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My love of Jessica Hynes in Up the Women was almost enough to make me join Twitter

Up the Women is adorable. Admittedly, it starts slowly, but the second episode is funny. Properly funny. And clever, too.

I’m not on Twitter – so far, I’ve seen nothing to disabuse me of my strong hunch that it’s the seventh circle of hell – but I had a brief longing to join the other day so that I could tell Jessica Hynes, who is on it, how much I love her new suffragette sitcom, Up the Women (Thursdays, 8.30pm). Also, to force her to be my friend.

My God, it’s adorable, this series. Admittedly, it starts slowly: the first episode is sweet but a bit unfunny, mainly because the situation has to be set up before the jokes can flow. It’s an old-fashioned static sitcom – all the action takes place in a village hall – with a strong feeling of Dad’s Army about it, so character is important. Before anything else can happen, we need to know who’s thick and who’s bright, who’s power-crazed and who’s reticent, who’s sex-mad and who is a virgin.

However, I’ve seen the second episode and that is funny. Properly funny. And clever, too. It takes the viewer’s intelligence and erudition for granted, which is quite something, these days. There are jokes about Bizet and E M Forster and algorithms. There was even a joke about Nietzsche. (Someone asked Margaret, the character played by Hynes, who Nietzsche was and she said: “He was a bit like Shockheaded Peter but much crosser.”)

Best of all, though, are the tiny details that show the great care with which it has been made. In the second episode, you had to be paying attention to notice Margaret quickly pinching her cheeks before she went to meet the policeman with whom she had been in love as a young girl.

But I’m running ahead of myself. Here’s how it goes. Margaret, a clever but rather diffident young woman, has returned home from a trip to London ablaze with suffragette fervour, with the result that she is determined to turn the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle, of which she is a member, into the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Frankly Demands Women’s Suffrage (this becomes “Politely Demands” over time). Not everyone is keen on this idea – her nemesis is Helen (Rebecca Front), who plays Captain Mainwaring to Margaret’s Sergeant Wilson – but, in the end, she more or less gets her way (Helen will simply moan and roll her eyes from the sidelines).

The only trouble is that the craft circle is not really suited to fighting for the vote. Gwen (Vicki Pepperdine in a set of Dick Emery teeth) is preoccupied with her spinsterhood, her mother’s pleurisy (“She’s finally agreed to take up smoking, as the doctor advised”) and the tiffin she prepares each week for the circle’s delectation; Eva (Emma Pearson) is obsessed with her 14 children, Liberty, Chastity, Patience, Providence, Prudence, Justina, Ernestina, Constance, Clemency, Chastity, Virginity, Abstinence, Moderation and, erm, John; Mrs Von Heckling (Judy Parfitt, in as fine form as I have ever seen her) is obsessed with her fading youth. In other words, they are to suffrage pretty much what Pike and co were to the Home Guard.

If this sounds silly, that’s because it is. But it’s more than that. There are two things that make Up the Women special as well as adorable. The first is Hynes’s performance as Margaret, which is wonderful: detailed, heartfelt, affectionate, convincing. She’s such a brilliant actor. The second is the way the series reminds you over and over how little has changed.

The hall where the circle meets has a caretaker, Frank (Adrian Scarborough), who talks to the women as if they were toddlers, or imbeciles. Margaret, whose stockings are certainly blue and whose knickers are doubtless made of worsted, is about 80 times more capable than Frank but still she listens politely to his (wholly inadequate) account of how a lightbulb works, or what electricity is, her lips pursed tightly together, the better to ensure that her own learning does not suddenly burst out and give her away.

These scenes are truly great, the expression on Hynes’s face (half-amused, half-boiling with frustration) standing proxy for any clever woman who has ever had to stand quietly by while a man patronises her (which is to say all the intelligent women who have ever drawn breath in this or any other time). Will men get the joke? Yes, they will. This is BBC4’s first sitcom, so those men who watch it will be of a certain type: the kind who truly believe they treat women as equals (and in spite of all their moaning!). They’ll chuckle loudly and they’ll cheer Margaret on and then they’ll go to work and talk down to their assistants anyway.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.