This time it’s personal: the new wave of British female TV writers

Women are using their own, often traumatic, life experiences as material for compelling shows

From Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fizzy, funny take on the spy genre, to the warm and raucous Derry Girls, Channel 4’s biggest comedy hit earlier this year, the most interesting new shows of 2018 have been created by and are about young women. Now a new generation of writers is beginning to make similar waves.

Monday will see the arrival of Ambreen Razia’s smart and sweet Hounslow Diaries on BBC Three. Next Saturday, Jess Brittain’s dark thriller Clique returns to the same channel. They join Kayleigh Llewellyn’s touching and clever tale of Welsh teenagers, In My Skin, available on iPlayer, and Sophie Petzal’s addictive family-centred crime drama Blood, which has had rave reviews in Ireland and will be shown on Channel 5 later this year.

Kirstie Swain’s Pure, a six-part adaptation of Rose Cartwright’s memoir about her life with “Pure O”, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, comes to Channel 4 early next year, while Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan, who won critical acclaim for last year’s anorexia drama Overshadowed, are writing a new drama for BBC Three.

Further down the line commissions have been announced for a BBC Two drama about sexual consent written by Chewing Gum creator Michaela Coel, while rising literary star Sally Rooney will adapt her Booker prize-longlisted novel Normal People for BBC Three.

“There is a sense that a change has begun and we’re hearing more diverse female-led stories, although we still have some way to go,” says Razia, who adapted Hounslow Diaries from her stage play Diary of a Hounslow Girl because she wanted to show “what being a young Muslim woman is really like, that it’s very different from the perceived picture of Muslim girls as passive victims. I wanted to show these girls getting up to mischief, having fun, behaving as my friends and I did when we were at school.”

Lisa McGee, writer of Channel 4’s hit sitcom Derry Girls.
Lisa McGee, writer of Channel 4’s hit sitcom Derry Girls. Photograph: Channel 4

A similar motivation lay behind Northern Irish writer Lisa McGee’s comedy Derry Girls. “I never saw anything representative of me or my friends on TV,” she says. “We were always shown as the love interest, standing by listening to the boys. I wanted to create a show where the girls were funny and stupid and not just obsessed about shoes.”

They are also programmes that are willing to take risks with tone. Derry Girls won acclaim for the way its final episode tackled the reality of life during the Troubles; a seam of dark humour runs through both Clique and Blood and Pure; and Overshadowed and In My Skin tackle subjects such as OCD, anorexia and bipolar disorder with both humour and deftness of touch.

“One of the reasons I wrote In My Skin was because I felt that the story of what it’s like to be a teenage carer was an important one that hadn’t been shown on TV,” says Llewellyn, who based the show in part on her own teenage experiences. “I wanted to look at what it feels like to lie the whole time about your home life, and what it means when the person you love and adore the most brings you the biggest heartache. The key for me was that it has to feel real. I didn’t want something clean-cut, where the edges were sanded away.”

Swain, who drew on her own experiences with anxiety when writing Pure, agrees that honesty is key. “Before, when a female character had a mental health issue, she was often portrayed as a manic pixie dream girl, someone quirky for the male lead to fall in love with. Now she would be a fully realised character and centre stage,” she says. “The stories being told are definitely changing. The success of shows like Fleabag have shown that women don’t have to apologise for being flawed: they can be disgusting and funny and emotional and brutal. Often all at the same time.”

O’Connor and Ryan, creators of Overshadowed, which is nominated for best drama in next month’s Mind Media Awards, agree. “There’s definitely more interesting, women-led stuff coming out,” says O’Connor. “Take The Bisexual on Channel 4, which is very much set in a recognisable place with recognisable stories. In that sense I don’t think that we’ve had to fight as hard as other women have fought to have our voices heard.”

“But it is frustrating when people act as though the success of one show means you can’t have any others,” adds Ryan. “As though there can only be one Fleabag or Broad City or Girls.”

Trailblazer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the award-winning series Fleabag.
Trailblazer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the award-winning series Fleabag. Photograph: Luke Varley/BBC

It’s also arguable that the success of such personal tales has made it easier for TV executives to compartmentalise women writers, viewing them solely as tellers of intimate truths rather than writers of big-budget or mainstream shows. “I don’t know many women who got their first commissions without it being autobiographical in some way,” admits Brittain, adding that the first series of Clique drew closely on her own experience of intense female friendships. “In some ways that’s great because it gives the opportunity to talk diversely about female experience and we’re seeing a huge number of very different stories being told, but equally you’re much less likely to get commissioned for something that has absolutely nothing to do with you or your personal experience.”

Petzal, who wrote for dramas as different as The Last Kingdom and Riviera before creating the atmospheric Blood, says: “You have these trailblazing geniuses like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel who make people sit up. So then the commissioning editors start thinking, ‘Well, that’s want we want, more writer/performers or people with name brand recognition, not just someone sitting behind a computer who doesn’t do anything but write.’

“For me the coded messaging behind that is if we just wanted some normal person who just writes, we have 15 men who could do it. There’s a laziness in the way commissioners think that absolutely makes it harder for women writers to break through.”

Llewellyn agrees:“Things are obviously changing but we can’t rest on our laurels. I still feel as though women have to shout about our work a lot and force our way in. That said, every time another show is commissioned it chips away at the stereotypes and reminds people that these stories are not just for women they appeal to everyone.”

Hounslow Diaries is on BBC Three on Monday from 10am. Series two of Clique starts on BBC Three on 10 November. In My Skin is available now on iPlayer


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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