Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Are So Few Women Directing In Television?


Caught between the camera and the cradle: Why are so few women making television films?

TELEVISION production does not just need more women, it needs many, many more women, according to Lord Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council. He recently bemoaned the fact that television is dominated by male executives who fail to represent the interests of women and children. They are responsible for violent programmes that no woman would make, he believes.

In fact, however, the film and television world is not only inundated with the female sex, they underpin the whole industry. The problem is that they are in the engine room and not on the bridge.

Pivotal to determining the quality and meaning of a film is the role of director. The job requires vision, conviction and organisation, coupled with humility and toughness - qualities that are not exclusive to men. Yet there are far fewer women than men directors.

Is this because women are discriminated against, or is it because the profession is so demanding that it forces most women to choose between family life and a career?

From mainstream drama and documentary to lesbian films, the consensus is that film-making is an ideal activity for obsessives. Which is not to say one cannot have a partner, family and work, but, as one woman director put it: 'The industry is no respecter of a private life, let alone a home.'

The documentary director Molly Dineen is frank about the difficulties of combining her job with a personal life.

'I did try for a month, I thought right, put yourself out to tender, Dineen, and get on with it. The presumption was terrible - that people were going to appear because suddenly I was in the mood to create some kind of private life.'

She is best known for her portraits in films like Home from the Hill, a documentary about the English expatriate Hillary Hook, which was twice shown on the BBC. She is now working for the BBC on a series about London Zoo. 'It preoccupies me a bit because I'm 33, still up the back end of a rhino, and totally obsessive about what I do, and I feel locked into that. I'm not going to pretend I can spend 13 hours a day in London Zoo and go home and look after a family.'

Sarah Hellings is probably responsible for more prime-time television drama than any other director - man or woman. Her numerous credits include Capital City, Lovejoy, and The Ruth Rendell Mystery Movie. She has received two BAFTA nominations.

She says that throughout her twenties and thirties her creative instincts went into her work. She doesn't believe children are compatible with her job. She has been married twice - both times to men in the film industry.

She says that marriages in the industry are usually tripartite affairs: husband, wife and the film. In terms of personal relationships, she believes she is perhaps unfulfilled, and she bemoans what she sees as a choice women in the industry have to make between children and a career.

She also believes that some of the skills of a good director, such as motivating and leading without coming across as bossy, are 'particularly hard for women to do. I wanted to be liked, but from an early age I decided it wasn't always possible.'

She has twice been turned down for jobs because a member of the cast objected to working with a woman director.

Most of Cheryl Farthing's work has been for Out, Channel 4's gay and lesbian series. She believes that 'women see the world through completely different eyes, (and that view is) of as much interest to men as it is to other women'. At 29 she has recently completed a short cinema feature called Rosebud, which is a lesbian love story deliberately made with mass appeal.

'It was very important to me that the film looked good, was accessible and sexy for everyone: and I think it's sexy for straight women and men and lesbians. I've even had gay men say they found it sexy.'

She blames cautious producers and commissioning editors for not giving more women a chance and believes sexism has a lot to answer for, starting with training.

In her experience, women tend to differ from men in mixed training groups and this affects 'the way they enter the industry and how ambitious they are in setting ceilings for themselves'.

Fizz Waters, 35, started her career at 16 as a tea lady in the Thames Television canteen. Now a first assistant director, the right hand to a drama or feature film director, her credits include many of Thames's long-running successes, such as The Benny Hill Show, Rumpole and The Bill.

'I used to take my tea trolley around to all the departments and one of the heads was a lovely fellow who I used to wake gently with a cup of tea.' He later had the confidence to take Fizz on as a 'call boy'. When the Sex Discrimination Act became law, her title was changed to 'floor assistant'.

Early on, while she was still Benny Hill's 'floor polisher', Hill used to tell her to carry a pencil and paper and ask herself what she had done that day to further her career.

'Sometimes I think it would be nice to be half of a couple again and then I think no, it might get in the way of doing what I want to do when I want.'
Like Sarah Hellings, she also thinks women can find being in charge difficult. 'Maybe women are put off being first assistants because you have to be bossy,' she says.

Sharon Miller, 35, began as an actress, but, being 6ft tall, she was quickly confined to playing 'big girl' roles; first with Ronnie Corbett and then as Bill Oddie's mum in The Goodies.

'It was so devastating to any kind of artistic integrity when the only reason you're hired is for your height and the fact that you can have your tits padded.'

So, minus the padding, she went into children's programmes, a traditional employer of women and sometimes a ghetto: 'There's an image of a director who works for the children's department - the kind of woman who doesn't have children, and wears loud stockings and brogues.'

For a while she was 'that girl from children's' who got out - even if it was straight into a pothole full of bats, dripping water, and the cast and crew of an episode of Casualty. From there she directed further episodes and eventually had the clout to do work such as A Woman Alone with Lynn Redgrave.

Women directors do not want to be seen as strident or whingeing. They acknowledge that many of their work difficulties are shared by men, but most feel they have to work harder, especially in the early stages of their careers.

Film-making has always been competitive, especially so now that there is a recession, so does it matter that there are so few women directors?
Molly Dineen is not convinced it does: 'There are fewer women in most things, but is that a problem?' she asks.' I mean, we are physically built to do a different task. I basically believe in natural functions, and my generation assumes we can have both. It's bollocks.'

She recalls making a film about London's underground, working with a former sound recordist- turned-mum: 'I was trying to get her to stay in the station all night and get drunk with me and the ticket collectors (and) she basically really wanted to be with her babies, and that's when you realise there is something a little bit out of the ordinary about making films like this and trying to have your own life. A boyfriend once said: 'I think I'll make films now and have babies when I'm about 46' - I wish I could say that.

'I think, at the moment, people who have nannies are guilty that they've got nannies. People who don't have nannies feel inadequate because they're not working. People who don't have children think that they're going to be barren and terribly sad career women in nylon suits at 50. I'm terrified of it, I absolutely don't want to be in a power suit at 49. You know, I consciously find myself going to things, wearily thinking, well I'd better go because I might meet somebody, and I hate it because I might as well go to Dateline.'

So speaks one of the leading figures of British documentary cinema, whose illuminating films about 'the ordinary', as she puts it, could perhaps only have been made by a woman. 'And let's be frank, it's bloody unfair, but why does anyone expect life to be fair? I think it's equally ghastly for a geezer to suppose he's got to produce financial support.'

Sharon Miller also believes women have to choose: 'The demands of the business made the choice for me, which was that I neglected my private life while my professional life benefited hugely. You are permanently under attack in this business, your confidence, your energy and your validity, and it's difficult for any partner to understand the complexity of what you're going through.

'It's very hard when you're in your mid-thirties and you've got to make some sort of decision. I want both - I want a family and I want to make a wonderful film, and that's the dilemma.'

The author is a freelance producer and director.

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