Written by Angela Barnes

Arts

Thank you, Carla Lane

The Liverpudlian writer’s sitcoms stuck two fingers up at the two-dimensional depiction of female characters in the genre, writes Angela Barnes.

Girls just wanted to have fun: Polly James and Nerys Hughes in The Liver Birds. Photo: BBC.

Girls just wanted to have fun: Polly James and Nerys Hughes in The Liver Birds. Photo: BBC.

So, 2016 trundles on and takes with it another comedy trailblazer. So soon after we lost Victoria Wood, Heaven decided it needed another great voice for women, and has taken queen of pathos, Carla Lane.

Victoria Wood and Carla Lane were both pioneers in bringing working-class women centre-stage, and gave this enormous section of the population not only a voice, but a true reflection of their position and power in society.

I think it’s fair to say that before the 1970s, sitcoms had very specific roles for women: the overbearing mother/mother-in-law, the nagging harridan wife, the femme fatale. Female characters had a tendency to be two-dimensional, and the category they were meant to fall into was easily defined. Nagging wife – tabard. Femme Fatale – low-cut top, legs out. Overbearing mother – hat and handbag and so on.

Then Carla Lane came along, and, with her writing partner Myra Taylor, developed a sitcom called The Liver Birds. It was 1969, slap bang in the middle of the Permissive Society, and at last British sitcom caught up.

“Here was a woman, contemplating her position in the world and speaking so strongly for a generation of women who longed for more, and could see those women coming up behind them and getting it.”

Here was a show with young, working-class (though Sandra had definite middle-class pretensions) women front and centre. They shared a flat, without men, and they were rounded, three-dimensional characters, making their way in the world. They worked, they played, they schemed, they dated, they laughed, they cried, they dumped, they got dumped, they lived.

I can remember watching reruns of The Liver Birds in the 80s. I so wanted my life to be like Beryl and Sandra’s. I come from a generation whose parents still tended to get married young. My mum went straight from being at home to being a wife and mother. Here was another way.

Girls could have fun. Financial security wasn’t the be all and end all. At last TV was starting to reflect the real world. Stuff what Mary Whitehouse was saying: women DO take the pill, women DO actively enjoy sex, and the role of women in the sexual mores of the time were embraced at last. The Liver Birds were young, free and single. There WAS another way. Hallelujah!

Wendy Craig with Geoffrey Palmer in Butterflies.

Wendy Craig with Geoffrey Palmer in Butterflies.

Then, in 1978, Butterflies arrived, and we met Ria. I believe Ria must have resonated so much for the generation that she portrayed. The generation stuck between the old world and the new world. The generation looking at women like Sandra and Beryl from The Liver Birds, and feeling they just missed out. For Ria had, on paper, a perfect life, a beautiful home in the suburbs, a dentist husband, financial security, two healthy sons. Yet she longed for something more.

The show revolved around Ria’s fantasy life, and her almost-affair with the dashing and exciting Leonard. The humour largely came from the juxtaposition of the drudgery of suburban life and how things could be if only she could make the leap.

For once it wasn’t a man having an existential dilemma, a man being torn apart by inner conflict. It wasn’t a case of ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’. Here was a woman, contemplating her position in the world and speaking so strongly for a generation of women who longed for more, and could see those women coming up behind them and getting it. It was drenched in pathos, and, most importantly, it was funny as fuck.

In 1986, I was 10 (I don’t look like I could be that old? Well, gee thanks), and a new sitcom, Bread, hit the screens.

I devoured every episode, as did everyone I knew. If you missed an episode, then you didn’t bother going to school the next day, because it would be all anyone was talking about. Many of the jokes went over my head; my 10-year-old brain didn’t quite have a grip on the social commentary on the devastation of Thatcherism in the north of England. But there were colourful characters, running gags and a theme tune that I can still sing word for word right now.

The Boswell family in Bread.

The Boswell family in Bread.

Carla Lane had done it again. In an accessible, mainstream, primetime sitcom, she had given a voice and a power to the underdog. At a time when families across Britain were struggling under pressures of high unemployment, Bread brought the struggles to life on the screen. And the power of the piece was undoubtedly female, with matriarch Ma Boswell holding the family together through crisis after crisis.

The Boswells were often unlikeable, dabbled in criminal activity, adultery and alcoholism, but you were firmly on their side. And we all knew which Boswell we wanted to be (Joey) and which Boswell we actually were (Adrian).

A pretty impressive body of work for one person, I’m sure you’ll agree, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

However, there was so much more to Carla Lane. She was also known for her tireless efforts in animal welfare, from running sanctuaries to raising awareness and campaigning. People who knew her often said that she liked animals more than people. And, when you look at some of the characters and situations she portrayed, who can blame her?

So, I just wanted to say thank you Carla Lane, for the laughs (so many laughs) and for blazing that trail.

@angelabarnes

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Written by Angela Barnes

Angela Barnes is an award-winning standup comedian. She is sometimes on TV and the radio and is often in a comedy club near you. @AngelaBarnes