Characters you can care about

The sentimental but kind and loving sitcom returns for a second series

<strong>Gavin and Stacey</

Only occasionally is Gavin and Stacey, the comedy about a girl from Barry who has fallen in love with a boy from Billericay, pee-yourself funny; the rest of the time it is soapy and sentimental. So why do I love it? I used to think it was because the genius of the few gags that it does offer, and the perfect performances put in by its cast, somehow gave me permission to wallow in - or to ignore - its saccharine plot; that, and how weary I am of brittle TV irony.

But it's more complicated than that. The series is just so completely itself; it has integrity, its own internal rules. I like its elliptical qualities: the way that some things (Nessa's tall stories, Bryn's sexuality) are never explained or commented on, and the way that characters take shocking or kinky goings-on (an unexpected pregnancy, a threesome) in their stride, but then make stern judgements about daft things like whether or not a hotel is changing the sheets every day.

On the subject of sheets, the changing of, a good test, in the opinion of Gavin's mum, Pam (Alison Steadman), is to hide two wine gums in a pillowcase: if they are still there when you come back from your hot stone massage, you'll know what's what. Pam, in her approach to this and other aspects of Essex life, has a certain loopy intensity that she shares with Bryn (Rob Brydon), Stacey's uncle, and Smithy (James Corden), Gavin's best friend.

They are all desperately loving, which makes them sweetly vulnerable even when they're being monstrous; they fear, dreadfully, being excluded from Gavin and Stacey's newly-wed bubble. There are people like this in all extended families - except, perhaps, not quite like this. Gavin and Stacey returned from their honeymoon to a banner at the airport ("We missed you and love you so much," Pam had written in magic marker); to a sulk about three weeks of unreturned calls (Smithy's); and to an uncle who'd had a T-shirt printed in advance, so excited was he by the prospect of their homecoming.

In the end, Smithy was calmed by Gavin's profferring of a dubious bottle of alcohol. The fact that they'd once seen this booze in Nuts magazine - you got the feeling that Smithy wouldn't have been bothered, otherwise - is symptomatic of how well-written the series is. Corden and his co-writer, Ruth Jones, know when characters should stay silent (after a rabbity monologue by Bryn, usually) and when they should add the crucial detail.

They are also deft at what you might call stagecraft. The new series began with a double bill, and the first show was mostly involved with getting all the characters in one place again: Bryn and Nessa had come south with Stacey's stuff, which, it later turned out, included a giant cuddly giraffe (house-proud Pam looked at this piece of inert wildlife, and jigged anxiously in her designer wellies). The writers weren't content, however, with assembling everyone in Pam's house; they crammed everyone in the loo at an Italian restaurant where Pam's friend Dawn (Julia Davis) was sobbing at the premature demise of the threesome she'd organised on the internet - a farce that could not have been wrapped up more expertly had it been written by Michael Frayn. Levers were pulled, but silently as the night.

The second part was funnier, though. Pregnant Nessa (Ruth Jones) claimed that "Richard" had offered her a place to stay, only "Judy" wouldn't have it, on account of the fact that, in the old days when she was the couple's nanny, she and he would spend whole days making love. Cue a kind of long-suffering but not wholly sceptical silence from Pam and Stacey. All the plot strands are now in place - Stacey's homesickness, Smithy's discovery of his impending fatherhood - to enable the rest of the series to unfold without too much contrivance. I can't wait to see what happens.

I suppose this is the real magic of it: Gavin and Stacey isn't just a comedy show, each episode quarantined from the last. These are characters whose destinies you care about. You want them to be happy and never to stop being so very kind and loving.

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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 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet

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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.