“Women get more and more interesting the older they get,” says Sally Wainwright, the writer responsible for television’s most interesting trio of women on screen. “I certainly enjoy writing women more than men because of all those things we know about – like we have to work twice as hard to get to the same place.”
Currently putting in the extra hours on ITV1 are Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey – the British Cagney and Lacey – who, along with their boss Gill Murray, are trying to bring down the murder rate in an unglamorous part of Manchester. Turned down by the BBC and initially also ITV, Scott & Bailey has established itself as a ratings hit, particularly – and unusually for a crime drama – with women.
“I write for women my age,” says Wainwright, who is in her late 40s. “I’m fed up with there being nothing on television I want to watch. I think, partly, I write things for me to watch because nobody else is.”
Seven million viewers clearly feel the same way – tuning into the second series of a show that balances murder mystery with a take on women’s working relationships, friendships and home lives. “I was quite surprised that there was a woman being portrayed on screen who was really great at her job but also had a complicated family life – often you get one or the other,” says Lesley Sharp, who plays Janet Scott.
“That’s something I know well, and my friends do too – it’s a constant pull between home and family life, and sometimes you feel like you’re getting everything wrong. But I don’t think that’s portrayed in a complex or appealing way very often, despite being common to a lot of women.”
The show was originally conceived by Sally Lindsay and Suranne Jones, who plays Rachel Bailey, in response to the scripts she was being sent. “There were lots of mothers, wives, mistresses – good roles, but a bit samey,” says Jones. Instead the two came up with a police partnership where we were able to glimpse both their work and private lives.
Female friendship sits at the heart of the drama, both between Scott and Murray, friends for 20 years who have forged their careers together, and Scott and Bailey who unusually, in terms of TV drama at least, are friends with an age gap of more than a decade.
“That’s an experience that a lot of women have but it’s rarely portrayed on screen,” says Sharp. Perhaps most striking, however, is that female friendship is shown as most of us experience it: supportive, fun, without backstabbing or bitchiness. “It’s a very positive message of women at work – which is often portrayed as women wanting to undermine each other,” says Sharp. “Friends say that it’s brilliant seeing women behave in a way I’m used to, rather than trying to flirt and outgun each other.”
Wainwright is clear, however, that her script doesn’t represent an attempt to address the way in which women are portrayed on TV – the fact that the central trio of the series are women is incidental and goes unremarked on screen; they don’t have to fight institutional sexism every day, or prove their worth to male colleagues, for instance.
Wainwright’s most recent project is Last Tango in Halifax, a six-part drama for BBC1 about four women – two in their 40s, and two in their 70s – which, combined with the success of Scott & Bailey and the BBC’s Call the Midwife, suggests that female-dominated dramas are having a moment.
But not, perhaps, across the board. Wainwright is finding the going tough, when it comes to younger women as leads, with two ideas intended for early-Saturday-evening viewing – a young highwaywoman and a female Robin Hood – not making it to screen.
“My anxiety about that is that people think viewers don’t want to see young women in that slot,” says Wainwright. “My worry is that they think that boys won’t want to see that, and girls only want to see sexy blokes. And as a 14-year-old, that definitely wouldn’t have been true for me.”
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