Originally one of the reasons for starting this blog was that Elaine and I wanted an outlet to express our enthusiasm for the TV police drama Scott and Bailey. Based on an idea by performers Suranne Jones who plays Rachel Bailey and Sally Lindsay and written by Sally Wainwright who also wrote Last Tango in Halifax and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, this was first shown in 2011 and appears to have become extremely popular with a failry diverse female audience (diverse, at least, in terms of age).
I was interested in this series because it appeared to be modelled after the 1980s US detective series Cagney and Lacey. This latter was (and still is) generally understood to be ground breaking feminist television, although typically for that period (or perhaps simply ‘typically’- full stop’) many of those involved in its making firmly denied this at the time, for fear of alienating viewers. I wondered how far Scott and Bailey would manage to live up to this model?
The comparison with Cagney and Lacey holds in so far as the series focuses on two (white) women who are close friends as well as colleagues, one of them (Bailey played by Suranne Jones) is single and the more impulsive and volatile of the two, the other (Scott played by Lesley Sharp) is married with children and apparently calmer and more stable. Like Cagney and Lacey one of them is blonde and the other a brunette, although while with both series I never confuse the characters I do sometimes have blank moments over which one is named Cagney/Scott and which is Lacey/ Bailey.
As with Cagney and Lacy and so much TV crime fiction in general, the cases Scott and Bailey pursue in their professional lives tend to either to reflect on or directly connect/overlap with their personal lives. Like the earlier drama the more serious plotlines are often lightened by comic moments, with in both cases a humorous undercurrent being set up by the credits, in this case the tone set by the incongruity of the ‘spaghetti Western’ style music playing over images of Manchester, where the series is set, at its most decayed urban.
Nevertheless, Scott and Bailey offers a distinctly contemporary take on femininity. While like Cagney (at one point) Bailey is a heavy drinker, this is not met with the same level of implied societal disaproval and (so far) narrative of ‘recovery’, although this habit does get Bailey into much more serious trouble than ever faced by Cagney. This not least the situation where an ex-boyfriend attempts to have her killed, she fear she might have killed him during a drunken ‘blackout’, although in the end this turns out to be the work of her loving but unstable, criminal younger brother trying to ‘help’.
In stark contrast to the strictly monogamous and maternal Lacey, Scott has an affair with a fellow officer and eventually splits up with her husband Adrian, who does appear rather dull. This is perhaps largely because it has to be said, unlike Cagney and Lacey, this show’s male characters are often barely sketched in, although the same also applies to Scott’s two daughters.
These ‘personal storylines’ however were not necessarily the elements of this drama Elaine and I most enjoyed. Rather when we spoke together about our enthusiasm for this show, our emphasis was on the scenes focussing specifically on their professional lives. We loved Sharp’s DC Scott’s quiet confidence, her apparently unshakable, measured calm when interviewing suspects (whatever was occurring in her personal life). We also appreciated Jones DC Bailey’s sharp mind, her ability to notice details and to make connections not immediately obvious to others.
As series 1 became series 2 and she was given more screen time, we both also began especially to appreciate the character of their ‘boss’ DCI Gill Murray played by Amelia Bullmore. It was refreshing to see a female senior police officer portrayed as authoritative and extremely effective, straight talking but never aggressive, fair and even handed, capable of both empathy and humour, in short; bloody good at her job. We especially admired the scenes where under pressure, as a new case got underway or when an existing one was stalled, Gill throws out a series of instructions to the team with complete control of the situation and barely a pause for breath.
While given less focus than the personal lives of Scott and Bailey, we learn that Gill is separated from her philandering husband who is also a senior officer with the force and with whom she has a teenage son who lives with her. In series 2 her son tells her he wants to join the police as a constable and work his way up to the senior ranks and she says ‘like your dad? and he resounds ‘No, like you’. Pathetic though this may seem, to me, watching in my living room this felt like a moment for which I had been waiting all my life on television (and even perhaps off) the validation of a woman as a professional a ‘role model’ in a fashion that is ‘beyond gender’, simply recognising her skill, knowledge and expertise.
Clearly there is a high degree of identification for Elaine and I going on around this programme as professionals in our own field, although we both acknowledge these representations of taken- for- granted female authority and of competence as an ‘ideal’ we would dearly love to achieve, rather than a reflection of our actual working lives.
