10 peerless funny women of British TV comedy

From Kathy Burke to Victoria Wood… a selection of some of the funniest female writers and comedians to have made their mark on British television.

Hannah Gatward
Updated:

Kathy Burke

Greatest hits: Harry Enfield and Chums (1994-99), Gimme Gimme Gimme (1999-2001)

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (1999-2001)

The no-holds-barred British icon is a multi-award-winning actor, writer and director. After gaining comedy fame as Waynetta Slob on Harry Enfield and Chums, Burke tired of playing just one character, so she created greasy teenager Perry, the best friend of Enfield’s prepubescent Kevin – thus an era-defining duo was born.

Burke’s chameleonic career has also seen her win best actress at Cannes for her performance in Gary Oldman’s heartbreaking drama Nil by Mouth (1997) and a British Comedy Award for her role as the ballsy, brash Linda in Gimme Gimme Gimme. Now focusing on theatre directing, she returns to acting every now and then to steal scenes in the likes of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Greatest hits: Crashing (2016), Fleabag (2016)

Fleabag (2016–)

From the creation of her first series, Crashing, to the recent Emmy-nominated American spy drama Killing Eve, as well as a starring role in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Waller-Bridge’s career has gone from strength to strength.

Since turning her sell-out one-woman Edinburgh show Fleabag into a hit BBC comedy drama, she’s become a key voice in the new wave of British female writers. Enormously popular on both sides of the pond, Fleabag was a desperately bleak yet painfully comic show that portrayed sex and sadness from a visceral and honest female perspective rarely seen on television.

Michaela Coel

Greatest hits: Chewing Gum (2015-), Black Mirror – USS Callister (2017)

Chewing Gum (2015-2018)

After starting out as a poet on the London club scene, writer, producer and actor Coel created and starred in the boundary-pushing, boundlessly funny, BAFTA-winning Channel 4 series Chewing Gum.

As Tracey Gordon, Coel examines class, religion, family, friendship and sex through a delightfully dirty lens, with a great sense of fun and filth. It’s a sincere portrayal of black female life that’s still sadly underrepresented in British TV comedy. Also appearing in Charlie Brooker’s techno-satire Black Mirror and with a recent starring role in Black Earth Rising, Coel is definitely a rising star.

Julia Davis

Greatest hits: Nighty Night (2004-05), Hunderby (2012-15)

Nighty Night (TV series, 2004-2005)

The grande dame of the hilariously unhinged, Davis became part of British comedy royalty with the likes of Simon Pegg, Mark Heap, Kevin Eldon and Rebecca Front in the ensemble cast for the weird and wonderful late-90s sketch show Big Train. Front and Eldon returned for Davis’s first sitcom, Nighty Night, where they starred alongside Angus Deayton and Ruth Jones.

One of the most disturbingly black comedies ever to air, the show’s enduring genius was its almost painful unwatchability – it’s not just cringeworthy but terrifically twisted. Davis’s uniquely agonising humour can also be found in her gothic mini-series Hunderby and most recently in Camping, a desperately uncomfortable series about a group of friends on holiday in Devon.

Sharon Horgan

Greatest hits: Pulling (2006-09), Catastrophe (2015-), Divorce (2016-)

Catastrophe (2015-2018)

Writer, actor and producer, Horgan first came to prominence with her brilliant BBC Three sitcom Pulling, but it was Catastrophe that really showed her unbelievable talent for tragicomedy. Co-written with her co-star Rob Delaney, the show’s brilliance was not just in the pair’s chemistry but in its believable, empathetic portrayal of the pathos of relationships, alcoholism, depression, family life, and all the mess and madness that comes with them.

Horgan’s ongoing schedule also includes writing Motherland, the sitcom about middle-class working London mothers, and the hit HBO show Divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker.

Carla Lane

Greatest hits: The Liver Birds (1969-96), Butterflies (1978-83)

Carla Lane

One of the first women to claim success from writing and creating popular British TV sitcoms, Liverpudlian Carla Lane was well known for the shows that represented her hometown: The Liver Birds (co-created with her friend Myra Taylor), about two single women sharing a flat, and later Bread, about a family battling poverty in the 1980s.

Yet it was the tragicomic sitcom Butterflies that elevated Lane to greatness with her compassionate portrayal of Ria, played by Wendy Craig, as a bored housewife who considers having an affair with a charming stranger. As Craig once said of Lane: “Her greatest gift was that she understood women and wrote the truth about them.” A truth still preciously rare in the writers rooms of today.

Jennifer Saunders

Greatest hits: Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012), French & Saunders (1987-), Jam & Jerusalem (2006-09)

Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012)

With her longtime comedy partner Dawn French, French & Saunders were pioneers of the 1980s ‘alternative comedy’ stand-up set. Surreal, silly and sophisticated in equal measures, along with Victoria Wood, Jo Brand and Tracey Ullman they blazed a trail for women in both stand-up and on television.

In 1992, Saunders’ zeitgeisty, bolly-swigging sitcom Absolutely Fabulous careened onto our TV screens and an instant hit was born. It was a show that captured the 90s excess and hedonism of a pre-crash, post-Thatcher era. As the writer and star of other shows such as Jam & Jerusalem, a recent Absolutely Fabulous movie and her continuing collaborations with Dawn French, she’s been an integral voice in British comedy for more than three decades.

Meera Syal

Greatest hits: Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2015), The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-06)

Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2000)

Now a household name, Syal came to fame with Goodness Gracious Me, the British Asian sketch show she created along with Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia. Beginning its life on Radio 4, it was and still is wholly unique in its representation of British Asian culture, and in the way it perfectly punctured the prejudices of the time with a satirical pop. The now legendary “Going for an English” skit will forever hold its place in the sketch comedy canon.

Nominated for a BAFTA for The Kumars at No. 42, Syal has also written numerous screenplays and novels. In 2015, she was awarded a CBE for services to drama and literature.

Tracey Ullman

Greatest hits: Three of a Kind (1981-83), Girls on Top (1985-86), The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-90)

Three of a Kind (1981-1983)

The first British woman to have her own TV sketch show in both the UK and America, Ullman kicked off her comedy career with A Kick Up the Eighties in 1981 (alongside a very young Rik Mayall), with her big break coming along shortly after in Three of a Kind (co-starring Lenny Henry).

After moving to America, she became a hugely popular variety star and master of impressions with The Tracey Ullman Show. Ullman would go on to win multiple Emmys and star in films directed by the likes of Woody Allen and Robert Altman before returning to England and her sketch comedy roots with the BBC’s Tracey Ullman’s Show.

Victoria Wood

Greatest hits: Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV (1985-87), Dinnerladies (1998-2000)

Dinnerladies (1998-2000)

Lancashire born and now much missed, this multi-talented entertainer began her career as a unique presence of the 1980s. At a time when television, and especially comedy, was mostly dominated by southerners, Wood’s northern charm and humour shone through. It was rare at the time to find a solo woman writing not only sketch shows but also performing stand-up and songs, and she had a lyrical wit and comic timing that has rarely been matched.

From Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV (the birthplace of Acorn Antiques) to her first sitcom, Dinnerladies, Wood was nationally adored. Her sharp and silly observations cut through the social mores of everyday British life.

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