The first ladies of television

It's boom time for female characters on the small screen.

Extreme endurance, explosive speed, and supreme strength; this summer was always going to be full of strong televised female performance thanks to the Olympics, but that is by no means where it will end. We’re facing a boom for fictional female characters on the small screen, and from QCs to killers, the roles could hardly be more varied or powerful.

In fact, the two shows that already have critics beside themselves with excitement are female- led, and, whether we’re meeting the Vice President or just a group of New Yorkers, both shows feature female TV firsts. Veep has been the subject of all kinds of anticipation since it was announced that The Thick Of It’s Armando Ianucci would be working with Brass Eye’s Chris Morris on an American political satire, and now that it’s coming to Sky Atlantic in June, we’re reaching fever pitch.

The fact that the titular Veep is played by Seinfeld’s Julia Louis- Dreyfus could simply be seen as a sitcom gimmick, but creating the (albeit fictional) first female Vice President of the United States for a mass audience could have quite an effect. Dennis Haysbert, the actor who played America’s first black President, David Palmer, in Kiefer Sutherland’s 24, has said that the role "may have helped open the eyes of the American people" ahead of Barack Obama’s 2009 election victory. And if an against-the-clock actioner can pave the way for an African- American Commander- in- Chief, surely an intelligent comedy hailed by the New York Post as having "rescued the sitcom" could plant the idea of a woman in the Oval Office?

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Instead of re-ordering America’s political elite, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls (coming to, again, Sky Atlantic in September) focuses on reinventing the way women are portrayed in TV comedies. In fact, it’s been so successful at doing just that, that New York magazine described it as "like nothing else on TV" and as "a sex comedy from the female POV", perhaps not surprising with rising star Dunham at the helm alongside Bridesmaids producer and US comedy king- maker Judd Apatow.

Naomi Gibney, director of Sky Atlantic, says that not only is there more where that came from, but there are home- grown female fronted shows to look forward to as well. “At Sky Atlantic we’ve built a reputation for showing some of the best television in the world and this summer – as ever - we’re proud to present a line-up which includes smart, magnetic and immersive storytelling both by and about strong female characters,” she says.

There’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ toe-curlingly brilliant performance as Washington’s second-in-command in Veep and Kristen Bell’s razor-sharp portrayal of ambitious Ivy League graduate Jeannie Van Der Hoven in House Of Lies, while Lena Dunham’s sensational new series Girls – which counts the 26-year-old as creator, writer, director and star – looks set to revitalise the portrayal of young women on TV.  And from this side of the pond, we’ll be showcasing brand new series from two of Britain’s finest comediennes this summer – Kathy Burke’s Walking and Talking and Julia Davis’ Hunderby.

It’s not all Sky Atlantic though, and, this week (15 May) Maxine Peake returns to the BBC in a second series of Silk, as a high- flying QC who she describes as "a successful female who’s got her foibles and got her faults, but at the same time she’s quirky and she’s human".

The autumn will also see one of terrestrial TV’s strongest characters back on fighting form when Dame Maggie Smith returns for a third series of Downton Abbey, and, no doubt competing for the same viewers on Christmas day, we can look forward to the arrival of Doctor Who’s new companion, Jenna- Louise Coleman, currently bagging more headlines than the Timelord himself. Even further in the future, Sherlock’s Lara Pulver has hinted at a return for her dominatrix character who sent middle England into a froth with pre- watershed S&M scenes, but with shooting not set to commence until 2013, we’ve got a wait on our hands.

It’s quite a trend, but why now? Certainly, it’s about time that TV roles for women reflected those in real- life (the designers on Veep are said to have based the wardrobe on that of Michelle Obama for example), but the reason could be simpler still. The most- talked about TV trend of recent times has to be the wave of Scandinavian drama led by The Killing and The Bridge, and, in addition to a towering body count and subtitles, both shows have one thing in common- a strong leading lady.

The Bridge’s Sofia Helin and The Killing’s Sofie Grabol have both managed to hold the attention of an international audience without conforming to female television stereotypes, and in spite of being, particularly in the case of Helin’s character Noren, potential sociopaths. With The Killing already successfully remade for an English- speaking audience, The Bridge reportedly set foran English version on Sky Atlantic, and a fresh slate of imports on their way, it may not be surprising that writers have been inspired by the best aspects of these Scando- dramas and grabbed the chance to ignore TV traditions in favour of a bold female front.

That said, not all traditional roles are dead - a re- boot of Dallas arrives on Channel 5 soon, and with Linda Gray’s Sue Ellen Ewing making a TV return, it could yet prove to be the biggest hit of them all.

Julia Louis Dreyfus, star of HBO's Veep (photo: Getty Images)
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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge