Written by Alison Carr

Arts

Why I ❤️ Cagney & Lacey

As we process the news that actress Tyne Daly has just celebrated her 70th birthday, Alison Carr trumpets (although a saxophone would surely be more appropriate) the wonder of Cagney and Lacey.

Cagney And Lacey television programmeImagine, if you can, a time before Sergeant Catherine Cawood. Before Sarah Lund had eyed up her first jumper, even before national treasure DCI Jane Tennison had that abortion during her lunchbreak.

Join me back in the 1980s when two women walked the mean streets of New York to an instrumental theme tune that gets a lot of flak but is nevertheless iconic.

Cagney & Lacey changed the landscape of how women are portrayed on screen and paved the way for so much that has come since.

Christine Cagney (Sharon Gless) is an independent, ambitious career woman. She likes a drink, she likes men and sex, she likes chunky knits, knee-high boots and, whenever possible, a cape.

Her partner Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) is a working-class married mother, juggling her job with the kids and the upsettingly moustachioed Harv, forever wanting to move out of Queens.

Full disclosure: Cagney is my favourite. She’s sassy. She’s gutsy. She’s (let’s not pretend I’m above it) got better hair.

Lacey, though, is no slouch – whenever Cagney pulls her handbag over her head to better pursue a perp, Mary Beth is right there with her. And they’ve been through the wringer together: breast cancer, rape, alcoholism, getting shot, sexual harassment, having to dress up as a tomato and a pineapple while undercover.

It is the friendship between the duo that is the series’ foundation, especially with women so regularly depicted as being pitted against one another. This was the first female buddy relationship on screen, a love story between two women. Don’t get me wrong: they disagree, they argue, they can tear shreds off each other in that ladies’ bathroom, but their mutual devotion, loyalty and trust is never in question.

Caggers and Lay-Lay (as no one called them, ever) are often hailed as examples of the first strong female characters. If it’s ‘strong’ as in central then yes, absolutely, they are the show and on their own terms. But they’re not strong as in infallible, and nor should they be.

They’re human. They’re funny and infuriating, intelligent, driven, conflicted. They make mistakes. Lacey isn’t a perfect, cookie-baking mother. She struggles with her home life vs her job and in one memorable episode she breaks down and goes off-grid. In another, Cagney, faced with a pregnancy scare, is forced to examine her choices and the expectations of womanhood.

“They’ve been through the wringer together: breast cancer, rape, alcoholism, getting shot, sexual harassment, having to dress up as a tomato and a pineapple while undercover.”

This is big stuff, and these women, their ups and downs, successes and failures, are what the show is about over any weekly whodunit.

Perhaps a testament to how groundbreaking this all was is the struggle it took to find a Cagney. First played by M*A*S*H’s Loretta Swift in a TV film pilot, the role went to Meg Foster for the first series. But execs worried she was too aggressive and viewers would think she was a lesbian. To their credit, the creators refused to soften the character but did recast.

Attempts to make Gless’s Cagney a rich snob from a wealthy family were also rebuffed; instead her backstory about coming from money adds to her complexities and brings in issues of class with her and Lacey’s contrasting circumstances. And of course she’s got a trust fund – capes don’t come cheap.

Some figures

Cagney and Lacey ran for six series between 1982 to 1988. It was cancelled twice, but public outcry got it back on the air. Over six consecutive years either Gless or Daly won the Best Actress Emmy. Despite being two of the highest paid women on television at the time, the pair earned a third of what men were being paid. Some things never change, eh?

Burning question

What does Lacey say to that flasher in the opening credits?

@AlisonCarr_

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Written by Alison Carr

Alison is a playwright and would-be tap dancer. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.