Someone at BBC drama is sending out a sinister message to women, a message worthy of the Daily Mail. Over the last few years we have had a slew of biographical dramas of iconic women of the twentieth century. We’ve had Fanny Craddock, Margot Fonteyn, Barbara Cartland, Enid Blyton and Gracie Fields, and just recently Hattie Jacques.
Now from a commissioning point of view what is not to like? These are big names in twentieth century British culture; they allow the BBC to do what they are very good at – period drama and they practically sell themselves. There is the added bonus that they can attract headline talent to play the parts of these famous and inspiring women. So we have Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Jones, Jane Horrocks and co all lined up to recreate the fascinating story of the woman behind the legend. Perfect! So kick off your shoes, pour a glass of Vigonier and pass the designer crisps. A relaxing, sumptuous evening of bio-pic-ery awaits.
Or so I thought, as I settled down to watch them.
But I was left not thinking “Gosh, what a fantastic woman, what a great achievement,” but “oh dear, does that mean if I am successful I have to be a monster and/or utterly miserable. Will I die alone, deserted by all? Will my children hate me?” It began to feel as if there had been a policy decision to make films about successful women to show how they ruined their personal lives to pay for that success.
Of course that’s nonsense. What this was about was the quest for conflict – that essential power-tool of successful drama. If your iconic female character is a perfect ‘yes’ woman all the way, baking cakes, bearing children and contributing significantly to British popular culture, while still adoring her husband, then there is no conflict, and there is no drama. No-one will watch it, so there has to be conflict, there have to be character flaws to create compelling stories. And all these dramas were compelling, and very entertaining as a result. Grim but entertaining.
But then we get to the queasy bit. These dramas were purporting to be more than dramas: they were biographical explorations. That implies a different contract with the audience. When real people are involved then surely there is a responsibility to offer some kind of balance? There is the implication of debate, but this idea sits very ill with the concept of drama.
The temptation to take a person’s life and make it into a story is huge. It’s a ready made plot for a start, but it has to be handled with great care. The play about Hattie Jacques was a very good example of this, because all we saw was the small period of her life, about 5 years worth, when she went of the rails a bit and had an affair with a right scoundrel which ended in her divorcing poor John le Mesurier. We did not see how she became so successful or beloved. It boiled down to “famous actress has a midlife fling and pays dearly for her sins.” I am quite sure that the BBC commissioners did not mean these stories to have such a misogynistic, moralising tone, but unfortunately that is the impression that is so often given.
Iconic males have fared better. The recent offering about Morecambe and Wise managed to be fair, entertaining and still retain the magic of the subject. Enid Blyton and Hattie Jacques were crushed by their bio-pics, while Eric and Ernie were enhanced. A skillful piece of work. One might also point to The King’s Speech as another very successful bit of bio-pic-ery which has enhanced the reputation of George VI rather than destroyed it. It’s notable as well that both these triumphant narratives had in them strong, supportive women working behind the scenes.