Ceiling? What ceiling? Celebrating the return of Scott and Bailey

How fantastic to have a show in which the two main characters are competent, sane, ambitious women who like their work and gain an awful lot of satisfaction from it.

Scott & Bailey
ITV

How do we feel about Scott & Bailey (Wed­nesdays, 9pm)? I feel pretty good, three series in (this is the fourth). How fantastic to have a show in which the two main characters are competent, sane, ambitious women who like their work and gain an awful lot of satisfaction from it. DCI Jane Tennison (of Prime Suspect fame) was all very well while she lasted, but even as a student I spotted that the boozing and loneliness spoke of sacrifice; that contentment, albeit leavened with a certain kind of focused restlessness, was never part of the deal. So no wonder that a lump rose in my throat when DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) explained to the police board her decision to seek promotion to sergeant at the age of 50 with the words: “I’m not trailing off, I’m gearing up.”

Undaunted is a good word at the best of times, but when it’s there in parentheses in the screenplay of a prime-time ITV show about two women, one must proceed to the nearest fridge and pour a very large, very cold, celebratory drink.

Scott and her colleague DC Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) had a big falling-out a while back. But now they’re firm friends again, the kind who can be perfectly open about the fact that they’re both hoping for promotion. Brilliantly, both turned out to have passed the police board, giving each other the thumbs-up at the same moment as they listened to their mobile messages in the yard where the coppers go to smoke. Rather less brilliantly, Scott then decided to turn down the offer from her boss, DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore, who also wrote this episode), to become the team’s new sergeant; her teenage daughter, she has realised, needs her to be at home more, not less. I know this was more of plot device than anything else, a means of keeping the two women together on screen (Bailey accepted the post instead, which meant she didn’t have to leave the unit). But as Scott told the board, down the years so many officers had been promoted over her head, most of them a lot less capable than her. I couldn’t help but mourn her big moment.

With its gritty, retro opening titles and its close attention – quite severe at times – to police procedure, Scott & Bailey is most definitely a cop show. There’s nearly always a chase down some perilous ginnel, and nine times out of ten Bailey will throw the cuffs on some jug-eared thug, shouting as she does: “I’m arresting you, you bastard!” It has a keen sense of place: pubs, terraced houses, flooded quarries, post-industrial wildernesses. But it’s also a series that understands the importance of relationships, the way they thread through everything, or at least everything that’s important. I like the conversations Scott and Bailey have on their mobiles as they drive home – Bailey can’t and won’t cook, and Scott, the older of the two, is her kitchen coach, one who tries hard to not pass judgement on the fact that Bailey leaves her onions until “there are these plants growing out of them”. They’re like overgrown schoolgirls: though they spend quite a lot of every day together, there’s always stuff that needs mopping up, conversationally speaking, late at night.

Even better is the benign presence of Murray, played with such veracity by Bullmore that you half expect her to show up on News at Ten conducting a press conference. She’s a dream boss: straightforward, collaborative, encouraging; tough when she needs to be rather than for the sake of it. This, in my experience, and contrary to popular myth, is what many female employers are like.

The new series of Scott & Bailey came to us in the same week as Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman became the first all-woman team to present a prime-time Saturday-night entertainment show . . . about dancing (Bruce Forsyth has now left the building). I know. I shouldn’t mock. Honestly, I’m sincerely grateful for every glass ceiling – in this case, it has a large glitter ball attached to it – that is smashed. But it’s hard to get very excited. This isn’t Question Time. It’s not even Top Gear. Most of you already know by now how I feel about clever women pretending to be a bit stupid, but I’ll say it again anyway. Goofing around: there are times when I wonder whether this isn’t one job that really is best left to the boys. 

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 appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown