Jobs for the Girls

David Agnew on Widows

First published October 2000

Television genres are commonly categorised as being fixed textual systems offering specific pleasures to specific audiences. Television drama on our screens today is invariably pitched to a particular demographic. However, institutional contexts of production and consumption have rarely existed in harmony, pointing toward the potential for a text to work within a populist construct and provide a space for alternative interpretation.

In the late 1970s, the ITV crime drama had become the signature genre of Euston Films. The preponderance of The Sweeney, Out, Fox and Minder had engendered a (male-dominated) aesthetic that by the next decade had become so popularised and perfunctorily cliché-ridden that any new offering from the Euston stable was expected to contain at least an element of parody or tentative subversion. In 1983, Widows was that programme – the story of four women plotting and executing a raid on a security van following plans left behind by their criminal husbands who had been killed when a similar raid went tragically wrong. Whilst it undeniably appropriated familiar patois and plot devices in its depiction of the London criminal fraternity, it simultaneously offered a subtle interrogation of these conventions and opened up interesting possibilities for other spectatorships.

Penned by Lynda La Plante, who whilst acting under the name of Lynda Marchal (some may no doubt recall her career highlight as Tamara Novek in Rentaghost) had become increasingly dissatisfied with the limited range of roles available to women, Widows is already characterised by an interventionist fervour. The initial six-part series offers the traditional spectacle of a criminal gang planning a robbery in their grimy lockup just off Liverpool Street station that the audience can enjoy through their privileged position as spectators, but with an intriguing new twist: these criminals are women.

Dolly Rawlins, Linda Perelli, Shirley Miller and Bella O’Reilly act according to plans laid down by Dolly’s late husband Harry in his ledgers and it is crucial to the success of the job that they look like men. In the third episode, a parallel structure is employed as the women rehearse the job in an abandoned quarry accompanied by a flashback sequence showing their husbands going through their paces in preparation for the heist in which they were killed. This serves to construct the characters as polarised opposites – male professionals and female amateurs. Crosscutting reveals Dolly and Harry as respective leaders both unable to make the getaway run and performing exactly the same function in the raid. However, the women are not merely following in their husbands’ footsteps. Their plans are characterised by mutual support and exchanges of confidence. They argue with each other, support each other, rely on each other; constantly testing notions of “sisterhood”. The widows are not portrayed as mere substitute men but active, strong women whose personal dilemmas are foregrounded as key points in the narrative. Dolly is authoritarian but ultimately a mother figure to the other (younger) women, Linda is tough and brassy yet hugely vulnerable, Shirley is young and naïve but acquires sudden strength throughout their preparations for the raid. Thanks to the uniformly excellent acting, the central characters all seem utterly credible right from the start.

In contrast to The Sweeney, where any character other than Regan or Carter existed solely in the interests of plot exposition, Widows places an emphasis on dialogue and narrative that positions the audience firmly with the women characters rather than the possible resolution of a narrative enigma. The acquisition of the money is incidental compared to the women’s success. In an inevitable contrived concession to the “masculine” crime drama constituency, the series does feature some Sweeney-like action, mostly committed by male characters rather than the women. While the police and Harry’s rivals, the Fisher brothers, out to take over Harry’s “manor”, engage each other in conflict, it is almost as if the widows’ lockup becomes some unknown, extradiegetic territory. The women are safe from detection as they plan the raid as both factions are blind to the possibility that they may pull off the job themselves because their actions are unprecedented in the crime genre. The widows’ success, however, is dramatically undercut in the final episode with the revelation that Harry is still alive and living with the widow of the fourth man who died in his place. Just as the women were obliged to recruit Bella upon the discovery that the robbery plans called for four people. Dolly is forced to come to terms with the fact that she still loves her husband, despite his callous betrayal. The “tag” scene of the victorious women dividing up the spoils in their Rio hotel room, surrounded by piles of cash and cavorting around in designer dresses quaffing champagne initially signifies an upbeat “feel good” escapist finale. Yet when the realisation hits home that despite achieving economic independence through crime, they are still the widows, still emotionally tied to the men who have left them behind, the conclusion takes on an ambivalent, elegiac edge rarely attained by its contemporaries.

