1913 Suffragette Derby, Downton Abbey, Emily Davison, Herbert Asquith, Lloyd-George, Mr Selfridge, Shoulder to Shoulder, Suffragette, Suffragette Terrorists, Suffragettes, Suffragettes on TV, Votes for Women
It is 40 years since the 1974 TV drama series Shoulder to Shoulder portrayed the Suffragette struggle, with Sian Phillips playing Mrs Pankhurst. Since then we’ve seen next to nothing on our screens about Suffragettes. Last year did see a well researched and professionally produced Channel 4 documentary about Emily Davison’s protest at the 1913 Derby, but the closest thing to TV drama we’ve seen was last year’s Suffragette ‘sit’ (one couldn’t call it a sitcom because that would imply there was some level of comedy in it). This had a script seemingly knocked up on the back of a fag packet, and a set which appeared to be the prop-free zone which was the village hall in Dad’s Army. It was an insult to the memory of Suffragettes. As for genuine TV drama, despite the success of Edwardian dramas such as Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge, and TV’s present enthusiasm for all things Great War (it’s still 6 months till the centenary of the outbreak of war for goodness sake) during which women aged over 30 won the vote, the fight for the suffrage cause remains a taboo subject.
Given that my Suffragette guided walks are the most popular of the 39 tours I offer, and my talks are likewise my most oft-booked guest speaker spots, there’s clearly plenty of interest out there. And given that it would be difficult not to make the dramatic era of the Suffragettes anything other than an audience pleasing ratings winner, one has to question why the fight for Votes for Women is so ignored by TV.
Obviously cost is one issue. The one Suffragette scene in Downton Abbey, which was simply a device to get the romance between the chauffeur and her ladyship off to a flyer and was quickly forgotten about thereafter, did look rather cheap and cheerfully produced. Likewise, the Suffragette protest outside the store in Mr Selfridge looked equally constrained by budget.
But I wonder whether the main reason behind Suffragettes being ignored by TV is something more profound. Just as the Great War was the great horror of the first part of the 20th century, so the 40 years since Shoulder to Shoulder has seen terrorism become the great horror of the modern world. And though Suffragettes went out of their way not to harm anyone (other than themselves), one wonders whether TV people see them as the 20th century’s first terrorists, and as such not to be glamourised by TV drama. It would certainly be difficult to produce a drama that did anything but show Suffragettes to be brave freedom fighters fighting for a just cause, and Prime Minister Asquith and his small band of supporters (by 1910 only 5 of the 19 strong cabinet were actively against women gaining the vote in some form, and a big majority of backbenches were in favour of women’s suffrage) to be anything but the perpetrators of injustive.
This might seem far-fetched, but a year ago I was interviewed live on BBC Radio because it was the centenary of Lloyd-George’s house being bombed by Suffragettes, and the BBC’s leader was “Were the Suffragettes Terrorists?”. Given the huge number of events and incidents during the fight for the vote, it intrigued me that it was this bombing that had been picked out as being particularly worthy of analysis.
Or is this nonsense? If it is, then why does TV drama (and TV documentaries for that matter) ignore Suffragettes? Comments please, especially if you work in the media!