Television: Girl power's rude awakening

Real Women could be subtitled "Girl Power - The Drama". Susan Oudot's sparky three-part adaptation of her own novel brings the Spice Girls' overworked slogan joyously and uninhibitedly to life. Real Women is really rude.

In the first episode, five female thirtysomethings (played by the winning quintet of Pauline Quirke, Frances Barber, Michelle Collins, Lesley Manville and Gwyneth Strong), friends since their schooldays in north London, are reunited for a hen night. They let rip in a way that even a rugby club dinner would be hard-pushed to match.

As the booze flows and tongues loosen, the girls' talk becomes increasingly outrageous. Anna, Barber's character, a sleek magazine editor, gleefully exclaims: "I interviewed this bloke who could only get it up if it was a full moon and he rolled around in cowshit."

The series tells it like it is in a manner too rarely seen in mainstream TV drama. How often do we see programmes reflecting the unfettered delight women take in each other's company? The true accuracy of Real Women, however, lies in the fact that it celebrates women without clobbering men.

This was the main draw for Barber, who is immaculately clad in a black suit and crimson lipstick in a swish central London hotel. "What's important about Real Women," she asserts, "is that nobody hates men in it. In fact, the men are lovely. The sentiment that `all men are bastards' is a cliche and is just not true. Sometimes I do think they're from Mars, but it's unsophisticated to suggest that all men are dreadful. All that dreary, ranty feminist stuff about men is passe."

For Barber, her character - a woman who's put her work before motherhood - also rang true. "I can identify with Anna in terms of my own lifestyle," Barber declares. "She's pursued her career at the expense of family life. She didn't make a conscious decision about it. Only when the biological clock starts ticking, do you realise you never had a strategy. I've never had an agenda, but because of the `unfair' disadvantage of the biological clock, as I'm nearing 40 I find myself wondering whether I should have taken time out five years ago to consider it. I can empathise with Anna."

Barber puts this wave of women hearing the biological clock ticking more and more loudly down to the go-getting 1980s. "We did have a genuinely barren period when Thatcherism thrust all of us into a lifestyle that was gold-digging and passionless. If you were a high-flyer, there wasn't time to take nine months out - someone else would have taken your job."

She reckons that this strong, women-led series has been made possible by the pioneering efforts of Helen Mirren in the Prime Suspect cycle. "Prime Suspect was such a huge hit that controllers now know that a woman can command a massive audience - it's not only David Jason or John Thaw who can do it. Projects like Real Women didn't exist in the past because controllers didn't have faith that the public would respond in those sort of numbers to a lone female. Helen has opened doors to the future.

"Also, TV producers now are waking up to the fact that a lot of female viewers don't just want to see a handsome man they'd like to go to bed with," Barber continues. "They want to see people reacting to situations they know. They can identify, say, with Helen's horror at the ruthlessness of the human condition in Prime Suspect. It gives you hope to see someone struggling to make sense out of chaos. It's cathartic."

Though passionate about her work, Barber is not without a sense of humour. She laughs, for instance, about her reputation for taking her clothes off the moment a camera appears. "Over the years, I've had a great deal more of me shown than was necessary - which is tedious, frankly. It can look beautiful on the big screen, but in television I find myself cringeing when directors attempt to do a Nic Roeg. It just doesn't work."

As she prepares to go into the West End in the re-cast production of Closer, Barber reflects on her wide-ranging career. "If there's a link in everything I've ever done, it's a lack of completion," she muses. "There's something unfulfilled in all those women - from Night of the Iguana to Real Women to Insignificance, where I played Marilyn Monroe. She represents iconic incompletion. In that play, Joe Di Maggio says to her, `What do you want?, and she replies, `I don't want to want'. That's terribly moving. We all want everything and more, and are never satisfied with what we've got."

`Real Women' starts on Thur at 9.30pm on BBC1

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