A cynic may argue that the “feminisation” of previously male-centred television conventions is a mere token gesture, presenting a populist feminism through role reversal situations in a facile bid to sustain audience interest in established, repetitive genres. Images of female strength have never been such a rare phenomenon in British television drama. But from Cathy Gale and Emma Peel (not you though, Tara King) in The Avengers to Bea and Evie in The House of Eliott, strength and intelligence has always been combined with an emphasis on female beauty. In Widows, the opening titles of the first series depict the women without make-up dressed in black in an austere reflection of their grief. For the titles of the second series, the women are now featured with perfectly coiffured hairstyles and adorned with jewellery. Institutional pressures towards ideological conformity are also evinced with the plot of the second series: the struggle of the widows to retain their ill-gotten fortune and their conflict with Dolly’s husband Harry. Back from the dead and having shared their extradiegetic space voyeuristically watching them plan the final stages of the robbery, he constitutes far more of a threat than the police ever did.

The first series provided a consistent and engaging goal-oriented narrative (the robbery) accompanied by a rich subtext examining notions of “appropriate” gender behaviour. Will the women’s femininity impede their plausibility as criminals – as Bella says: “If they suss you’re a woman, forget it!” – or will their success as criminals bring their femininity into doubt? In the second series however, there is no room for such dichotomising. Harry has the goal of acquiring the money – the widows are merely shown to be running scared rather than as autonomous individuals in their own right as Widows‘ overall adherence to generic realism has, narratively speaking, actually rendered them more vulnerable, leading to the death of one of their number. (It should also be noted here that Eva Mottley’s death between series necessitated the recasting of Bella, now given a more overtly “feminine” interpretation by Debby Bishop. Whereas Mottley’s Bella had been the toughest of the group, butch but caring, the main traits of Bishop’s Bella were her sarcasm and unpleasant but ineffectual bossiness). The remainder of series two plays out a set of increasingly convoluted machinations as the women plot revenge while Harry plans another job. Whilst in many respects it does deliver some of the intensification of previous pleasures one has come to expect from a return visit to any television serial, Widows 2 is ultimately shot in the foot by its nebulous, nonsensical storyline. There is a definite sense of the programme’s previous audience winning central conceit being diluted in the interests of milking the concept for all it is worth. Later, the fact that La Plante’s rationale for penning the risible “10 years later” sequel She’s Out was solely to write another vehicle for Ann Mitchell after admiring her subsequent stage performances rather speaks for itself.

The disappointing second series notwithstanding, Widows attains an overall integrity that La Plante’s later repertoire has yet to match. Prime Suspect was a laudable enough attempt to inject a dose of authenticity hitherto unexplored in most police procedural dramas and to examine sexism in the police force through Helen Mirren’s dynamic performance as the formidable Jane Tennison. Yet audibly creaking plot contrivances (the transference of settings to the Vice Squad and the Manchester force in later editions) were later employed to extend the programme’s fast dissipating shelf life. Much of La Plante’s later oeuvre (Trial and Retribution, Killer Net) has seen her self-indulgently pursuing an agenda of grimness and miserabilism at the expense of any other emotion. Yet memories of the tightly plotted, convincingly characterised first series of Widows live on.

Whether or not its money-fixated heroines represent figures for female empowerment or exponents of 1980s capitalist narcissism remains undecided, but Widows stands up today as a definitive text of the historical and cultural context in which it was made. From the positive referencing of individual gain and private enterprise by the administration of That Bloody Woman to the pop videos of Annie Lennox, the early 1980s were specifically a time when (excuse the pun) sisters were doing it for themselves. It was also the first – and last – time that La Plante would write engagingly within the context of the crime genre that has rightly or wrongly become her niche.