I loved Susan, Carol, Cherry and the rest of Pan’s People, but that doesn’t make me a pervert, writes Aidan Smith.
This could be tricky so I’m getting these names out of the way early: Susan George, Madeline Smith, Carol Cleveland, Gabrielle Drake, Susan Stranks and the one they called Cherry.
If you watched TV as much as I did in the 1970s you’ll know these women to have been Top of the Pops cavorters, sticky-back plastic whizzes, the butt (literally) of many a comedy and the perfect hostesses in floor-length gowns who passed round Twiglets and kept glasses filled with Liebfraumilch as the menfolk congratulated themselves on their magnificence at business, even though the business in question was deeply unsexy road haulage. To Cherry I could have added the rest of Pan’s People. I could have included Sally Thomsett from Man About the House and, believing in inclusivity for brunettes, Paula Wilcox. I could have found room for Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum!), Debbie Watling and her sister Dilys, Judy Geeson and her sister Sally. But I would have drawn the line at all the women who were ever chased by Benny Hill into bra-pinging woods. There would be no place either for the girl from the Playtex 18-hour girdle ads. What do you think I am, some kind of pervert?
Throughout the grim, grey 70s these women took it in turns to be a goddess of the light, and if you were lucky enough not to live in a neighbourhood where the three-day week forced early goggle-box closedown, their coy smile, their gamboling stride in wet-look boots, or the way they slotted a bolt in a crossbow – if they were Anne Aston from The Golden Shot – acted as a brilliant beacon.
I could say more about these beauteous creatures but should stop right there. Men cannot admire women anymore without being accused of objectifying them. Women, meanwhile, are having a field day. Quite literally.
If a man comes stomping across a meadow, swishing a scythe in a virile manner, if when he gets closer it becomes obvious he’s ripped off his shirt in defiance of the stiff Cornish breeze, a woman is allowed to find this wantonly lustful and imagine herself grabbing the scythe and roughly combing his chest hair, to say nothing of those fabulously broody eyebrows. She is permitted to have this response on Women’s Hour, on Loose Women, in any gathering of women or indeed in front of men. There is no male equivalent anymore.
Poldark is back. The fourth series starts on Sunday. And I’ve probably upset actor Aidan Turner’s many female admirers by mentioning grooming techniques, as if these would be their first and main concern because they’re somehow “women’s work”. In the current climate that was sexist of me. Truly, these are confusing times. As dark for the sex wars as the three-day week was for the country, the power cuts being virtually the final act of the last male Conservative prime minister before a woman took charge.
The broadcaster Mariella Frostrup admits double standards exist now. She’s written of her panting excitement at the drama’s return, trailed by a shot of “a shirtless, sea-soaked Aidan Turner, emerging from the white-capped waves of the Atlantic”. But she sympathises with men. “If a male colleague had penned these lines about any of Turner’s equally appealing female co-stars,” she added, “the cries of contrition would be drowned out by Twitter’s Troll Chorus.” We might pause here to ponder our hero’s thoughts because, after bobbing masterfully to the surface, an interpretation of his glower might be: “Where’s my shirt? Where’s my scythe? Where’s my career?” Three years ago when the show began his bare chest dominated the national conversation and he wasn’t best pleased. Poldark, he complained, was “not a stripper show”.
Actresses will smile wryly at his remarks. For long enough – for as long as stories have been filmed, essentially – they’ve had nudity, partial or full, written into scripts as being “fundamental to the plot” and not at all gratuitous or exploitative. Turner apparently is being touted as the next James Bond. Maybe he has to swallow hard, without gulping down seaweed, and accept that if he wants that gig, some beach-based beefcakery might be useful, given that the original 007 Sean Connery and the current one Daniel Craig managed to make similar scenes iconic and didn’t whinge.
So what of we mere mortals, men like me and certainly you? Men who don’t possess an actor’s brawny build, who are aridly free from chest hair which has nothing to do with the waxing fetish demonstrated on another returning show, Love Island, and who are liable to have sand kicked in our faces? How are we supposed to react when wives, girlfriends and female work colleagues go tin-pot potty for a tin-mine hunk from 250 years ago?
I think we just have to suck it up. We’ve had things our way for two and a half centuries and then some. Women have been plonked in stories, on page and screen, for decoration and delectation (ours).
We can nod in agreement when Frostrup says: “I fear we are losing not only our sense of humour but our sense of proportion as we throw every act of perceived sexism into the #MeToo basket.” We could try to introduce humour to the debate, by arguing that Turner misplacing his shirt at regular intervals is a bit like those women taking a wrong turning into the randy forest in The Benny Hill Show. But when the heartthrob flaunts his eight-pack as the music soars and the waves crash, we would have to concede: “Well, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t need an 18-hour girdle.”
The 1970s were fun in a woefully unreconstructed way but I don’t want to go back there so I hope Twitter’s Troll Chorus will spare me their harsh words. I loved those women then, still do now.