For the past two years I’ve been the research fellow on the ‘History of Television for Women in Britain 1947-89’ project.  My principal role has been exploring and documenting what we, as a project team, have identified as significant moments in the history of women’s television in this forty year period which spans television’s return in the late 1940s, after its wartime shutdown, to the beginning of the multi-channel digital broadcasting, which arrived in 1989. Concurrently, I’ve had the opportunity to present and discuss our findings at a whole range of national and international symposia, seminars and conferences.   In this post I’m going to talk about some of my most significant project research experiences to date.  These range from pursuing the earliest traces of women’s television in the institutional files at the BBC Written Archives centre and interviewing Crossroads co-creator Hazel Adair to talking about women’s viewing relationships with 1980s’ romantic television comedies To The Manor Born and Just Good Friends at the 2012 Console-ing Passions conference in Boston.

My first research task on the project took me back to the very origins of women’s television; how did it begin and what was early women’s television like?  The starting points were research undertaken by Joy Leman, which had established the existence of a woman’s television department in the early 1950s, and my project colleagues Rachel Moseley and Helen Wheatley’s own scholarship on early women’s television. The Women’s Department was instituted in 1953 when Doreen Stephens was appointed as head of department to build up the then modest provision of BBC television magazine programmes catering for a female audience. Working with the Women’s Department files held at Caversham I discovered that under Stephens’ leadership this dynamic creative department was responsible for the production of an extremely diverse range of programmes from 1953-64 covering topics ranging from consumer advice and topical social issues to local history and art and literature. The culture of early women’s television was proving to be very far from any stereotypes of fluffy, domesticated, fifties femininity.  Pursuing these programme strands in Radio Times revealed rich detail about the contents of these programmes, much detail in accompanying articles about special or significant editions of particular series and a glimpse of readers ’responses to these programmes in letters’ pages.

Intriguingly, I kept catching glimpses in Radio Times listings of what looked like a dedicated arts and culture magazine programme for women Wednesday Magazine. My own doctoral research area is early television documentary, and I have a particular interest in historical arts television, yet I had read or heard practically nothing about Wednesday Magazine. Inquiries at the Written Archives revealed they held a substantial number of programme production files. I discovered that guests who had appeared on the series ranged from Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker, John Mortimer, Joan Littlewood and Shelagh Delaney to Vanessa Redgrave, Charlton Heston, Leslie Caron, Peter O’Toole and Diana Dors.  There were films on topics as diverse as Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Victorian architecture and the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. John Betjeman presented a film on vanishing London architectural landmarks and John Berger one on Modigliani. Discussing the find with BFI television curator Lisa Kerrigan led to the discovery that three full editions of the series plus single films and interviews from other editions were still in existence.  My research has meant that I have been able to reinstate an important piece of both women’s and arts television into histories of early British television.

As our research moved beyond the earliest women’s television of the late 1940s and 50s, the next key cultural television moment that the team decided to focus on were television portrayals of the figure of the working woman from the early post war period moving into the 1960s. We kept returning to one series in particular, Compact the BBC’s 1962 smash hit early evening soap opera set in the glamorous world of magazine publishing.  Compact was co-created and written by Hazel Adair the prolific television screen writer who had already written for ATV hospital drama Emergency Ward 10 and would go on to co-create Crossroads.

Adair is now in her nineties but was very willing to be interviewed by me about her memories of creating Compact. She proved an astute, witty and highly engaging interviewee with very clear memories of her lengthy career writing for television. Adair talked about the great popularity of Compactwith viewers and the responses she had received to it. She highlighted their identification with the characters’ lives, loves and office  dramas and viewers’ delight at escaping into a heightened world of romance, intrigue and glamour not to be found in their rather own rather more mundane workplaces. Adair had chosen a magazine setting  she said because her own experience of writing for women’s magazines and visiting their offices made her think they would be the kind of place where lots of good storylines were likely to happen.

Adair stressed the pressures inherent in writing and planning a twice weekly serial drama working with multiple plotlines and a big and demanding cast of actors. As a working mum with a growing family she talked about the daily challenges of balancing her work and home life.  What Adair was very clear about however was that she did not see herself as writing for an exclusively female audience, rather that she was producing the best most appealing and most entertaining drama she that could  under the pressure of weekly deadlines.

