It's the men who are on the sidelines this time.
On A fine spring evening in Northwest London, five women line up outside a school to be photographed. They pose good-naturedly for the cameras, laughing off a shouted request to "give us a line of 'Wannabe'" - an inevitable reference to that other all-women five-piece, the Spice Girls. It is the first time, as far as anyone remembers, that not just the three main parties but two of the single-issue campaigns in a parliamentary constituency have selected female candidates.

Easily the most famous is Glenda Jackson, the Labour candidate, who has a notional 2,500 majority over her Conservative rival, Elizabeth Gibson, in the redrawn Hampstead & Highgate constituency. Lining up beside them are Bridget Fox for the Lib Dems and two anti-EC candidates, Patsy Prince for Alan Sked's UK Independence Party and Monima Siddique for Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. All of them, it seems, accept the sudden surge of press interest caused by their gender but worry it might divert attention from the issues. "In a sense it's nice," says Ms Fox, a 32-year- old information manager with the English sports council, "but it's sad that it's news." In a few moments, they will head into the school building to share a platform at an election meeting organised by the local newspaper, the Ham & High, with another distinguished woman, Helena Kennedy QC, in the chair. The gym of South Hampstead High School for Girls is already full to bursting, the audience waiting eagerly to discover what impact this all-woman panel will have on adversarial British politics.

Suddenly, though, the photo-call is disrupted by a tall figure in dreadlocks and baggy shorts who lopes across the schoolyard, megaphone in hand and a grievance to air. He is Captain Rizz, a fringe candidate whose brief election manifesto advocates that Hampstead & Highgate should be declared a "special zone with unlimited use of TV and radio stations". The Captain, in jaunty peaked cap adorned by leopard-skin band, is annoyed because, in spite of being a bona fide candidate, he has not been invited to share a platform with the five women wannabes.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the schoolyard another fringe candidatebegins giving interviews. A vaguely familiar figure with grey hair and an impressive tan, he is soon identified as the former pop singer Ronnie Carroll. "'Roses are red'?" reporters mutter to each other, trying to recall whether he won the Eurovision Song Contest. Mr Carroll turns out to be standing not just in Hampstead & Highgate but in a total of 50 constituencies across the country as the sole candidate of the Rainbow Dream Ticket Party - an outfit founded by the veteran environmental campaigner Rainbow George and financed, bizarrely, by a legacy from the late comedian Peter Cook.

It is a deliciously ironic moment as the serious candidates, all of them women, goggle at the antics of the decidedly less serious men. Bridget Fox is interviewed by a television crew who want to know her view on the exclusion from the meeting of Captain Rizz and two other male candidates. "I think that minorities should be represented," Ms Fox says, crisply.

The circus in the schoolyard begins to run out of steam and we troop inside. Ms Fox makes an eloquent speech about why she is a Liberal Democrat but Mrs Gibson, a 45-year-old teacher, misjudges the mood of the meeting, launching into a bitter personal attack on Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and her fellow panellist Glenda Jackson. To a chorus of boos, she struggles through her type-written speech, denouncing - perhaps unwisely, given that we are in affluent Hampstead - "millionaire champagne socialists".

Glenda Jackson receives warm applause for her opening reference to "a truly historic meeting... Women approach debate in a way that's entirely different from men. They don't automatically choose to be adversarial, aggressive and personal." With an actor's sense of timing, she pauses and then adds: "I'm very sorry indeed that this evening Mrs Gibson has chosen to disprove my theory."

It's one of the few moments when House of Commons-style rhetoric invades the proceedings. Another is when Patsy Prince, for the UK Independence Party, cannot resist a swipe at her rival from the Referendum Party. "I am not here as a politician of the right or left," she begins, "and certainly not as a representative of a wealthy financier." Ms Prince, a 26-year- old actress and stand-up comedian, soon has the audience rocking with laughter. "Europe is for holidays," she asserts at one point. "It's not for life."

Monima Siddique, a 36-year-old city banker who has given up her job with JP Morgan to stand in the election, has the most difficult task. As the representative of a single-issue campaign, she cannot fall back on party policy in answer to questions onNorthern Ireland or that burning local issue, the failings of the Northern line. Instead, she brandishes copies of the Treaty of Rome, the Maastricht Treaty and an EC map on which, she claims, the Channel Islands have been handed to the French.

So does it make any difference that five of the candidates are women? Against expectations, perhaps, the evening is not dominated by traditional "soft" issues, such as the NHS and education; instead, all five reveal themselves to be confident, well-informed public speakers on a range of subjects. It is striking how much more interesting the panel looks and sounds than the line-ups of men in suits that dominate most of the nightly television coverage of the election.

"I rather liked it," Ms Siddique muses afterwards, as the audience files out of the gym. Outside, in Maresfield Gardens where Freud once had his consulting rooms, there is no sign of Captain Rizz. The evening belongs, metaphorically at least, to Five Tall Women.