The rise of women: TV's changing attitudes

The rise of women: TV's changing attitudes

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By Steve Clarke,
Tuesday, 23rd January 2018
Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian

Progress is being made in generating parts and opportunities for older women who want to work in TV drama – but more needs to be done. 

That was the conclusion of an engaging RTS debate, Is Older the New Younger?, which heard from an all-female panel chaired by Channel 4 News’s Social Affairs Editor, Jackie Long.

Screenwriter Key Mellor said that with people like Charlotte Moore at the BBC (director of content) and Polly Hill at ITV (head of drama) occupying powerful jobs TV was less dominated by men that it once was.  

At the beginning of her career broadcasting was run by males, usually wearing dark suits, said Mellor. “When I started on Coronation Street even the female parts were all written by men,” she recalled.

More stories based on the experiences of women over 40 were now being told in TV drama, said the writer of such hits as Band of Gold and Fat Friends.  

She cited the example of her latest ITV show, Girlfriends, based on the story of three friends approaching 60.

“I expected ITV to say ‘Can they be fortysomething?’ but it didn’t happen…At one point I thought they could be pushing 70. Nobody put up a barrier.”

Manda Levin, an executive producer at British drama specialist Kudos, said that British TV drama had been “pretty good about women.”

However, she wasn’t sure that it was always for the right reasons. “I think we have quite reactive and reactionary ways of choosing the stories we tell,” said Levin.

“There’s been an awareness for a long time that there’s an older female audience for British drama.”

Lesley Sharp (Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)

The problem was this became a self-fulfilling prophecy in the way that Hollywood calculates that a lot of young men go to the cinema so more films are made for that audience.

The British TV sector had changed by using more female writers than women such as Mellor, Sally Wainwright, Heidi Thomas, Debbie Horsfield and Paula Milne, added the Kudos executive.        

Actress Lesley Sharp, who has sustained a top-end TV career for around 25 years, revealed that achieving this was fraught with difficulty.

She said that actresses were at the bottom end of the TV food chain. They didn’t get to see scripts until they were commissioned and revised.

“In essence part and parcel of the job that I do is that you sign up for a life of disempowerment,” said Sharp, whose TV hits include ITV’s Scott and Bailey.    

In common with Mellor, these days she was able to kick start her own projects.  

She added: “It’s really hard, you have to be clever about what you do. There are certain things that you know tick boxes commercially and TV companies want to do because they will get a lot of viewers in.

“But you also want to do things that are maybe niche and have managed to slide their way through in spite of people not wanting to commission it.”

It was the more edgy shows, the actress maintained, that often resonated most with the British public.

Sharp said that she and writer Russell T Davies “have this joke that TV is regarded as the bastard medium.”

“Film or theatre are where it’s at. Telly is in the middle and it’s this kind of broad church.

“You can fling any old bone onto it and they’ll gobble it up, but the truth is that TV is an extraordinary medium.

“We only scratch the surface of what it’s capable of and the kind of stories that we tell, regardless of the fact that we’re not serving the 50% of the population that are women.

“We are not creating enough interesting stories about women of a certain age in an intelligent, vital energised way.

“A lot of the 50-year-old characters I see on TV I don’t recognise as being part of my age group.

Jackie Long, Kay Mellor OBE and Manda Levin 
(Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)

“They are not like women I know. As an industry we have to start catching up with what’s happening in society.”

Caroline Hollick, creative director at Red, said that things had changed over the last few years as the success of her company’s BBC One drama, Last Tango In Halifax, demonstrated.

“When we first pitched that show we were told that the story was too small and the characters too old.”

She added: “Things have shifted. I think broadcasters have started to realise that people have an appetite to see themselves reflected on screen.

“A lot of the people that are watching television are older. My kids watch Netflix but I think they will watch TV when they get older.

“TV is getting better at listening to its audience.”


Is older the new younger? A debate on women and age diversity in television was held at the Hospital Club in central London on January 22. The producer was Vicky Fairclough.

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Progress is being made in generating parts and opportunities for older women who want to work in TV drama – but more needs to be done.