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Suffragettes’ tale

06 March 2015


IT WAS Sunday schools that made the difference - not, unfortunately, schools like the one in your church, where Joshua's genocidal conquest of the Holy Land is taught to innocent young souls by means of Fuzzy Felt and lantern slides, but ordinary schools, teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic on Sundays because that was the only day on which the young of the poor could be spared from toilsome work.

The difference, in fact, was made to the status of women. This was the first time that respectable females found some outlet for their talents and energy which was deemed socially acceptable.

The historian Amanda Vickery's new series Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power (BBC2, Wednesdays) included many such valuable insights. It is a documentary fuelled by indignation at the way in which women were repressed, by the way married women were the property of their husbands, and by the innumerable indignities visited on them down the ages.

The passion, sadly, rather dulled the impact. The truly equal status of men and women was taken as a self-evident fact; but history would be better served if we were shown how it was that society ever considered anything else. Accusations of disgrace were levelled at married women, because there is, for example, evidence of many widows' running their late husbands' businesses; so it was not women as such that 18th- and 19th-century social mores oppressed: it was more the specific condition of marriage which degraded them. A clearer exposition of this would make this even more powerful television.

Not much equality for the women in Picasso: Love, sex, and art (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). We have often heard about the succession of women in the life of this most protean of artists; what this documentary clarified was the extent to which each new lover transformed his style and work. It was not just that we saw the different women portrayed again and again; their individual characteristics changed the kind of art that he produced.

Picasso saw himself as the Minotaur - half man, half bull - and the amount of respect and tenderness he lavished on his partners related more to the bull half. His ascendency reached beyond the grave: two of his lovers committed suicide after his death.

When Channel 4 launched Indian Summers as its Sunday-evening riposte to BBC's A Casual Vacancy, it seemed that the latter would be the more substantial work; but my snap judgement was wrong. Vacancy has proved to be too contrived a series of contrasts between stereotypes in contemporary British society.

Channel 4 is presenting something far more nuanced and disturbing. Because it deals with similar issues - racial prejudice, hypocrisy, brutality, and corruption - it has the almost insurmountable problem of comparison with The Jewel In The Crown, but it does not have the same degree of profound engagement as helped to make that, probably, the finest TV drama yet screened. But it does very well: the characters are complex and engaging. Even the monsters invite our pity.

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