On paper, Scott & Bailey doesn’t appear an especially daring drama: a police-procedural, buddy-cop show set in a grim corner of the north of England starring two of television’s best actresses, Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp.
While Sharp’s Scott is an apparently serene wife and mother, Jones’s Bailey is single, with such a chaotic personal life that in the first series she fears being seen as “some of kind of shag-bandit rubber-knickers”. In TV shorthand, it could reasonably be described as Cagney & Lacey in Manchester – as indeed we described it last year in Radio Times.
But appearances can be deceptive and such shorthand underestimates Scott & Bailey’s intelligence, appeal and its quietly subversive nature. Through a mixture of Sally Wainwright’s subtle, witty and incisive writing, Sharp and Jones’s winning performances, and the decision to cast a female boss, played by Amelia Bullmore, Scott & Bailey is an unusual beast: a grown-up drama with three credible female leads who aren’t preoccupied with buying shoes, eating cupcakes and discussing angsty romantic entanglements. Even in the 21st century, this is unusual.
Jones came up with the idea for Scott & Bailey – back this week for a second series – with friend and fellow Coronation Street alumnus Sally Lindsay after becoming frustrated with the lack of decent roles she was being offered.
Three female leads
She says she appreciates how the show might be seen as novel. “Because people are so used to seeing flawed male leads, especially in cop shows, there’s still an element of surprise with Scott & Bailey, but I’d like to think that soon people will think, ‘Three female leads. And..?’ ”
“There’s no sense of the female characters trying to undermine each other or outdo each other,” says Sharp. “They are colleagues and they are good colleagues. It’s a very positive look at women in the workplace and in domestic settings.
“And apart from the fact that the three central characters are female, it’s quite unique in that there’s a real attempt to show people going about their work in a dedicated and committed fashion. They present a professional face to the world while keeping whatever upset, chaos and disruption in their personal lives at bay. That’s something that I think most people, men and women, can identify with.”
“We didn’t set out to make something radical,” says executive producer Nicola Shindler, although the series clearly hit a chord, regularly attracting audiences of almost eight million. At times women made up 65% of the audience, making it the most popular detective drama with female viewers shown last year.
“We were some women sitting around discussing what we’d like to see on telly. I’m proud that people think we’re doing something political but, in a way, I don’t think we are. In the research we did, we encountered lots of amazing women in these jobs and we’re just telling their stories.”
Writer Sally Wainwright agrees. “I set out to write interesting characters regardless of gender, but I do find women more interesting. I like writing women and watching women. For me, Scott & Bailey is the antithesis of something macho like Luther. I feel I’ve seen it all before. It doesn’t appeal at all to me and procedurally is rubbish.”
As important to Scott & Bailey as Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey is their boss Gill Murray, played by Bullmore. The actress and writer, who’s appeared in Coronation Street, I’m Alan Partridge and Twenty Twelve and written for This Life, relished the role from the moment she saw the script – and she has also written an episode in this series.
“Gill is funny, bossy, annoying, competent, a believable mixture of qualities that are so refreshing when so many characters on the telly are their job because of the economy needed to tell a story,” says Bullmore. “Or if you’re lucky, you might be a doctor and have an interesting car.”
Bullmore’s audition was, she explains, “a classic Scott & Bailey briefing with Gill in full flow. I practised in my kitchen with my husband Paul [Higgins, who plays The Thick of It and In The Loop’s mini-Malcolm Tucker, Jamie MacDonald] and I really wanted the part.
“Lots of police shows cut out the things they think might be boring – the red tape, the procedural, the exactitude – but Scott & Bailey makes drama out of it. That lack of flash appeals and it’s a slow burn. You warm to the characters over time. It’s a casserole effect.”
And as for the female skew of Scott & Bailey, Bullmore says, “It’s not a big deal to the characters at all, that these three are women, but it is interesting for the audience. Women like watching women, too. They like looking at what they wear, how they behave, how they fit in.
“As a woman, you watch and go, ‘Hmmm. Am I a Rachel or a Janet?’ A lot of friendships are based on a cocktail of an impetuous one and a considered one. The considered one gets some vicarious fun from the impetuous one and the reckless one gets a bit of ballast. It’s a tried-and-tested buddy combo.”
Roles for women
With TV drama dominated by predictable, masculine procedurals and pretty period pieces in which redemption is conferred by romantic fulfilment or midwives on bikes, Scott & Bailey stands out all the more for its truthful treatment of contemporary women – and women of a certain age, too.
Wainwright says she’s baffled by the lack of meaty roles for mature women. “I’m aware of actresses who get to a certain age and say that there are few parts for them and I just don’t understand it. I’ve just written Last Tango in Halifax [for BBC1], which has two female characters in their late 40s and there’s just so much life about women of that age.”
For Sharp, in her late 40s, the prospect of playing spinsters in bonnets isn’t depressing as such “because a spinster in a bonnet isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s an interesting spinster. It’s more about the function a character has within a piece of drama.
“What’s interesting is when you play a character with a life and a function that drives the drama forward rather than a character to support other characters – the wife the hero returns to or the mother that the boy with the interesting story comes home to.”
At 33, Jones is hopeful about the roles she is yet to play: “I’ve tried to give every character I’ve played colour and life and layers and with that mantra, hopefully you can play interesting parts and hopefully I won’t be having any Botox soon.”
“As a middle-aged woman,” says Sharp, “sometimes what I see representing middle-aged women in drama doesn’t strike a chord with me. I don’t recognise them. Labels that were useful maybe 20 years ago don’t apply any more. Women – and men – get older but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they start thinking or behaving in a particular way.
“There’s much more individuality about age now and hopefully that will be reflected within enough pieces of writing to make becoming older within the profession something joyous rather than a chore.” Now that would be progress.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 6 March 2012.
The second series of Scott & Bailey begins tonight at 9pm on ITV1/ITV1 HD (Border only in Scotland)