Then I made the mistake of watching an episode of Scott and Bailey with the students on the TV drama course I teach as part of a discussion about crime drama, and amongst other things, the balance between personal and professional life in the representation of female (as opposed ) to male detectives. This conversation not only involved a student with an encyclopaedic knowledge of British crime drama but watching things in the context of the seminar room often reveals them in a different light to watching them at home. I was dismayed to find myself agreeing with the students that, as also observed by celebrated television scholar Charlotte Brunsdon at a seminar last week, in Scott and Bailey the personal narratives often dominate and indeed ‘intrude’ on the characters work lives. This puts pressure on these aspects of the narrative, pushing then towards the overstated and the melodramatic, threatening to turn the series into soap opera, rather than crime drama in ways that also undermine the characters professionalism. This maybe again touches on issues of work/life balance for women that we have both raised in our previous blogs on The Killing and Borgen but with reference to issues of genre as well as character.
The episode we watched in class certainly raised questions about the series’ claims to ‘realism’. This was from the end of Series 1 in which Scott is stabbed by an old friend (who turns out to be a serial killer) in her own home. Surely police training must include the advice that if someone has a (large) knife and you have no weapon you do not attempt to challenge or fight them, especially when their identity is known and they could be arrested in a safer manner later.
In fact, this type of melodramatic convention is typical of many other recent British crime dramas such as Luther or Whitechapel in which serial killers are two a penny and detectives often behave in a wild and reckless fashion. However, it does depart from the Cagney and Lacey model which tended to observe a higher degree of verisimilitude and of ‘realism of action’ and which most of the time, kept the balance of an attention on the professional storylines which were complemented by the personal, rather than as in the case increasingly in Scott and Bailey, the other way round.
I also noticed that in this episode one of Gill’s ‘giving out roles and orders’ speeches was actually shot with a subtle and subtly comic time lapse effect, which suggested that rather than being efficient and authoritative she was simply be ‘going on a bit’. Nevertheless, I do think this is ‘recoverable’ in that part of the charm of the representations of the relationship between female officers in Scott and Bailey is that respect for each other does not preclude a certain amount of gentle, poking fun at the ‘boss’ behind their back (Scott and Bailey refer to Gill as ‘Godzilla’).
Despite these issues I was looking forward to Series 3 but the opening two episodes had Elaine and I phoning each other in dismay to ask what has happened to Scott and Bailey?.
In the first instance the visual style appeared to have been upgraded to what aspire to be ‘higher’ production values, including sharper and more glossy lighting, fancier shots and quicker editing. In short it had moved from the sort of basic TV realism evinced by Emmerdale to emulating the ‘trendier’ style of Hollyoaks. More importantly the narrative structure of the first episode offered a complicated hard to follow, mix of flashbacks and flashforwards and an abrupt ending to the crime story that firmly relegated it as less ‘important’ than the personal. All of this was distracting and seemed to miss the point about the series strengths.
Half way through things have calmed down, editing is slower and many of the confusions set up in episode one unravelling, though not all. There is still too much emphasis on Scott and Bailey’s personal lives (I like crime drama) although I do enjoy the way their very different mothers have became part of the fabric of the overall narrative, often providing comic relief. This signals an even further retreat of the generally much ‘weaker’ male characters into the background and the creation of a largely female dominated world in which a bigger role is given to Gill’s female boss DSI Dobson (Phillipa Heywood) and even a bit more space in turn for her female boss Assistant Chief Constable Karen Zalinsky.
The ‘novelty’ of Cagney and Lacey (and shows like Prime Suspect) arose from the fact that traditionally, crime drama (like police work itself) was an overwhelmingly masculine genre. These series then explored the problems faced by their female protagonists working in all male environments in which their right to be there was constantly under scrutiny.
I recognise the problematic nature of what appears to be something of a gender reversal in Scott and Bailey. For many of us feminism represents a call for genuine equality, the ideal of post-gender world (far from yet achieved) not a simple ‘reversal’ of power relations. However, on a less exalted political level, as a piece of fiction, after so many years (centuries) I cannot deny that there is a keen pleasure in Scott and Bailey’s representation of women not just at the centre of crime fiction work but evident in significant numbers and successfully in charge.
Equally pleasurable is the portrayal of their working relationships with each other. From Bailey (the most junior) upwards. At each level the women are shown to be friends and if they make jokes about their female superior officers they are also keen to gain their approval, not out of fear or pure careerism but out of admiration and respect. That’s pretty ideal, regardless of gender.