Casualty could learn a lot from Happy Valley

"Tough TV heroines have changed," says Alison Graham. "The size of a strong woman's personality is no longer measured by her stilettos."

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Casualty could learn a lot from Happy Valley
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There are some dramas I have vowed to watch only at times of civil unrest or national emergency, or in the possibly more likely event that I'm being held hostage in a dungeon where I am fed owl-meat by a madman who didn’t like what I said about Downton Abbey.

Only in these crises am I prepared to watch Casualty and Holby City and even then, only if there really is nothing else on telly. I’d even watch DIY SOS in preference, which makes me feel sick with its patronising goodness, but the circumstances would have to be extreme, believe me. I’d have to have reached the stage where I was conversing with imaginary dancing pixies before I could look at caring Nick Knowles as he cared about unfortunate people and wore a hard hat in a caring way.

I used to watch both Casualty and Holby City a lot. I even liked Holby for a while, but that was a long time ago. As with any kind of half-hearted relationship, you move on. Now, I avoid both and am delighted to delegate their viewing to my colleagues (I’m the boss, this is what I do). Until everyone is on holiday and I am stuck, like a lost traveller on a causeway as the tide rushes in. Then it’s all down to me.

So I watched Casualty this week for the first time in who knows how long. It pained me. There was Charlie Fairhead, who I remember from the early days, still looking like a man who’s peering through a keyhole and doesn’t like what he sees. And there, too, was the patented, never changing runaway pram/runaway tractor/you-can- see-what’s-coming disaster. Nothing changes in Casualty world; it’s marooned. 

But what struck me more than anything was its quaint depiction of characters who would doubtless by described by the toe-curling tag of "Strong Women" or, God help us, as "feisty". In Casualty a Strong Woman is denoted by the spikes of her heels. She looks at her watch in an impatient kind of way because that’s what Strong Women do, they look at their watches. They like to Get Things Done. They do not like to Waste Time. In the real world women in powerful and important jobs do actual things that change the world. In Casualty they look at their watches.

By the time snippy, snitty Strong Woman Connie Beauchamp, who I also remember from days of yore in Holby, clip-clipped into the emergency department I felt like I was in the 1980s, possibly in an episode of Dynasty. There was Connie, with her flicky hair and her great shoes, being all strong and womany and eye-rolly, hands on hips, purse-lipped and cross. She was little more than a poseable Strong Woman doll. She's the boss, but she wields power by wearing a nice blouse and good trousers and peering at papers while interrupting other's conversations. You feel that Connie constantly hears Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves inside her head. 

Come on! We have moved forward! Casualty, you must emerge from the Bronze Age and embrace the New Strong Woman. She’s complicated – she can be angry, but she can care, too, and she can be excellent at her job. She can be bad, while at the same time, good. She can actually look a bit dowdy, ie normal.

Tough TV heroines have changed, Casualty. Look at Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in the recent, bold, brilliant Happy Valley. Angry, annoying, contradictory, a real human being as opposed to a TV Strong Woman. Or Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) in Line of Duty. She was bad, but for good reasons. She was sly, too, and a manipulative liar.

The thing with TV’s Strong Women (sorry, the label will have to stick until we find something better, though we could just say “women” – no one refers to “Strong Men”) now is that they are layered, flawed and believable (Scott & Bailey, Ellie in Broadchurch). The size of a strong woman’s personality is no longer measured by her stilettos.