Sites of interest


In their quest for demographic comprehensiveness, ITV's dramatists tend to turn to the eternal facts of life, love (by which they mean sex) and death (by which they mean murder). Picture the delight, then, of Network Centre, when writer Michael Chaplin came up with Grafters (Carlton, Tuesday, 9pm), a serial about a third universality everyone else had missed: builders.

The Grafters are the cowboys Joe and Trevor Purvis, brothers from the Newcastle Job Centre down in London to do up the home of dinkies Paul and Laura. We have all suffered at the hands of Joes and Trevors - unless, that is, we are Joes and Trevors who have suffered at the hands of Pauls and Lauras, clients who want the job done to perfection but on the cheap. As a premise for humour, house renovation can hardly fail, for it follows the natural rhythm of comedy: slapstick followed by recrimination.

Chaplin's script is as workmanlike as the Purvis brothers and as keen to over-extend itself as Paul and Laura. Grafters self-consciously contains all the divisions you could imagine in contemporary Britain: north/south, blue collar/white collar, employer/employee, husband/wife, single/married. But these differences are meant to be exposed as trivial. We come to see that beneath the Hugo Boss suits the only difference between Paul and Joe is that Paul's city scams are a hundred times more lucrative than Joe's.

Robson Green plays Joe as a wideboy who, blessed with an irresistible appeal to women, thinks all life's complications have been similarly exaggerated. He is the chancer of the partnership, a super craftsman but a more roughly hewn human being, a fantasist whom Trevor keeps dragging back to earth. Stephen Tompkinson's Trevor knows life is full of problems but he lives cowering under some that do not even exist. Trevor is so useless that the rest of the crew think he is having it off with Laura when he isn't (or at least not so far), yet he cannot fend off the advances of a tart from the pub.

The scene when Laura discovers them in flagrante is one of those West End moments television drama should avoid, but is typical of the way the series paces itself by means of comic crises. If in any real doubt, Grafters has one of the cast hang for dear life from faulty scaffolding. The dialogue is sometimes a botch-up. This week a property developer lured Trevor and Joe into a lap-dancing club. "Haven't you got a place like this in Newcastle?" he taunts. Trevor replies: "Not that I know of." Not that I know of? A dozen years ago Auf Wiedersehen, Pet gave us: "I'm telling you, sex is in its infancy in Gateshead." But there is felicity, too, in some of the simplicity of the writing, as when Laura asks Trevor why he puts up with Joe's relentless condescension. Trevor replies affectingly: "He's my brother. It's all right."

Forgiveness is an aspect of brotherly love, and brotherly love is an aspect of the brotherhood of man. As the building inspector tells the lot of them after a complaint from next door: "However nice you make your house, if you don't get on with your neighbours life can be a bloody nightmare." ITV's uncontroversial moral is: we are all brothers (and grafters under the skin): love thy neighbour.

People began watching this drama because it starred Green from Soldier Soldier and Reckless and Tompkinson from Drop the Dead Donkey. They are sticking with it because it shows more or less believable characters in a more or less credible version of England. Nor should the contribution of Robert Lockhart's infectious theme tune be ignored. I doubt if I have ever seen so many scenes saved by their incidental music - a backhanded compliment, I know.

Saturday night's Travels with Pevsner (BBC2, 6.10pm) was also enhanced by musical illustration, including the themes from Titanic and Twin Peaks. Philip Hoare's subject was his home county, Hampshire, and his populist musical choices were antidotes to Nikolaus Pevsner, whose dry architectural notes were read out in a Mr Kipling Makes Exceedingly Good Cakes voice and received with some scepticism by Hoare. Hoare, a biographer of Noel Coward and, he claimed, "Southampton's first punk", made out a good case that Hampshire is haunted by the first world war. Like Hampshire's great war artist, Stanley Spencer, however, it is also a haven for England at its most eccentric and mystical. The Germanic pedant Pevsner, he complained, never really got it. "In a way," he said, "it is annoying to have him here, to have his voice in my ear and his estate-agent speak determining my travels, determining what I see."

Despite both having builders as their stars, Grafters and Travels with Pevsner are both oddly anti-architectural tracts. Hoare maintains the only worthwhile stories buildings have to tell are about the people who lived, worked or died in them - people such as Private Meek, victim of a battle in 1916, whose traumatised 23-year-old face grinned idiotically out at us from the film archives of the asylum of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital in Netley. Laura and Paul are learning a not dissimilar lesson in humanity: that achieving an understanding with and of your builders is much more important than being able to read a catalogue of interior designs.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.