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.