Drama queens: The rise of women in TV drama

One of TV's key entertainment genres is now dominated by women – in stark contrast to the past. Paul Hoggart finds out why
Click to follow
The Independent Online

'Last week I had meetings with Jay Hunt, Jane Tranter, Laura Mackie, Sally Haynes and Jane Featherstone," says the veteran screenwriter, Tony Jordan (EastEnders, Hustle) with a wry laugh. "I suddenly realised I had been with some of the most powerful figures in television and they were all women. I think we're looking at some kind of conspiracy. Women are trying to take over the world, starting with television drama."

It may seem provocative to open a discussion of the role of women drama commissioners with a joke from a former market-stall trader whose writing portfolio includes some of the most memorably macho characters to appear on British screens, but the facts behind Jordan's theory are unarguable.

The commissioners of drama on all the main terrestrial networks – the people who decide what most of us will get to watch, in fact – are all women: Jane Tranter at the BBC enjoys the Orwellian title controller of fiction; Laura Mackie is ITV's head of drama; Liza Marshall, head of drama at Channel 4, works with Tessa Ross, their controller of film and drama.

To these we could add Mackie's deputy Sally Haynes, Kate Harwood, the BBC's head of series and serials, Elaine Pyke, Sky's head of drama and indie bosses such as Jane Featherstone of Kudos and Nicola Shindler of Red Productions.

Women occupy senior positions across the television industry, of course, but they seem to have made drama commissioning their special, if not exclusive territory and you don't have to suspect a global conspiracy to wonder how this has come about. Are women particularly drawn to this work? Are they better at it than men? If so, how and why? I wondered how the women themselves explain this phenomenon.

"There has been a big shift," Mackie says. "When I first started as a script editor in the late Eighties, all the decision-making positions in television drama were taken by men. Now the situation is completely reversed."

This was clearly evident in the line-up at this month's Cheltenham Screenwriters' Festival where Mackie was a speaker, along with Tranter, Harwood and the creator and producer of Waking the Dead, Barbara Machin.

Harwood tells me that she sees this development as a late fruit of the feminist movement. "Historically, there was a generation of us who were involved in organisations like Women in Entertainment and Women in Film in the early 1980s. Hilary Salmon [another influential television drama producer] and I were both literary managers at the Royal Court, and I was an assistant at the Women's Playhouse Trust.

"With the rise of feminism came a movement to put more women in the theatre as decision-makers. Then a whole group of us went into television as script-editors and we've just risen through the ranks really."

"Women are good at nurturing other women," says Mackie, who like Marshall and Harwood belongs to a close-knit group brought on by Tranter. "Jane's a bit like Gandalf,' says Harwood. "If she raised her staff and said 'Could everybody who ever worked for me come back?' women would be standing up behind every decision-maker's desk in the industry. We're all very interconnected."

Many have taken a similar career path from script-editor, through producer to executive producer and finally commissioner. Producing often brings long, anti-social hours and lengthy spells away from home and Marshall thinks there is an obvious practical explanation why so many women seek other roles, especially commissioning.

"A lot of women end up in commissioning jobs because they've got children."

"The family issue is absolutely true," Mackie agrees. "I was script-editing when I had my son." But she sees other issues as also key. "Drama production plays to women's strengths, anyway. It's a job where you have to have multiple personalities."

Some men in the business, such as Jordan for example, concur that women are better suited to the genre. "My entire career I've been surrounded by incredibly bright women from script-editors to commissioners. I think they are sharper and more conscientious than males. Men probably have shorter attention spans. Women are far more meticulous and smarter."

All the women I speak to are anxious to avoid indulging in gender stereotyping but, nonetheless, several believe there may be significant differences of temperament or aptitude. "Drama takes such a long time to develop," says Marshall, "literally years, and you can be working with quite temperamental people. It's about knowing when to intervene and when not to, and when to be supportive. Some people need bullying and some need caring and reassurance. I think maybe women are temperamentally better suited to that."

Machin rejects the idea that drama is a soft option beside, say, news and current affairs. "I see my colleagues in production. With five mobile phones on the go at once, and they might as well be on the front line in Iraq. You are full-on, and there's no hiding place. But here is my absolutely gender-laden, sexist remark: women have a terrific flair for multi-tasking. They are excellent at script-editing and the whole creative maelstrom you get into when you progress a script from beginning to end, at dealing with the nitty-gritty of finance and the emotional concerns of the cast who are about to walk away because they are upset and tired and a million other things at once.

"There's an old truism that women make good producers because in the 1950s they'd have been brilliant housewives. I think there's a big element of truth in that, and that a lot of women progress into commissioning because that is the logical career progression. It's the pinnacle of what they do."

The final hypothesis is aesthetic. "Women have always been great story-tellers," says Harwood, "and have always written internally and reflectively." They have "a real in-built sense of empathy," says Jordan. "They can find those emotional triggers." Stereotyping, perhaps, but "traditionally women are much greater drama viewers," says Marshall. "That's a statistical fact."

Machin was recently brought up short by a male writer who complained that the male psyche was now under-represented in TV drama. "I'm not sure I was convinced, though," she says. "Women are good at putting themselves in men's shoes, because that is what we are doing all the time anyway. Women are very good at getting both women and men, and I don't know if it's as true the other way around."

So women have become drama commissioners because of the rise of feminism, belonging to a mutually-supportive BBC coterie centred on Jane Tranter and/or because the hours were easier to fit around raising children. And any male drama producer hoping to break this monopoly should develop his skills in nurturing projects, maternal diplomacy, flexibility, multi-tasking, audience awareness and all-round empathy.

A final note of caution: when I raise these issues with the writer Kay Mellor, another festival speaker who runs her own production company, she is sceptical. "You've got to realise that above each of these powerful women, is an even more powerful man," she says. World domination may still be some way off.