I have spent a lot of time thinking about this season, first broadcast on BBC Four in the winter of 2009. It might seem a strange preoccupation: why would anyone be so fascinated by a series of relatively obscure, low-budget docudramas first shown on British TV several years ago?
It was the season’s title that immediately caught my attention: who is included in the pantheon of treasured female public figures? Who are these women we loved? Who, indeed, is ‘we’?
The answer to the first two questions is this: Enid Blyton, Gracie Fields and Margot Fonteyn. Women of particular influence in 20th century British popular culture, which provides an implied answer to the third question: ‘we’ are British people who recollect, or at least are somewhat familiar with the figures in question.
These women are so different in terms of their cultural presence: one an author of simple, conservative, and increasingly controversial books for children, another a popular music hall singer and film star of the 1930s, and the other a prolific prima ballerina. For me, this begged the question of what they have in common.
The answer, following a formula tried and successful for other BBC Four biopics, indeed, biopics more generally, is that their private lives were much more turbulent than their public image would suggest. Each of the films in the season makes clear the difference between the women we ‘loved’, and the real people behind them.
The programmes provided BBC Four with a much needed ratings boost, and were critically successful (particularly Enid and Gracie!). Praise was not universal, though. My favourite review was by Paul Whitelaw, of The Scotsman, on Enid:
Despite boasting strong performances from some of Britain’s finest actors (and David Walliams), there is something unedifying about films in which dead celebrities are exposed as drink-sodden misery-guts with dysfunctional sex lives. It’s not that the truth should be ignored, it’s just that screenwriters are usually morbidly overeager to wallow in the sordid details, often at the expense of accuracy.
I like this description so much because it pithily boils down all of the common irritations around biopics : firstly that they are prurient and exploitative (or the opposite, that they constitute uncritical hagiography), secondly that they are hopelessly inaccurate.
I share Whitelaw’s concerns about the ‘character assassination’ on Blyton in Enid. I have reservations too about Gracie, which to me verges on patronising in its portrayal of northern chirpiness, and about Margot, which sets its heroine out as an irrational fantasist.
Why then, am I so interested in Women We Loved? I’m interested in narrative and thematic overlaps in the films: a focus the tensions between being a woman in the public eye and being a wife and/or mother (Dennis Bingham has argued forcefully that these are present in all female-focused biopics), the determination to show how these women constructed themselves as public figures (through interviews, newsreels, performances and so on), the emphasis on the domestic life over and above the considerable career achievements of these women.
I think the pleasure and frustration I have found in unpicking these films has a lot to do with their contradictions – these are women we loved, but they are flawed women, selfish women, irrational women. Perhaps we shouldn’t have loved them at all.