I often think that acting is one of the toughest professions in the world. So much competition, so little security and so many castings when you will suffer cruel rejection. And when as an actress you reach your ‘sell-by’ date, often well before your male counterparts, I imagine the realisation that your star is waning must come as a bitter blow.
However something seems to be happening in the world of television and film to refute the notion that stories cannot be built around older female characters.
Last night at the Oscars in Hollywood, Michelle Yeoh (60) and Jamie Lee Curtis (67) won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for their respective roles in ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’.
I know that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but I have been tracking this trend for older women to be central rather than ancillary to the action both in film and on TV for some time, and I’ve been heartened by what I am seeing. Take police procedural drama. Invariably the lead investigator used to be male and was often assisted by a younger male sidekick (The Sweeney, Morse, Midsomer Murders). Gradually women were allowed to assume the second in command role (Line of Duty, Shetland) and occasionally a female would be in charge (The Fall, The Unforgiven). Then we had the joy of a rather grumpy, dumpy older woman in the shape of Brenda Blethyn who as the detective ‘Vera’ has been allowed to stomp around solving crimes up in Northumberland with a much younger male deputy for the past few years.
Given that The Crown is about the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the later series have showcased the talents of some of our very best actresses with Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton as the monarch in later life, alongside Helena Bonham Carter and Lesley Manville who were both wonderful as Princess Margaret. An honourable mention should also go to Lesley Manville for her sitcom portrayal as the central character in Stefan Golasewski’s gentle comedy ‘Mum’, and Helena Bonham Carter who was excellent very recently as ‘Nolly’ when she played the part of Noelle Gordon of Crossroads fame.
On film older women have also been allowed to carry the whole story, most notably Frances MacDormand who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a homeless woman called Fern in ‘Nomadland’, released in 2021. Our Film Club also very much enjoyed seeing Emma Thompson play retired teacher Nancy Stokes as a dowdy and sexually frustrated 60-something woman in ‘Good Luck to You Leo Grande.’ And just three weeks ago I saw the film ‘Women Talking’, also with Frances MacDormand amongst an ensemble all female cast, several of whom were past their prime.
Why is this important? Because, whatever our age, we all need art that reflects our lives. The very best film and television taps into our shared lived experience and emotions. It moves us. It inspires us. It entertains us. If I see women of my age playing marginal and minor roles in support of younger central, often male characters, the message is clear: you are merely an unimportant adjunct to the main action. As an older woman I need to see myself reflected back to me in a way that makes me feel both visible and valuable, Which brings me to one of the best three part television series that I personally have ever seen on the box, which placed a grandmother as the very powerful beating heart of the action over eighteen wonderful hour-long episodes.
I am, of course, talking about ‘Happy Valley’. Catherine Cawood, the heroine of the story, played to perfection by Sarah Lancashire, is the ‘woman of substance’ of my title. She is a strong, brave, feisty, angry, blunt, funny, kind, compassionate, loving, no nonsense police sergeant from Yorkshire. This character was created by Sally Wainwright who is herself a 60 year old from Sowerby Bridge which is in the Happy (Calder) Valley of the title. Of course the title is ironic as we are exposed to the unpleasant underbelly of this incredibly beautiful place. And we are also shown a woman who somehow has to ‘keep buggering on’ after her life falls apart when her beloved teenage daughter Becky commits suicide leaving a new-born baby boy who is the result of her rape by a local low-life called Tommy Lee Royce. The circumstances and very long term fallout from the rape and the suicide inform the entire eighteen hour-long episodes which span around ten years of Ryan’s life from a 6 year old child to a 16 year old teenager.
Catherine Cawood: A Woman of Substance
As a Grandmother. This role is the pivot on which the entire story turns. The orphaned baby, Ryan, is shunned by the entire family. No-one can understand how or why Catherine accepts that his care is her responsibility. Her twenty year old marriage to Richard falls apart when he literally cannot bear to be in the same room as the child, and Catherine also falls out with her son Daniel when, overwhelmed by her grief at the loss of her beloved Becky, she lashes out at him. Despite everything, Catherine steps up to the plate and does her utmost to give Ryan a stable and loving home. Her mantra is ‘Ryan didn’t ask to be born, it’s not his fault and I am his grandmother.’ However, deep down, she is terrified that Ryan may have inherited the character of his violent psychopathic father.
As a Sister. Clare, played by Siobhan Finneran, is Catherine’s sister. She is a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict who lives with Catherine and helps her to look after Ryan. The portrayal of this close adult sibling relationship, played to perfection by both Finneran and Lancashire, is quite simply the best I have ever seen in a drama. When, in series 3, there is what Catherine considers to be a brutal betrayal by Clare, the hurt and pain that this generates is of Shakespearean proportions. The catharsis of Catherine’s eventual forgiveness of Clare’s betrayal comes as a huge relief because we understand just how deeply they love each other.
As a Policewoman. Catherine’s nickname (unbeknownst to her) is Miss Trunchbull at the police station where she is a sergeant. You can see why. It’s partly her strong, solid physique and considerable physical bravery and partly the ‘no nonsense’ attitude . She is greatly respected but also a bit feared not only by her colleagues but also by the ‘scrotes’ as she calls the low lifes, gang members and drug addicts that she encounters in her daily life. But she is also enormously experienced and knowledgeable. She notices things that others miss so that very little gets past her enquiring mind. And when kindness, compassion and understanding are needed rather than brute force, she’s able to offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on and a helping hand.
As an Adversary. The focus for much of the drama in Happy Valley comes from the anger and hatred that Catherine feels towards Tommy Lee Royce, the man who raped and impregnated her daughter and whom she blames for Becky’s untimely death. When Happy Valley starts, Royce has just been released from a six year prison sentence he has served for various offences. He knows nothing of Becky’s death or the birth of his son. Catherine spots him back on the streets of her tight-knit community and is filled with a combustible mix of fear, dread, loathing and desire for revenge. Ryan subsequently becomes a pawn in their battle to claim him as their own, a fight which Sally Wainwright allowed to run with a gap of seven years between series 2 and 3 during which Rhys Connor, the actor who played Ryan was allowed to grow into a tall, good looking teenager. The question we all want to know is whether Catherine’s loving nurture or Tommy Lee Royce’s violent nature have triumphed over Ryan’s character. The final series allowed us six hours of top-notch plotting and acting to provide a very satisfying denouement which answered that question in a very convincing way.
I truly hope that next year’s Television Baftas are dominated by awards for Happy Valley. If Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran don’t get Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, I’ll eat my hat! And Sally Wainwright should definitely win the award for Best Original Drama. Three women aged 59, 56 and 60 years old respectively, showing the world that older women can, through the art of their acting and writing talent, move us, inspire us and entertain us. And that a story centred around the trials and tribulations of a grandmother in Yorkshire can capture and hold the attention of an audience of 7.5 million over 18 hours of enthralling drama.
Let’s have a lot more ‘women of substance’ on our screens if you please!
Image from Telegraph. CREDIT - Photo: Ben Blackall/BBC. Seehere
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Totally agree Tricia with all your comments. It’s great to see the older woman coming to the fore and showing everyone that we do exist. Happy Valkey was brilliant in every the writing and the acting was incredible and the whole last episode so moving. Just one point why am I not receiving my Sunday emails from you? Have had to look up your blogs for the last couple of weeks!!! Have I been struck off do hope not xxx
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This was a wonderful blog, I really enjoyed reading it. It’s very sad they way women are overlooked at a certain age, it’s as if we become invisible and unnecessary. I’ve long believed that once there is a sprinkling of silver or grey hair it’s assumed women are “past their sell by date” Let’s hope things are changing!! Joyce
Hi Tricia - I couldn’t agree more with your comments about Happy Valley - the acting has been outstanding. Missing the brilliant Sarah Lancashire I have started watching The Last Tango in Halifax- wonderful and of course Ann Reid is another great actress. Thank you x
Love the essay and the way you injected a bit of light sarcasm with the phrase "past their prime" to describe some members of the all-female ensemble cast of "Women Talking." As Michelle Yeoh said in her Oscar acceptance speech: "Ladies, don't ever let anyone tell you you are past your prime."
Loved today’s essay on older women actors and totally agree.