Caroline Roberts-Cherry and Sally Lindsay, founders of Madame Blanc Mysteries indie, Saffron Cherry, on putting female talent front and centre in UK drama.
Caroline Roberts-Cherry: When we set up Saffron Cherry Productions, only 14% of original prime time drama writers were women (Writers’ Guild 2018).
Five years in, things are changing, and we’re incredibly proud to be part of that change, however there are still some long-standing barriers to commissioning that there is an army of talented women working hard to address.
Sally Lindsay: I think we have come a long way since the days when I was pitching Scott and Bailey with Suranne Jones, and the first question was always, who is the male lead? But there’s clearly a way to go when it comes to female representation on UK TV. Some of the female writers we work with are also actresses, and, like I was, they are partly driven into writing as a reaction to being offered parts where the characterisation doesn’t go deeper than ‘Prostitute number two’, or ‘Stella, 40, worn out by life’. And you can either be depressed by it and accept it, or go ‘right, stuff that. It needs to change because women are so much more than a one-line description in real life, and we need to be part of the shift.
I created The Madame Blanc Mysteries which has just completed its second season on Channel 5. I co-write the show with Sue Vincent, and act as an executive producer alongside Caroline Roberts-Cherry and Mike Benson from Clapperboard, who co-produce the show alongside Saffron Cherry. I also star as lead Jean White, a super sleuth antiques dealer in the sleepy South of France (sleepy apart from the weekly murder!).
It was scary but empowering when the show first came out to know that we women, Caroline and I, could make the choices to ensure the series turned out as we wanted. With huge support from Channel 5 and internationally, all eyes were on us, and it suddenly hit me that if people didn’t like the show it was all on me.
It’s a huge amount of work, and a massive personal investment, so one of the most personally gratifying things for me were all the conversations I had with female viewers who thanked us for creating a show where female characters actually talked like real women.
The more we’ve gotten the opportunity to make decisions, the less willing we are to relinquish it. So as a company, we’re working to make sure more women, whether they be writers, directors, actors, DOPs, have those opportunities to show off their own expertise.
Caroline Roberts-Cherry: Our investor and distributor Rainmaker Content, has noticed a shift in what buyers are looking for. There’s a strong market for female created and led drama, featuring strong distinctive female characters and situations where they lead and shape the narrative. Broadcasters are doing call outs for dramas with older female leads, or ‘messy’ female leads and I think some of that is to do with the success of some of the stand out shows in lockdown – Mare of Easttown, the Flight Attendant, Call My Agent, Dead to Me, etc., where none of the female leads could be summed up in one trite line. And obviously closer to home, Sally Wainright’s Happy Valley. The simple fact is women, like watching women, especially ones that look like themselves. This seems a pretty obvious fact, but I think it’s taken this long for the TV powers that be to truly embrace this.
Channel 5 have been hugely supportive of The Madame Blanc Mysteries and we’re all collectively delighted that this desire for ‘real’ female characters has been proven out in the ratings. Our show made the top ten most watched dramas for week 9-15 January 2023 (as reported in Broadcast Magazine), and will air internationally on Acorn TV this month.
We are actively working with established female writers and best-selling female authors to bring their worlds to life on screen but also helping to create new opportunities for emerging female talent; we have teamed up with Manchester University’s Drama Screen Writing course, just taken on a Development editor Abby Trotter to work alongside our Head of Scripted Jane Langford and we are proud that all three projects in development with BBC Drama as part of the Small Indie Fund are created by women.
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