Girl power

Television - Andrew Billen looks at how women have clawed their way to the top

It was the contention of Ballbreakers on the Box that women had a tough time getting from the typing pool to the boardroom but their ride was even tougher on television. Ballbreakers (Easter Monday, Channel 4), all 90 nostalgia-loaded minutes of it, reported how TV softly mutated the cliches of female bossdom, the transition of battle-axe to matriarch, of vamp to bitch, and of tragic spinster to miniskirted neurotic fretting over her biological clock.

You wouldn't want to meet any of television's earliest empowered women on a dark night. Peggy Mount, Hattie Jacques and Mollie Sugden were sexually undesirable, spinsters or divorcees for whom work sublimated desire and provided a replacement family. To survive, they turned themselves into terrifying harridans, vulnerable only when they pathetically attempted to lure a man into bed.

Yet beyond the world of comedy, in drama, there were quickly personifications of female competence. Annie Walker, although pretentious, ran a tight ship at the Rover's Return. The highly strung women of Compact met their deadlines. Although the programme omitted to mention them, there were other bosses, too, in that golden age of middle-aged women: Googie Withers, Katharine Blake and Sarah Lawson in turn ran the jailhouse in Within These Walls. Margaret Lockwood in Justice was no mean barrister. Most impressive of all, however, was Meg Richardson in Crossroads, sherry schooner in hand, guiding a functional hotel and a dysfunctional family from the poop deck of widowhood.

But while Meg's stern matriarchy was beloved by viewers, Noele Gordon, who played her, was not appreciated by the producers. Hazel Adair, the programme's creator (whom I have never seen interviewed before), confided euphemistically that Gordon would not suffer fools gladly. The show's founder producer, Reg Watson, once told the TV Times, more frankly, that she needed "a real bastard to control her". In the end, she was got rid of - and Margaret Thatcher came tumbling down eight years later.

It took much longer for television to accept that sexually active women could also run things. When they began to, their sexuality, naturally, became the issue. Whereas, in the early stereotypes, women were hired for their looks by men, in the newer paradigm, women owned their allure and used it as a weapon against them. An early example was Kate O'Mara, lying topless on the grim, spume-spattered deck of her cross-Channel ferry in Triangle. She was superseded, in full gloss, by Joan Collins in Dynasty, who met her match in our own Stephanie Beacham, groomed in bitchdom in Connie, the story of the Midlands textile firm heiress who returns, "with that look in her eye", declaring: "My spoon is going in the gravy. My snout is going in the trough."

In the Eighties, only Cagney and Lacey dared assume that two women could do a man's job without scratching each other's eyes out: the working title of this series on female buddies was "Newman and Redford". But as acceptance broke out in the Nineties, writers, in order to provide gender conflict, had to set their female protagonists in explicitly sexist environments such as the police force (Helen Mirren in the vice squad in Prime Suspect) or a football club (Cherie Lunghi in The Manageress).

The most interesting then-and-now contrast, however, is provided by The Mary Tyler Moore Show of the early Seventies and today's Ally McBeal. Moore, as Mary Richards, got a responsible if ill-defined job as an assistant producer in a TV newsroom, having, at the age of 30, emerged from a failed relationship. Although one in ten American women at the time was supporting herself with her own wages, this was a novelty as far as TV was concerned. Thirty years on, as Allan Burns, one of The MTMS's writers, pointed out, Ally McBeal brings Mary Richards full circle. Mary had the idea that a career just might be enough for her. Ally, dizzier and more vulnerable even than she, knows from the off that a career is not enough. Her dreams are taunted by the dancing unborn.

Made to mark the 30th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970, Ballbreakers picked the scene from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Mary discovers that her pay cheque is $50 lighter than her male predecessor's. When her boss, Lou Grant, snaps that he had a wife and kids to support, she momentarily buys the argument, before returning to his office to tell him that need has nothing to do with remuneration - or else he would pay bachelors less than married men and childless married men less than fathers. A debate won by the most popular sitcom in the US in the early Seventies would, you might think, stay won. NS readers who clocked Cristina Odone's cover story back in February will know that, in practice, it still needs to be had every day - and in television, too.

Ballbreakers ended censoriously with Sheila Hancock's voice-over purring the statistic that 74 per cent of all words uttered on TV are written by men. With a name like Hamish Mykura, the producer of this amply illustrated but loosely argued programme should know. He was also its writer.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard