The year after Ellen DeGeneres came out and was promptly booted off television in the United States, network television in the U.K. took a decidedly more progressive turn thanks to lesbians Maureen Chadwick, Eileen Gallagher and Ann McManus, along with Brian Park. The four quit their prior jobs, formed an independent production company called Shed Productions, and took out a £5 million loan. Then they did the unthinkable, sinking all their money as well as their reputations into a women’s prison drama called Bad Girls — which they had the gall to build around a burgeoning, multiseason lesbian romance.
Risky? It was. Terrifying? Certainly, especially when bad reviews poured in and ratings floundered for the first few episodes. But thanks in large part to Chadwick and McManus’ fast-paced scripts and compelling characters, Bad Girls quickly emerged as a hit, winning a National Television Award for best drama after its first season.
Chadwick is working on several new projects including the upcoming ABC series Football Wives based on the British series Footballers’ Wives and starring Lucy Lawless. But Bad Girls fans will be happy to know that Chadwick is also working on Bad Girls: The Musical, for which her partner, Katherine Gotts, serves as composer and lyricist. Chadwick spoke to AfterEllen.com from her home in London about the early risk of making Bad Girls, the show’s feminist agenda and its lingering impact on British society.
AfterEllen.com: It took a long time, but you must be excited that Bad Girls has made it to America.
Maureen Chadwick: Oh, absolutely. We’re very, very excited about the Logo deal. It’s marvelous, and I hope it goes down well out there.
AE: How would you describe Bad Girls to people who have yet to see the show?
MC: It’s an ensemble drama that we hope is entertaining and raises serious issues about the imprisonment of women, which I think would be applicable on both sides of the pond. We show a wide range of women from different social backgrounds who’ve committed different crimes — and some who haven’t committed any crime at all. We put them in this dark place and invite imaginative engagement with their plight. We invite the audience to empathize with these women and think that could be you; that could be your mum; that could be your sister or your daughter — and how would you cope if you were there?
AE: Bad Girls is famous for balancing gritty realism with camp humor. Can you talk about why you chose that unique style to tell a prison story?
MC: I think that may well be our taste in drama anyway. It also mirrors the reality of women’s prisons, where that kind of emotional swing can be a daily event. We’re talking about a bunch of women who are on the edge anyway, and in prison they’ve learned they’ve got to sink or swim. I think it’s true to the reality of what’s going on there, and probably true to our own reality, you know, that the bad things sometimes have to be laughed at.
AE: It amazes me that in 1998 you and the other creators took such an enormous financial risk, not only to create a show about a women’s prison but to place a lesbian love story at the heart of it.
MC: We were lucky to get away with it, weren’t we? [Laughs.]
AE: Incredibly lucky, yes!
MC: We did have a problem with the network, but they weren’t focused on the lesbian story line as such. It was more about wanting to bring in well-known actresses.
AE: They didn’t pressure you to tone down the lesbian content?
MC: No, that was never an issue in itself. I think that’s because of the popularity of the program. It did, despite initial bad reviews, find a large audience, and it especially found that highly desired section of 16- to 34-year-olds.
AE: Are you aware that we don’t have a lesbian character on network television in the U.S. right now?
MC: Aren’t there any at all?
AE: No, unfortunately, not on network TV. Can you compare that to the situation in the U.K.?
MC: It’s becoming more and more likely that shows will have a lesbian or gay character here.
AE: Because it draws viewership?
MC: Yes, though I’m hoping it’s got beyond that sort of self-conscious point now to where we’re actually able to represent a whole range of characters, and it’s not a big deal anymore. I really think things have shifted. I think it’s no longer going to hit the headlines that you’ve got a lesbian character on TV in prime time, which is great because the more assimilated we are, the better.
AE: Do you think the Helen and Nikki story line has had a lasting impact on British society?
MC: Well, it’s still much talked about. And we’re still selling DVDs of the first and second series. [Laughs.] It was a landmark of its kind because it was the first extended lesbian romance on prime time TV here, and I think the extended lesbian story line led to a lot of people being surprised to find themselves interested in and enjoying a love story involving two women.
AE: Can you explain "subversion by seduction," a phrase you’ve used to describe the show?
MC: It sums up what our intentions were, which started with wanting to entertain people. That’s the seduction element [laughs], and at the same time we wanted to address some political issues we were concerned with ourselves. By combining the two, we were able to get people to vault over their own prejudices because they enjoyed the stories we were telling. Once we got people interested and absorbed in our characters and their stories, we could tackle some tough issues.
AE: You don’t seem shy about mentioning your agenda. I’m accustomed to writers at least claiming they’re simply telling a story, with no particular cause in mind.
MC: I think we’re very keen for people to know we’re proselytizing feminists [laughs], and I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t be, really, when there are still so many inequalities. It’s also that you have to write the kind of things that you’re really engaged in and interested in yourself. We had the opportunity to do that with Bad Girls, and the great thing was that other people enjoyed it.
AE: Do you mind being identified as a lesbian writer?
MC: I don’t like being defined exactly as that. I’d say "writer who is a lesbian." If you say "lesbian writer" or "black writer," you probably are presenting yourself as only writing about those topics. I’m very happy to be known as a writer who is a lesbian, but it’s a minefield, isn’t it, with these definitions. It’s like being described as a "woman writer" when a man isn’t described as a "man writer." [Laughs.]