Click to follow
The Independent Online
When she realised that she had married into a political life, Cyril Townsend's wife went off and enrolled at night classes to brush up her public speaking. She had, it was clear, learnt her lesson well, having mastered in particular the Redundant Apology, a popular device at Conservative Party Conferences ("If wanting to castrate sex offenders is regarded as old fashioned, well, I'm sorry... old-fashioned I am"). "I'm a traditionalist on that line, I'm afraid," Townsend simpered to a luncheon party of Tory women, "I wanted to bring up my own children."

Oh, very well... simpered is unfair and hardly justified by Rebecca Frayn's film for Modern Times (BBC2) which, for a while at least, managed to keep its own prejudices in check. It began with some cruel close-framing of recent political scandals, pained women doing the Tammy Wynette. But if you thought that this might be a case of shooting fish in a barrel (fish with big hair and Hermes scarves) "Tory Wives" subdued the expectation of blood sport by giving an early hearing to Lady Vanessa Hannam, undoubtedly ornamental but also engagingly blunt about the shortcomings of political men. "I don't like politicians as a breed," she said, "I think they're a ghastly load of egoists... they're not house-trained you see.. they become house-trained again about halfway through the recess... I mean we're now about three weeks into the recess and John is, really he's Douglas Fairbanks, but he was pretty ghastly at the beginning of it all." At least they're not all fragrant doormats, you thought.

Unfortunately, most male MPs are House-trained, disciplined into a disregard of children and spouses that would be classed as abandonment in other circles. And not all wives are quite so robust about their rights. "If you're married to a politician his first wife is the House," said another, resigned to this effective polygamy. Wife number two has to be biddable and supportive. She has to put up with a husband who extols the conjugal virtues of the mobile phone and the fax machine, and has to fill the empty hours with useful, vote-preserving activity. The funniest scenes in Frayn's film covered an international charity fair at which a clutch of Tory ladies marshalled the globe into order: "No, no, Zimbabwe's going upstairs"; "Amman and Swaziland haven't turned up"; "Could we move India?". International relations should be like this, you thought, the clatter of court shoes marching into the world's troublespots - "Come along now Kashmir, if you just budge up towards the Himalayas there'll be plenty of room for everybody."

Those who rebel or go mad can expect only limited sympathy. Sally Neubert, Chairman of the Conservatives Wives Association, seemed to think she offered a shoulder to cry on. I doubt if many rest their head in that uncongenial spot for long: "You must be very boring to be bored" was how she suggested she might respond to complaints of loneliness. "Does that cheer them up?" asked an off-screen voice. "Not really, no," Mrs Neubert replied briskly, "some go away and commit suicide but, you know, you can't win them all."

By the end the film had modulated its opening jollity into something cooler. Perhaps you just became weary of the bright obedience of these women, the way they tried to force down their diet of surrender without making a public grimace. But there was also something in the direction that cast a harder light on the brittle contentment. "I went off to work feeling really rather sad," said Gail Redwood, confessing that she learnt of her husband's leadership bid from colleagues at work. The sharpest scene was that in which Gail Lilley sat alone in a Normandy living room, to the sound of her husband extolling the moral virtues of the family. This was clearly an invention: for all you knew he was in the next room making her tea, but you got the point all the same.