It's not often you get Germaine Greer and Victoria Beckham swapping notes on contemporary culture. But Footballers' Wives, ITV's new drama about the distaff side of our national game, has led to just that. While the learned professor writes animatedly about the show's "phallic anxiety that afflicts men who, as athletes, have become identified with body and therefore feminised", the pop star turned footie wife says more simply: "It's entertaining. It's not real life, but I like it."
Such erudite conversation has been sparked by the second drama serial made by Shed Productions. The company had a runaway success with its first project, the women's prison drama Bad Girls. And now, with the cult status of Footballers' Wives, the two programmes, with strong female roles at their core, have formed a new genre: tough-bitch TV.
Shed was established in 1998 when producers Eileen Gallagher and Brian Park, and writers Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, decided to set up a company. Gallagher and McManus met on Scottish TV's Take the High Road, which they helped shift from being a dull regional soap into one the funniest things on British TV. Chadwick worked with Park and McManus on Coronation Street in the 1990s, when he was dubbed "the mad axeman" for sacking much-loved regulars while turning round the soap's fortunes with younger characters and savvier plots overseen by McManus.
To make Bad Girls, Shed had to raise a £5m loan, half a million of which went on building Europe's largest free-standing set for both the interior and exterior action. The faux Victorian Larkhall Prison stands in a studio complex in East London, while its exterior version is half a mile away.
The high production values on Bad Girls set it apart from two earlier women-in-prison dramas – the twinset and pearls cosiness of Within These Walls (1974-78) and the unintended comedy provided by the wobbly sets on Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979-95). Gallagher is the sole Shed fan of Aussie schlock (indeed, in her time at Granada and LWT, she was responsible for keeping Prisoner on our screens). "For a cheap old series from Australia it had a huge and loyal fanbase," she says. "And some of the storylines were strong and interesting, so I wouldn't knock it."
Bad Girls was panned by critics when it first appeared in May 1999, being dubbed "trash TV". But word of mouth brought it a large and loyal audience (which now averages 9.5million) and the programme is about to start its fourth series.
The drama is unique in its feminine slant: it has women writers, a female producer and gritty storylines for actresses. For once women in primetime TV are central to the action, and not appendages to men. Its attractions for actresses are obvious. Claire King, who played vampish temptress Kim Tate in Emmerdale before arriving inBad Girls as prison officer Karen Betts, says: "I jumped at the chance to play a role against type. It's good to be in a series that deals with serious issues."
And the same attraction is there in Footballers' Wives. Zoe Lucker, who plays Tanya, wife of all-round bad boy Jason Turner, enjoys her role. "Tanya's a survivor, a strong woman who knows what she wants and is the driving force in the marriage. She's fantastic to play because there's a wide range, some great bitching, but also some huge emotional scenes."
Bad Girls' lesbian storylines, including one in which Governor Helen Stewart falls in love with prisoner Nikki Wade, have helped attract a large gay following for the series. (Of the show's 120 unofficial fan websites, the majority are gay.) As Simone Lahbib, who played Stewart before leaving the show, has said: "Fans are really chuffed to have two attractive, non-stereotypical women playing gay characters. No skinheads or dungarees."
There have been accusations that the lesbian elements are there to titillate men, which deeply irritate Shed. "That's complete bollocks," says Chadwick. "It would be totally unrepresentative of the women's prison population if we didn't have lesbian characters, or indeed drug users and prostitutes." Gallagher points out: "We actually only show lesbian behaviour when it's relevant to the storyline, as in the development of the love story between [until then heterosexual] Helen and Nikki. Other relationships are obviously lesbian, but if it's understood why show the sex?."
The largest chunk of Bad Girls' audience is teenagers and twentysomethings. Brian Park says the attraction for them is not so much the female slant as its anti-authority ethos. "It reminds them of school or college. So the warders are teachers and the kids see the inmates as reflections of themselves." So much so that the programme's choice insult "you twatting twat" has entered the language.
Park points out, though, that overall the ITV audience is female-skewed – witness the outcome of the recent battle for Saturday-night ratings between Cilla Black and Des Lynam – and it's easy to see why two programmes that show women as doers and copers have been successful. Also the heady mix of serious issues – from self-harm in prison to male oppression of women – with wonderfully camp comedy make them almost irresistible.
Park's colleagues are happy to wear their politics on their sleeves. "Footballers' Wives is a feminist critique of the world of football," says McManus. "Women are not the ones being pampered by the club, but they have to pick up the pieces when things go wrong. This is drama from women's point of view. We don't see any of the action, we don't even know what's going on on the football field."
We do, however, see what's going on in the showers, which has caused much gratitude from the ladies, and much negative comment from male critics. Says Chadwick: "They call it gratuitous when they don't ever say that about tits on TV. It confirms my view that pornography laws in this country are designed to protect men from the critical gaze of women."
But at first sight it might be difficult to see where a feminist slant applies to Footballers' Wives, particularly as it came from an original idea by a man, Paul Marquess. As a drama full of flash cars, ostentatious wealth and beautiful women who drink a lot but do very little work, it doesn't appear Professor Greer territory at all. But, says, Chadwick "Footballers' Wives is a logical progression from Bad Girls. It's working-class women in a different kind of prison – they're imprisoned by fame and money. They have security gates at their homes and are in marriages where they are entirely dependent on their men for their status."
McManus adds: "We grabbed the idea because it gave us an opportunity to write about working-class women thrust into the limelight, with wealth beyond their imagination, dealing with difficult men who have a lot of temptation. They have to be strong to do that and it's interesting to see how they deal with the aggressive, testosterone-fuelled psychology of their men."
Feminist critiques they may be, but neither series is anti-men, despite some of their outrageous behaviour – including prison officer Jim Fenner's sexual abuse of inmates in Bad Girls and the married players screwing around in Footballers' Wives. As Chadwick says: "I don't think being feminist in any way means being anti-men. We're just against certain types of behaviour and we show these in order to mock them."
And whether it's the prison warder eventually getting his comeuppance, or the wayward husband finding that respecting his wife actually makes him happy, women come out on top. And off -screen too women are increasingly setting the TV agenda (the three most senior production jobs at the BBC are now held by women) and companies like Shed, with women creating primetime television, are part of this trend.
So now it's almost impossible for any intelligent person to watch dramas with women there simply as eye candy. We'd rather watch them being strong, whether it's kicking off in prison, or kicking ass at home.
'Footballers' Wives', Tuesdays, 9pm, ITV; 'Bad Girls' returns on 28 February on ITVReuse content