In October, there’s a corking one-day festival in London called the Killer Women Crime Writing Festival 2016, which celebrates female crime writers and female actors who have appeared in TV crime drama. Award-winning crime novelist (and friend of the site) Sarah Hilary is helping to curate the whole thing, and to kick things off Sarah sat down with the TV Editor at the Radio Times, Alison Graham, to talk all things women and crime drama. It makes for great reading. At the end of the piece I’ll tell you how to get tickets to the event, which promises to be a brilliant day, featuring as it does the likes of Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves and Douglas Henshall, Paula Hawkins, Louise Doughty and many, many more.
Sarah Hilary: What for you makes a great fictional female in a crime drama?
Alison Graham: The trouble with a lot of women detectives is that they’re a bit ‘off’ or they have a hang-up that gets in the way of their work (Marcella with her amnesia is a good example). Sarah Lund from The Killing was quite closed down but terrifically focused; you believed in her. She had a male sidekick, but there was no hint of a romance – I dislike the whole ‘will they, won’t they’ thing. I like Nicola Walker in Unforgotten, which is coming back for a second series. She isn’t tormented all the time, or sleeping with murderers – you should be too busy doing your job for any of that. The show is almost mundane, which in itself is so unusual it stands out.
SH: Do you have a favourite female character right now?
AG: The magnificent Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, as Catherine Cawood. She’s a properly authentic human being and an authentic police officer. My favourite bits are when she sits in the backyard with her sister, both of them with big mugs of tea, just talking about their days. Sally Wainwright’s ear for dialogue is second to none; it resounds like a bell — so clear and normal and real. Of course, Catherine has this character, Tommy, who wants to kill her, which is a slight inconvenience, but you don’t feel that it’s bonkers because Catherine’s so believable, with her unflattering uniform and her messy hair. The writing’s out of this world, just stunning. It was the same when Sally Wainwright was writing for Scott & Bailey, with their chats in the loos like Cagney & Lacey, which I adored. Women DO chat in the loos, but I don’t think you ever saw the inside of a toilet on American television before that. Groundbreaking!
SH: I do know exactly what you mean by the mundanity lending realism to these shows. By contrast, I find The Fall almost retrograde. It just feels very old-fashioned with its female in killer heels and silk blouses. This idea of her as an ice queen and a sexual predator is a very male view of what makes a strong woman.
AG: Yes, and the violence is so glamourised in The Fall. In Happy Valley, they don’t show the violence; they show people’s reactions to it. It’s all the more chilling because it isn’t splattered all over the screen.
SH: Of course The Fall is hugely popular, especially with men.
AG: Well, Gillian Anderson is gorgeous. And he’s a gorgeous murderer. But I don’t want to think too closely about why any woman would find him attractive. A friend of mine said, ‘It looks like a perfume advert’.
SH: It really does! Tell me about Lindsey Denton in Line of Duty. You were the one who got me watching that.
AG: What I love about Lindsey is that to this day I’m not sure what her game was. Keeley Hawes was so good, you’d believe her one minute, and the next you’d be puzzling again. Lindsey was so clever, so manipulative and of course being a detective she knew how to cover her tracks. In series two, when she came back, I was thinking, ‘Who are you? You’ve lied to me, haven’t you? You’ve lied about everything.’ She wrong-footed us every step of the way. To this day I don’t know her. I love that. That’s a proper personality.
SH: And the lanyards! You had me obsessing over those.
AG: Yes, I love the fact they all wear them. Did Gillian Anderson wear a lanyard, I can’t remember? Bet it interfered with the fall of her lovely silk top, though.
SH: She could have used it as a bookmark in her convenient dream diary…
AG: That was left lying around for a serial killer to read. Yes, very careless.
SH: “Here’s a useful list of my buttons should you ever wish to press them …” What are you looking forward next in terms of strong females in TV crime shows?
AG: Keeley Hawes is in the new series of The Missing in the autumn, that should be good.
SH: Of course you’re all about Poldark at the moment, aren’t you? Forget the strong females, let’s look at the hot tin miners.
AG: Hot mining is going to be a thing. You heard it here first.
Alison Graham reviews the best (and worst) of TV for the Radio Times. She tweets as @TVAlisonGraham.
Sarah Hilary’s debut, Someone Else’s Skin, won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2015. She tweets as @sarah_hilary
The Killer Women Crime Writing Festival takes place on Saturday 15th October 2016 (9 am to 8.30 pm) at Shoreditch Town Hall in London. For more information and to buy tickets, go to www.killerwomen.org