When WPC Gina Dawson turns up for her first day of work at the fictional Midlands constabulary of Brinford, she is allocated the broom cupboard. This confinement, seen at the start of BBC1’s new daytime drama, is symbolic as well as physical: the hitherto all-male staff don’t know where else to place her. They want to patronise her, but they also seem wary of her, even threatened by her presence.
We’re in 1950s England, that misunderstood epoch of postwar reconstruction and social change. More than half a century on, it remains hazed in the nostalgia of Dixon of Dock Green and the blue lamp of his station, where local rogues were brought to heel by the archetypal British Bobby – firm, fair and very, very male.
Darker forces are at play in Brinford, however. Yes, there is the fabled innocence of pre-1960s pop harmony and the reassuring if unhealthy fug of cigarette smoke-filled offices. When Mrs Pemberton’s dog Hector runs away for the umpteenth time she can depend on a kindly call from a male police officer.
But WPC 56’s arrival undermines these certainties. Through her fresh eyes we see a policing system gripped not only by sexism but also by endemic corruption and racial prejudice in the wake of the first waves of migration from the West Indies. “Do you beat up all the prisoners?” asks the intrepid new girl, “or just the coloured ones?” Gina Dawson may be George Dixon's contemporary, but the presentation of her world owes less to Dock Green than to the unsentimental approach of recent 1950s-set dramas The Hour and Call the Midwife. The euphoria of national recovery has passed from view along with the smoke from the Craven As.
What is the truth of that time? As ever, it depends on who you ask. After talking to a long-retired policewoman from that decade, I got the impression of a period up for grabs; young women buoyed up in professional confidence by the greater equality that the war years had brought, while at the same time accepting the restrictions of being a minority in such a male trade.
Between 1950 and 1956 Irene Jack was based at Twickenham in west London. She was one of only two women at the station, “one of us doing the early, and the other doing the late”. She recalls there being no more than a dozen women in the entire Ealing division. She also remembers a time full of “absolutely wonderful experiences.” This was in spite of, or perhaps because of, the different expectations of women in the force.
"For example," she says, “in those days we [women] weren’t involved with traffic policing and that sort of thing. We were mainly concerned with women and children, so if there were female prisoners, or children, or missing persons, we would help with them. There was one woman CID officer in the district. We would be called in to take statements from women or youngsters who had been indecently assaulted.
“I also did some observation work in clubs, which was really fascinating. There was a male officer who spoke French and didn’t really look like a PC. I would get myself all glammed up and the two of us would go off, like a couple, to clubs up in town. What we were dealing with, mostly, were offences against the drinking laws. Then of course, if there was something like a death in the royal family, or the coronation, we were seconded up to town to help with the crowds.”
As with so many of her contemporaries, male and female, Irene had been in the services during the war. In common with many of them, she had been profoundly affected by the experience and had some difficulty adjusting to the more mundane routine of Civvy Street. She had been in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force).
“When I was demobbed,” she recalls, “I came home and went to work in an office for what became Radio Rentals. I got fed up with the job. I’d been used to going from one place to another. Also, I loved children. In 1949 a new word had come in – delinquent – and this was quite a problem at the time, and I was interested. My brother-in-law had joined the police and was really enjoying the life. I applied, and by coincidence the chief superintendent in charge of women police had been a former squadron leader in the WAAF, and so I was in with a chance.
“She also believed – but please don’t think I was Betty Grable or anything – that as we were all young and quite presentable, we could do the job just as well as the men. Most of the glamorous ones went to the West End. I lived in Twickenham, which didn’t mean that I wasn’t glamorous…”
Down the road in Teddington were the US troops stationed at Bushy Park. And wherever you had Americans, she remembers, you had English girls hoping to get themselves a boyfriend. “We covered Hampton Wick and we’d see these young girls come walking over the bridge, and we might try and see what they were up to, stop them and try to retain their purity, virginity, what have you.”
Did Irene ever feel patronised by her male colleagues? “No. Don’t forget, when we were all at training school, a good many of us had already been in the services, so we were used to working with men.”
In the drama, WPC Dawson is automatically asked to make the tea. Was this Irene’s experience, too? “Yes, it would happen, but it would be part of the joke, because then you could walk in and say, ‘About time you made the tea!’ ”
Irene says that the policewoman’s lot has changed beyond recognition since the 1950s. Both her daughter and granddaughter followed her into the force, one of them working in central London, the other in the East End. “Nowadays they are expected to go out and sort out absolutely anything. If you saw the Tottenham riots, there they were in their riot gear. They wouldn’t even have thought about it in my day. Back then you could walk down the middle of the high street, or in the dark, and no one would touch you. They wouldn’t dream of it, whoever they were, criminals or just youngsters. Once you put that uniform on, you felt safe and secure. I can’t say it’s the same for my granddaughter.”
The point is endorsed by WPC 56 creator Dominique Moloney. “Look at the two PCs who were killed recently [Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, who were shot after receiving a call to investigate a burglary at a house in Mottram, Manchester]. Female police get into situations just as dangerous as the men, so it’s interesting that the old attitudes linger.
“I wanted to show the reality of that time, which wasn’t just a case of the cops being goodies chasing after baddies. There was corruption, there was beating up in cells; there were many of the same problems that come to light today.”
No doubt the war was an agent of dramatic social change, she says, and yet there was a sense of women “being put back in their box” over the ensuing years. On the evidence of WPC 56 it was not the kind of safety they wanted, but a virtual broom cupboard. It resembled wrongful imprisonment.
WPC 56 is on Monday-Friday at 2:15pm on BBC1