Girl Power

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), April 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Girl Power


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


ANDREW BILLEN looks at how women have clawed their way to the top

It was the contention of Ballbreakers on the Box that women had a tough time getting from the typing pool to the boardroom but their ride was even tougher on television. Ballbreakers (Easter Monday, Channel 4), all 90 nostalgia-loaded minutes of it, reported how TV softly mutated the cliches of female bossdom, the transition of battleaxe to matriarch, of vamp to bitch, and of tragic spinster to miniskirted neurotic fretting over her biological clock.

You wouldn't want to meet any of television's earliest empowered women on a dark night. Peggy Mount, Hattie Jacques and Mollie Sugden were sexually undesirable, spinsters or divorcees for whom work sublimated desire and provided a replacement family. To survive, they turned themselves into terrifying harridans, vulnerable only when they pathetically attempted to lure a man into bed.

Yet beyond the world of comedy, in drama, there were quickly personifications of female competence. Annie Walker, although pretentious, ran a tight ship at the Rover's Return. The highly strung women of Compact met their deadlines. Although the programme omitted to mention them, there were other bosses, too, in that golden age of middle-aged women: Googie Withers, Katharine Blake and Sarah Lawson in turn ran the jailhouse in Within These Walls. Margaret Lockwood in Justice was no mean barrister. Most impressive of all, however, was Meg Richardson in Crossroads, sherry schooner in hand, guiding a functional hotel and a dysfunctional family from the poop deck of widowhood.

But while Meg's stern matriarchy was beloved by viewers, Noele Gordon, who played her, was not appreciated by the producers. Hazel Adair, the programme's creator (whom I have never seen interviewed before), confided euphemistically that Gordon would not suffer fools gladly. The show's founder producer, Reg Watson, once told the TV Times, more frankly, that she needed "a real bastard to control her". In the end, she was got rid of -- and Margaret Thatcher came tumbling down eight years later.

It took much longer for television to accept that sexually active women could also run things. When they began to, their sexuality, naturally, became the issue. Whereas, in the early stereotypes, women were hired for their looks by men, in the newer paradigm, women owned their allure and used it as a weapon against them. An early example was Kate O'Mara, lying topless on the grim, spume-spattered deck of her cross-Channel ferry in Triangle. She was superseded, in full gloss, by Joan Collins in Dynasty, who met her match in our own Stephanie Beacham, groomed in bitchdom in Connie, the story of the Midlands textile firm heiress who returns, "with that look in her eye", declaring: "My spoon is going in the gravy. …

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