would be no Whoopi Goldberg, no Ellen Degeneres, no Melissa McCarthy.) Miss Hannigan was scruff y, naughty, flirty, brash and loud, and therefore a key role model who gave me permission to take up my personal space and follow my dreams. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I must be allowed to pursue an acting career – if Carol’s doing it, if Joyce is doing it, then I can too’.
In the case of Joyce Grenfell, it’s evident how connected to, and inspired by, Austen she was. Her character who taught a WI meeting how to make crafts (‘please gather your empty beech nut husk clusters’), was as acutely and similarly observational of her time as Austen’s centuries before.
So not only did my comedy icons help free me personally, but their precise intricacies of phrases also taught me how to listen and observe. Some of Jane Austen’s quips, despite being clearly of their time, would still get laughs in a contemporary script. Consider (from letters to her sister): ‘All I want in a man is someone who rides bravely, dances beautifully, sings with vigour, reads passionately and whose taste agrees in every point with my own’; ‘I will not say that your mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive’; ‘Nothing ever fatigues me but doing what I do not like’. (Astute advice by the way.)
My own listening started when I followed my mother and her friends around the garden, repeating various gardening phrases and plant names back to myself for my own amusement in my bedroom. You can always ﬁnd a joke in gardening parlance: ‘Oh dear there’s a nasty rash on this one’s stamen’ or ‘Once you’ve worked that dibber, it’s time to prick them out’, were two I thought hilarious when I was younger! And when I started writing the Miranda character for stand-up gigs, long before I got the opportunity to create a sitcom for her, I also played a mother character who used phrases such as, ‘Such fun!’ and ‘What I call…’ that I regularly heard my mother and her friends use. Eventually it was Patricia Hodge, as my on-screen mother in the sitcom, who played those lines so beautifully they unexpectedly turned into catchphrases.
So, if I can happily and conﬁdently draw a line from Jane Austen to Joyce Grenfell (and there have been many writers and comediennes in between – Mae West, Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball naturally spring to mind), then we can continue the line, and say without Joyce Grenfell, there would certainly have been no Victoria Wood. And if there’d been no Victoria Wood, can you imagine where we would be? Quite simply, there would be none of my peers today. We wouldn’t have had French & Saunders, Smack the Pony, Catherine Tate and all that has come since. Victoria was deeply inspired by Joyce, and was of course an absolute master in observation. There is a whole generation that quotes her regularly, and if we hear someone approach a table saying ‘two soups’ we will naturally giggle, confusing any young waiters who aren’t familiar with the sketch Victoria wrote for her close pal, the brilliant Julie Walters, and which we remember with such glee.
It still breaks my heart that Victoria Wood is no longer with us. I think the shock at her early death and how much we miss her musings, how much they are a part of our vernacular (I know I am not the only one who will occasionally say, just for the simple joy of it, ‘Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly’!) prove the vital need for women in comedy. Because it seems we observe uniquely from a place of depth and vulnerability, showing empathy with our characters – we are lovingly teasing, never cruelly mocking. It always comes from the place of laughing with – ‘I do this too’ – rather than laughing at. And that was what I felt reading Emma. Jane Austen was saying that everyone had a bit of her characters in them. We feel huge empathy with all her comic creations even when we might momentarily laugh at them or feel irritated by them. There is always a layer of love.
From the archives: Victoria Wood
I understand Miss Bates was one of her favourite characters to write, and I wonder if that was because she was able to exercise her wit via her writing in a way that women weren’t allowed to in society at that time. Which is the ﬁnal thing to thank my comedy icons for – their bravery. If I felt I needed them to break a mould and to set me free when I was growing up in the 1980s, then how trapped did Jane Austen feel? My golly, it doesn’t bear thinking about. But why don’t we while we are on the subject? From what I understand, it was deemed uncouth for ladies to be funny in the 18th century, and indeed it was actively discouraged. Austen must have been bursting to express her innate sense of humour. She must have felt utterly hampered. Luckily, it was through the emergence of the novel as an acceptable form of expression that she found an outlet for her comedy. If Jane Austen hadn’t been brave enough to be funny in her novels at a time when women were so constrained, then she may not have set us free 200 years later.
So, this is a lovely opportunity to say thank you, Jane Austen. (Is it weird that I feel so connected to her, I believe she has heard me?) You taught us how to be funny and how to observe, you freed us to go against culture’s expectations of women, and helped us write comedy creations that have brought generations not only freedom but the most important thing – big laughs, joy and light. And thank you for writing such rich roles that women get the chance to portray on screen.
I love Miss Bates with all my heart and hope I did her a tiny bit of justice. Not only did you make her funny but she is the one who carries that feeling of vulnerability, of not quite ﬁtting in; she is the one whose dreams (in her case of marriage) never panned out, and she had to stoically keep going regardless. She is the one who sacriﬁced so much of her life to be a caregiver, like so many women continue to do today, and what she teaches us is the importance of humility and of having a cheery outlook despite it all. For that, Miss Bates is my heroine. And so is Jane Austen.