A Suitable Job for a Woman
As Police chief and mum, TV's newest crimefighter is close to reality. Christopher Middleton reports
There's no question about who wears the trousers at Newton Park police station. She may have just come back from maternity leave, and she may be more preoccupied with baby milk than with post-shift pints of beer, but Superintendent Susan Blake (played by Haydn Gwynne) is still very much on top of her job.
Well, that's the theory. As the weeks progress on Mersey Beat, we shall see how the Super fares when shouldering the twin responsibilities of organising a kiddies' birthday party while simultaneously sorting out a major armed incident in the Runcorn area.
This big, new ten-part series is billed as not so much a police drama as a drama involving police officers. "The show's focus is not on the crime of the week and who did it, but on how we as police officers deal with the job and the demands it makes on us," says Gwynne, who, just like her character, has two small children of her own. Asked to pin some adjectives on Susan Blake, she politely declines. "I hate lumbering my characters with words like 'feisty' or 'uncompromising'. All I can say is that she is very much a normal woman trying to do a non-normal job. She's the kind of woman who cries all the way to work because she's upset about one of her children."
Once through the station door, though, the tears have to stop. "As a divisional superintendent, she's the most senior officer in the building, and everyone is looking to her to provide a lead," says Gwynne. "As in any organisation, people are watching closely to see if she's a listening boss, or just someone who gives orders."
Drop Superintendent Blake into most TV police stations, and the standard response from officers would be resentment that she was (a) a woman and (b) a university graduate on track for promotion. However, Mersey Beat aims to avoid such clichés.
"Any hostility towards Susan is to do with the rank, not the person," the actress says. "It is, after all, the natural response of the people on the front line to the people back in the office.
'The one person who might be expected to have a bit of a grudge against her is [Inspector] Jim Oulton [played by former Brookside legend John McArdle]. He's a tough, working-class lad from Liverpool, she's a middle class graduate from the Midlands, but as it happens, they rather respect each other. In fact, he's her right-hand man."
What? Grizzled Scousers getting on with posh-talking college girls? It's all very un-PC (as in police constable). Still, at least some conventions have been observed, in that the home lives of both Inspector Oulton and young PC Steve Traynor (Jonathan Kerrigan, ex-Casualty) are in disarray-one financial, the other emotional.
"Those two have the monopoly on all the personal crises," smiles Haydn. "The problems facing my character are rather more everyday. She has one failed marriage behind her, but she is now very happy with her new husband Al (Paul Bown), who's a local GP. Only trouble is, like a lot of mothers who have to juggle their work and home lives, she feels guilty about not giving enough time to her children."
How true to life, says lrene Divine, a former Oldham police superintendent who is now co-ordinator for the British Association of Women Police. "Guilt is one of the things that does force women police officers out of the job," she says. "Like it or not, there's a very strong moral and social obligation on women to be carers - both for young children and elderly parents. You can have all the sex-discrimination policies in place, but if it becomes impossible for women to combine their caring role with their police work (we're talking hours, shifts and child-care facilities), then they'll either leave the force or not apply for promotion."
That said, women are now much better represented in the police than they used to be. Thirty years ago, only eight per cent of the force was female, but that figure has now risen to 16 per cent. Three women hold the rank of chief constable (in Lancashire, Wiltshire and Dorset), and of the 280 members of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ranks of assistant chief constable and above), a total of l6 are women.
"People used to think women couldn't handle guns," says Irene Divine. "Then they reduced the size of the stock to fit a woman's hand -and now you've got female firearms officers. The same thing happened with motorbikes - they were made smaller and lighter, and now you've got women motorcycle officers. It's not about pandering to minorities, or weakening the police force - it's about providing a level playing field.
"Traditionally, police work has always been about authority, strength and power. Trouble is, that doesn't always work. I've stopped many a pub fight because, as a woman I wasn't seen as a physical threat where as a burly male officer was. "What women bring to this job is a broad range of social, consultation and communication skills.
Too often, though, women police officers on TV are portrayed un-realistically. Most police officers think The Bill gets it about right, but personally, I was very sad about the DCI Jane Tennison [Helen Mirren] character in Prime Suspect. It is perfectly possible in this job to show empathy for people and at the same time retain a professional manner. Yet she came across as a complete neurotic.
"Obviously I'm pleased that the most senior officer in Mersey Beat is a woman, but I just hope she's not portrayed as either a dolly bird or a Wicked Witch of the West." Haydn Gwynne can confirm that she is neither. "I met some real-life police officers as part of my research for this character and it did alter my opinions she admits. "I suppose that beforehand, I had this notion from TV that everyone in a police station went round shouting 'Shut it!' all the time.
"What actually struck me was the relative normality of all the people, given the job they have to do." Rather than barking out orders, therefore, Superintendent Blake runs her station along less military lines. "She has an air of authority, but it's coupled with great warmth and charm," says Mersey Beat producer Ken Horn.
Which is what Gwynne was striving for. "Superintendent Blake is very keen not to appear too distant or removed from her people on the ground," he says "lf they've got problems she wants to help sort them out; if there are hardships, she wants to share them. And if there's an emergency, she'll be on the scene whether it's her day off or it's the middle of the night.
"At the same time though, as a working mother myself, I couldn't help noticing that when you reach a higher rank in the police force, the responsibility may get greater - but the hours get a lot more civilised!"