In which I express my disapproval of BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction – with statistics

This is a rant. I don’t rant very often but right now I’m in the mood for it.

Last night, in the second episode of the tenth series of BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction, in which mainly comedians interview people they admire, mostly other comedians, and the next week the interviewee becomes the interviewer, Reece Shearsmith interviewed Bob Mortimer. In fact, they seemed to spend way, way too much time talking about Mortimer’s comedy partner, Vic Reeves. So you’ll never guess who Bob Mortimer has chosen to interview next week. I joked to Paul Kincaid before the episode that he’d choose Reeves. I’m so sorry I said that.

I rarely listen to Chain Reaction any more. Partly, it’s because great comedians, or for that matter, even indifferent comedians, don’t always make good interviewers. As a result, the end result is often cringingly embarrassing (last night’s programme was just one more tired rehearsal of stories we’ve heard far too many times before, and I already want to string hazard tape round next week’s episode).

The other reason I rarely listen to Chain Reaction is this: out of nine complete series (8 x 6 episodes, 1 x 4 episodes) and the three episodes so far broadcast or announced of the tenth series, so far involving 65 people, 9 of the interviewers/interviewees have been women. That’s one seventh of the participants. Here’s a link to the episode guide so you can see who’s been on.

Here’s a few more statistics.

Out of nine complete series, on four occasions the chain has started with a woman interviewer, each of whom interviewed a man. For two of those series, the interviewer was the only woman who appeared in the series. On one occasion the male first interviewer chose a woman (Jeremy Front chose his writing partner, his sister Rebecca).

On four occasions within a series, a man has chosen a woman (Front chose Front, Richard Wilson chose Arabella Weir, for the last episode of a series; Ade Edmondson chose Ruby Wax (who chose Harry Shearer); Tim Minchin chose Caitlin Moran, who in turn chose Jennifer Saunders – thus making her the only woman to choose a woman). Two of those choices by men occurred in one series (Front and Edmondson), thus making Series 8 the only that has ever exhibited anything like gender parity.

Four series have featured no women whatsoever, and there has as yet been no woman in Series 10.

From the fact that no fewer than four series have begun with a woman, who then turns out to be the only woman in the series, it seems that someone somewhere in the production team may have recognised the need to include some women, and has attempted to redress the balance, but appears to lack even the faintest glimmer of an idea that the whole premise of the format may be just ever-so-slightly flawed. Similarly, they seem to be blissfully unaware of just how badly flawed the format is, given that quite apart from how few women have appeared, all of the 65 people appearing so far do seem to be, to use former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke’s own words, ‘hideously white’.

It’s also fantastically cosy and unimaginative. Front interviews his writing partner Front, who then interviews her co-star, Chris Addison. Bob chooses Vic – of course he does. And they’re usually well-established comedians interviewing even better-established comedians. If it has to be about comedians, where are the Sarah Millicans, the Shappi Korsandis, John Finnemores and Paul Sinhas, not to mention the Tom Wrigglesworths, Francesca Martinezes and Lloyd Langfords, to name but a few of my favourites (though if they’ve had the sense not to get involved, well done them).

The trouble is, the format invites this inward-turning. Select a comedian to choose a hero, they’re likely to choose a comedian, who chooses a comedian. There are rarely break-outs. Catherine Tate chose David Tennant – ah, bless. Stewart Lee chose Alan Moore, who chose Brian Eno, and sadly that was the end of that series. Eddie Izzard chose Alastair Campbell, who promptly chose Alistair McGowan, who chose Simon Callow, and again the series ended. In fairness to Chris Addison, after being selected by his co-star he then chose Derren Brown, whose interview of Tim Minchin I recall being not bad, perhaps because he makes a living talking to people rather than at them. Which led to Caitlin Moran and Jennifer Saunders, but this really is the exception.

And I’m not even sure this format actually set out to be about comedians. The strapline for the first series was “Series in which public figures choose others to interview”. Here, I fear the BBC’s definition of ‘public figure’ and mine are somewhat at variance with one another. By beginning with Jenny Eclair, the die was immediately cast. By series 4, it had become “Chat show in which one week’s interviewee becomes the following week’s interviewer”. But given all bar one initial interviewer has been a comedian (I presume Terry Christian was chosen because he is apparently the butt of so many jokes from a generation of comedians) it’s difficult to imagine it being about anything but comedians now. (It’s always rather sobering to recall that once upon a time The News Quiz competitors were mainly actual working journalists rather than comedians. Now, the journalists are very much in the minority, and have to be remarkably sharp-witted to survive on there, having to be more comedians than journalists in fact.)

The point, of course, is that if you ask people to choose a hero to interview, you can’t then dictate to them about that hero’s gender, skin colour, or anything else. On the other hand, after nine and a half series, you might then want to grasp the cluebat that has been placed before you, clearly labelled, and can the show because it is so clearly lacking in any kind of diversity whatsoever.

While we’re about it, another sausage-fest is The Infinite Monkey Cage. It’s been criticised before and I’m told that women do appear regularly, though it seems that every time I turn on, it’s Cox and Ince, two people I otherwise quite like, and regard as being reasonably intelligent, larking around with their male mates like they’re still in the sixth-form common room at a boys-only grammar school. I have skimmed down the episode guide on the BBC website, and while it doesn’t list contributors with any degree of thoroughness, I find it telling that a woman isn’t actually mentioned at all until Series 5, and then it’s a comedian rather than a scientist. They don’t mention a woman who’s a scientist until Series 7.

What to do? Well, one can complain to the BBC, and people do. Indeed, I am sure I have complained about The Infinite Monkey Cage, so it’s probably time to complain about Chain Reaction too. One can turn off, and I do, though it’s hardly going to change things when there is clearly an audience for this kind of thing even if I’ve withdrawn my attention.

What really astonishes me, though, is that even now, after the endless controversies about the lack of diversity on BBC radio and tv, about the ageism, the sexism, the ableism, that no one in BBCland pauses to consider that maybe, just maybe, something needs to be done about certain programmes, like not recommissioning them.

Actually, I lied. It doesn’t astonish me at all. But I am very, very disappointed.

P.S. I got in touch with Radio 4’s Feedback programme on Friday, so we’ll see what happens.

P.P.S As it turned out, Feedback did nothing, possibly because they were marking the Head of Comedy’s departure after seventeen years, so maybe criticising something the HoC presumably signed off would have looked bad. On the other hand, and slightly to my surprise, I must admit, Vic Reeves chose Olivia Coleman. Who she will choose, we can only wait and see.

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