I look at the schedules this week — From Darkness, Doctor Foster, Midwinter of the Spirit, Unforgotten — all dramas featuring women in big, carry-the-whole-thing-on-their-shoulders roles.
Now, there’s a certain sadness in the fact that, in 2015, this is something that’s even worth remarking upon. It should just happen, like clouds and high-speed broadband. In a world where a woman is in the running for US president, the fact that women are playing big roles in major drama series should attract no one’s special attention. It should be like making a big thing of the fact that most households have fridges and indoor toilets. But it isn’t.
It is worth mentioning because it’s worth celebrating. These women – Anne-Marie Duff, Suranne Jones, Anna Maxwell Martin and Nicola Walker – aren’t just tokens, they aren’t lace doilies thrown into the grubby engine rooms of rough-tough crime or adultery dramas. They are pivotal, and their presence as women isn’t questioned. Apart from in Midwinter of the Spirit, where Anna Maxwell Martin plays an exorcist, the Rev Merrily Watkins. The fact that she’s a woman is used by some bad people with dark hearts to do bad things.
Unforgotten, one of the best dramas I’ve seen in a long time, stars the splendid Nicola Walker, who’s so good in everything she does – Spooks, Last Tango in Halifax – as a detective determined to track down the identity of a murder victim whose desiccated body is dug from beneath the floor of a derelict building, and then, of course, catch the killer.
What I love about Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart is, at least judging by the first episode, that she doesn’t appear to be dogged by demons (unlike Merrily Watkins, who is dogged by a demon, a real one). Cassie is not haunted by an old case she couldn’t solve, she doesn’t drink vodka and eat cold kebabs for breakfast or have a difficult relationship with an ex-lover who Could Not Handle Her Devotion to Her Work. At least, I hope not.
She’s genial, kind and does her job. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but it is, simply because of the kind of woman Cassie is. Nice, dedicated, intelligent people can be absorbing to watch too; they don’t all have to bear their tortured souls like a flasher in a marketplace.
Unforgotten has a terrific story that throws the spotlight on a string of seemingly unconnected people who all, as we will discover, have some part to play in the mystery. But the glue that sticks it all together is Cassie, a woman who is a woman, as opposed to a woman playing a man’s role, the yawning great trap that From Darkness (Sun BBC1) falls into. Anne-Marie Duff is Claire Church, a haunted, embittered cop drawn out of “retirement” by the re-emergence of an unsolved case she could Never Let Go: the serial murder of prostitutes.
Lordy, I thought I’d never again have to see a bound and gagged woman sobbing in mute terror as her killer approaches. It’s every tormented-male-cop cliche you have ever seen, only plastered on to a woman. So she runs angrily in slow motion – clearly To Forget Her Torment – and swims angrily in icy waters, filmed artfully from beneath, again To Forget Her Torment.
She’s training for an Iron Woman challenge, just in case we miss the point. There are other almighty clanging bloke-cop banalities that I won’t mention, but you’ll be able to see them coming. It’s a shame, because when you have female talent behind the screen (From Darkness is written by Katie Baxendale) and on it (Duff), you should have riches.
Our Nordic/Scandi pals never seem to have problems with women at the forefront of their dramas — The Killing, The Bridge… Not just crime dramas, either, but those fantastic family sagas they are so good at, like The Legacy, my favourite ever tapestry of middle-class angst. I love it even more than Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Another one is coming soon to More4, Thicker than Water. It’s full of terrific bourgeois torment with a plot very similar to that of The Legacy, though with hints of mystery and evil. And it’s set largely in a country B&B, so even if the plot doesn’t hold, you can fall into raptures over the rustic, pared-down interior decor.