As well as looking at critical historical and socio cultural moments in British television for women we have, as a team, also been very much engaged with the question of women’s relationship with television genre and especially genres which are not usually considered in relation to the tastes of female audiences. This has been highlighted by the work of our project doctoral researcher Hazel Collie who has been interviewing women about their memories of watching television and discovering that woman’s tastes range far beyond the more predictable soap operas and dramas to sport, music and comedy.  We decided to have a closer look at women’s relationships with situation comedy. One common perception of the genre is that it is one where women are most often the butt of the joke. If they feature at all it is as stereotyped dizzy blondes, fiercesome battleaxes, cuddly mums or supportive wives. A hunt through television listings magazines, commercially-marketed histories of BBC and ITV sitcom, viewing available episodes of a range of different series, and the collection of my own and other people’s memories of television told a different story. Women have played a central part in television comedy in our period. Sitcoms have had female lead characters and female ensemble casts of all ages. (I owe grateful thanks here to Vicky Ball from The University of Sunderland for sharing her current work on the female ensemble drama.)  Sitcoms have dealt with women’s evolving roles in the workplace, female friendships, women’s loves and relationships, and changing relationships between men and women throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 80s.

Comedies which dealt with love and romance – ‘rom sitcoms’ – were numerous and especially popular with female audiences, as evidenced in audience research reports, listings magazines and in the many informal conversations I have had with women about their favourite series and characters, offering storylines which frequently put women in the driving seat and presenting events from a female perspective. Female characters had plenty to say for themselves and often had the last word. Using as a framework critical literature which has explored the popularity of romantic film comedy with female audiences I looked at two classic and hugely popular examples of British romantic comedy from the 1980s Just Good Friends and To The Manor Born and why they might appeal to the female audience. Presenting this research at the Console-ing Passions conference this summer was extremely rewarding. An unexpected result was the familiarity of US and international colleagues with British sit com such as To The Manor Born and their interest in such quintessentially British television. Also of interest were observations about the way in which both Just Good Friends and To the Manor Born resonated with their historical times in both the US and the UK focusing on money, class and status. What was especially useful were questions about how female pleasure in romantic situation comedy squared with feminist readings of the text which highlight such texts’ privileging of the pursuit of marriage as the ultimate goal. I’ll be developing this work on women’s complex and varied relationships with, and enjoyment of, romantic situation comedy exploring more well-loved series that form part of this cycle.

Currently we are continuing to develop work on women and the television genre. The costume drama is most usually associated with female audiences and its popularity has been well documented. I wanted to extend this work and look at dramas based on popular rather than classic fiction – The Thorn Birdsrather than Pride and Prejudice. Once again work with listings magazines and using the critical framework provided by film theory has proven a very useful source in developing an understanding of how such dramas are oriented towards the female audience.   The Mallen Streak is one such popular drama which has been presented in this way. Based on Catherine Cookson’s best-selling novel of the lives and loves of the 19thcentury squire Mallen and his family, Granada dramatised this in 1979. I’m going to explore next why this was such a hit with female viewers. My approach will combine textual analysis and exploration of listing magazine material surrounding The Mallen Streak with theoretical work undertaken by scholars such as Janice A.Radway and Tania Modleski on women’s reading relationships with the romantic fiction on which popular dramas like The Mallen Streak were based.

Over the past two years our research has very successfully uncovered, and documented a critical missing history of television for women in Britain; the main aim of our project. Through publication, academic presentations, and high profile public events we’ve reinstated the history of women’s television into established narratives about British television history. Indeed our findings both augment and challenge such established narratives, with the rediscovery of forgotten or neglected television series such as Wednesday Magazine and the rehabilitation of the careers of key female figures in the production of women’s television such as  Doreen Stephens all missing from such histories.  Of course, most importantly, we’ve got people talking and thinking about television for women.



Mary Irwin is currently the postdoctoral research fellow on a three-year AHRC research project “A History of Television for Women in Britain 1947-89” run jointly by Warwick and De Montfort Universities.  She has written and published on early women’s television and is currently researching women’s relationships with television romantic situation comedy.   Mary also has research interests in television documentary and television drama.  Most recently she has contributed to the first extended account of the BBC series Life on Mars – Life on Mars: From Manchester to New York (University of Wales Press, 2012).