That some men have a penchant for dominant, not to say aggressive, women is obvious from the advertisements which plaster telephone booths close to major London railway stations. There is an undeniable frisson to be had from the close proximity of violence and allure: the ancient world had its Amazons, the Sub-Continent has its Kali.
It is this frisson that Lynda La Plante is exploiting in the new ITV series (of which there have so far been three episodes) The Governor. Janet McTeer plays the curiously naive and yet undeniably dominant senior officer in what one hopes is a more than usually violent men’s prison. Her character, Miss Hewitt, is a carefully crafted amalgam of toughness and tenderness: she looks like Virginia Bottomley and never flinches when the blood begins to flow – which in this series it does copiously and gratuitously. The men in Miss Hewitt’s world (with the exception of the handsome prison doctor, to whom she has taken a shine) are thickskinned and thick-skulled. They resent her, conspire against her, and are both less intelligent and >~ “caring ” than she is.
Of course there is an ill-disguised feminist message in the improbable melodrama which surrounds Miss Hewitt. She and she alone, it appears, has just the combination of determination, sagacity and tenderness that the job demands. In contrast to the oafish men who invariably get things wrong – there was a particularly obtuse judge in episode two Hewitt gets to the bottom of things. And she does so without ever ruffling her well groomed, rather fifties hairstyle or sacrificing one iota of her femininity. Though women prisoners may be dykes of the most flagrant kind, women prison officers, we are to conclude, are stylish and attractive and invite young men round for supper twenty minutes after meeting.
In every work of fiction there is an element of
wish-fulfilment. A fictional world is a world in control; it is a world with a beginning, a middle and an end. But Lynda La Plante’s fantasy – an extension of the more plausible world inhabited by Inspector Jane Tennison (alias Helen Mirten) – is too obvious to be convincing. Though the visual detail of the series is well-researched, it is hard to believe in this prison or this Governor.
Those of us who have listened to the arguments in favour of women’s ordination the extravagant assertions that a feminine perspective will necessarily change for the better a moribund institution mismanaged by men – know better than to be taken in by La Plante. Though fantasy denies the fact, institutions (be they churches or prisons) are more powerful than people. They shape those who work in them and for them.
If the male colleagues in Miss Hewitt’s prison are harder and stupider than she is, it is at least in part because the job has made them so. And it is certain that twenty years on
she too will have been affected. She will have hardened to a condition in which, for example, she would certainly think twice about inviting an escaped prisoner into her car for a tender heart-to-heart chat.
Television is busy, at present, giving us healthy role models for female achievers. But it is reasonable to doubt whether the attempt will produce the expected results. It may be as well to point out that just as Marina Warner castigates the Virgin Mary for being an impossible act to follow (who, she asks quite reasonably, can be both a virgin and a mother?), so we in our turn have a right to be less than persuaded that the Governor’s combination of toughness and tenderness will produce successful imitators.
Miss Hewitt, in La Plante’s fantasia, is a trouserless St Joan who leads the men, saves the nation and marries the Dauphin. And there is no chance, in this enlightened generation, that she will be burned as a witch!
Is it too impossibly kill joy to recall in the face of all this positive thinking, that the world is simply not like that; that the wolf really did devour both Red Riding Hood and Grandma, that Rapunzel’s prince probably turned philanderer in the end, and that fairy tales invariably have unhappy endings?
The combination of gentleness and toughness, the proximity of sexuality and violence, which gives The Governor its buzz, is in fact very close to the unhealthy fantasies which plaster the telephone booths. It is as though, in seeking to be `herself, in a world of’ which she is master, Miss Hewitt is condemned to living out someone else’s fantasies for them.
Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark.