Calling all male drama writers: stop writing miserable women!

Male writers of tough dramas like In The Dark are too scared of lightening their female characters, says Alison Graham


Detective Inspector Helen Weeks cries a lot in the crime thriller In the Dark (Tuesday BBC1).I thought at first it was because she is doomed forever to wear a horrible, shapeless, mustard-coloured jumper. But, no, there are deeper reasons. The deepest reason of all is that she is a woman.


Women, eh? Always blubbing and whining and moping about. Helen (MyAnna Buring) is also pregnant, so crikey, she really must be a slave to her hormones, mustn’t she? They must make her all woolly and passionate and a bit moody because she has a fondness for grabbing people she doesn’t like by the throat.

Helen is investigating a crime in her home town that has nothing to do with her or her police force; she just happens to be a childhood friend of a woman whose husband is accused of a double murder/abduction. This is because they share a Horrible Secret.

But, all sobbing aside (can you imagine a male cop weeping copiously in his car and in public?), my big problem with In the Dark is that, like Helen, it is so humourless and saddled with gormless blokes.

Look at any other of the big, women-led dramas around at the moment – ITV’s The Loch (Sunday) and Fearless (Monday), both of which end this week, and the fervidly ridiculous Paula and The Replacement before that. All full of bloody miserable women, all supposedly tough and strong yet in thrall to the most dreary, awful men.

Of course, the general principle of heavy-hitting female presences is excellent and should be encouraged, but all these series were written by men and I wonder if they feel some kind of subtle pressure to treat women seriously at all times while still planting around them male characters like rockeries. Just so the women can show they aren’t that tough after all. Maybe male writers are scared of lightening women characters in tough dramas in case they face accusations of frivolity.

It’s understandable, but it’s not something that would normally trouble, surely, a writer of the calibre of Danny Brocklehurst, who adapted Mark Billingham’s In the Dark novels. He wrote the excellent Ordinary Lies, among other things, which was packed with fantastic women (and men).

But maybe there’s something about the dark side – murder, conspiracy – and women that scares male writers. Which is such a shame because humour humanises everyone. Would you choose to befriend anyone without a sense of humour? Of course you wouldn’t.

Sally Wainwright gets this right. In Happy Valley, Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) faces hardship and horror daily. Yet she’s so funny, she lightens her own darkness with wry observations about, not just others, but herself. Please note, women are particularly good at this.

Male writers seem to think we constantly burn with torment, or that big, series-carrying women have to be just as impossibly anguished as big, series-carrying men. The awful Helen Weeks in In the Dark can’t be sure of the paternity of her baby after a one-night stand with a fellow cop.

She supposedly loves her husband and he dotes on her but she can’t be happy (self-punishment is a common theme among women characters when it comes to men). “It’s what I do!” she wails. “I sabotage my life, maybe I was terrified of the happiness I was feeling.” Oh, please.

I’d think more of her if she just stepped back from the two boring men making demands on her life (one of them even insists, “You need to decide what future you want!” Does she? Says who?), told them both to get lost, and went backpacking alone.


In the Dark is on Tuesday at 9pm on BBC 1