Up-words features the best of the articles from This way up when it was published as a print fanzine from 2002- 2010.
Hell Hath No Fury... / Sean Alexander / October 2004
The decade of yuppie culture and Thatcherism marked something of a renaissance in home-grown television drama. The ‘greed is good’ ethos of corporate privatisation, combined with rising unemployment and the now familiar sight of British soldiers defending some far-flung nation all provided ample stimulation for some of television’s most renowned playwrights. Inevitably, such social and cultural upheaval bled heavily into these fictional consciousnesses of the time - with Alan Bleasdale, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Dennis Potter all writing career-defining works come decade’s end. But while Bleasdale‘s Boys from the Blackstuff and Clement & La Frenais’ Auf Wiedersehen, Pet both took tragi-comic looks at the effects of mass unemployment, Potter instead turned his attention to the past; penning the highly-autobiographical, sexually explicit TV-noir The Singing Detective. Indeed, so controversial was it that it marked something of a cauldron-peak in the decades-long debate on suitable peak-time viewing. And the resultant questioning of its cultural merits in Parliament only underlined British drama’s then position at the zeitgeist of popular culture.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the opportunities for female writers in this apparently male-centric, brave new world were few and far between. But the 1980s was also the decade when opinionated women writers finally found a voice after years of neglect. Principal of these was Fay Weldon, a feminist novelist of some years standing, whose critically-acclaimed work had received many plaudits in print. But she had yet to make any breakthrough on TV. That changed with the four-part adaptation of her 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. Starring erstwhile cockney-copper, come loveable-minder, Dennis Waterman, and the impossibly English Patricia Hodge, She-Devil is on the surface another routine story of failed marriage and infidelity. But it is in its third principal, spurned wife Ruth (played by newcomer Julie T. Wallace) that it achieves both notoriety and lasting resonance. For Ruth’s reaction to being dumped by her serial-philandering husband is, to say the least, unique. And the resultant success of both the drama - and Wallace’s defining central role - came to symbolise the repressed desires of plain, downtrodden women everywhere.
Adapted from Weldon’s novel by Ted Whitehead, She-Devil begins with Ruth detailing the disintegration of her marriage at the hands of glamorous novelist Mary Fisher. Falling deeply in love with Mary, whose idyllic coastal lighthouse offers escape from a cloying suburban home, Ruth’s husband Bobbo at first tries to juggle domestic strife with sexual awakening. But following an embarrassing dress-down by his parents - and an insanely jealous Ruth - he labels his wife a ’she devil’, before leaving her and their two children to fend for themselves. Little knowing that with this accusation Bobbo has indeed awakened his wife’s latent self putting her onto the path of reinvention and revenge.
Torching the family home - and invalidating any insurance claim - Ruth dumps the now homeless children at their father’s lighthouse retreat, before instigating her plan. First up is a visit to Mary’s estranged mother, left to rot away in a nursing home. Posing as a care worker, she weans the less than feeble Mrs Fisher off tranquillisers and - much to her daughter’s chagrin - sends her back to stay with her; carving the first chink in Mary and Bobbo’s seemingly cast-iron relationship in the process. Phase two sees Ruth, along with befriended fellow care-worker Nurse Hopkins, break into Bobbo’s office, where they siphon off millions of pounds of his clients’ money. Pocketing the proceeds, the two set up ‘Vista Rose’, a company employing overlooked women; and the ultimate expression of Ruth’s future plans to release likewise women from their domestic drudgery. Meanwhile Bobbo - now distracted by both his motherless children and his lover’s dotty parent - seeks comfort in the arms of a vulnerable temp at his office. Little knowing that Elsie Flowers is in fact a stooge acting through the Vista Rose agency. Mary forgives Bobbo his infidelity, but worse is to follow when he is arrested for the missing client money; little knowing that Ruth has given it to Elsie to start a new life in Switzerland. And as a fait accompli, Ruth even ensnares Bobbo’s trial judge; ensuring he receives the sentence of seven years for his jumped-up crimes.
As Ruth’s plans enter their final stages, Mary turns to her priest for support as her life crumbles around her. But Ruth has already reached him, seduced him and told him he must do likewise to Mary in order to save her eternal soul. Bereft of hope, salvation and - thanks to Bobbo’s court case - money, a suicidal Mary sells the tower, but is killed when a she-devil-inspired storm sweeps her to her death. Her revenge seemingly complete, Ruth completes the final phase of her master-plan; to transform herself physically into a duplicate of Mary, and take her status at the top of her high tower. With a broken and jail-hardened Bobbo for company, we end with Ruth - physically and metaphorically - surveying from the same tower as Mary all those years ago…
Such a domestic drama, whilst wrapped up in a fantasy-tinged setting, would be transient were it not for its protagonists’ performances. Fortunately, She-Devil’s principals cement the surrounding events in plausibility. Particularly newcomer Wallace, who as Ruth gives a remarkably sensitive portrayal of a woman pushed to extremes by the inequality of both life and love. Portraying the downtrodden wife, she bravely sacrifices any shred of femininity; making her later transformations - from busty vixen to power-dressed executive - all the more startling. Likewise, Dennis Waterman - playing very much against his established ‘cockney-geezer’ roles - perfectly captures the callous, socially-pretentious Bobbo; a man whose deep-seated resentment of his suffocating upbringing help explain his intolerance of domesticity with Ruth. And Patricia Hodge manages to somehow instil the icily aloof Mary Fisher with a sympathetic loneliness belying her shallow exterior.
The script is rich with thematic allusions and peppered with a dark, British sense of black humour. Director Philip Saville - a pioneer of visual technique on the likes of Armchair Theatre and Play for Today - makes full use of the fantasy elements of Whitehead’s script; instilling Ruth’s physical and metaphorical transformations with a mythical edge. Previously best known for his work on Bleasdale’s seminal Boys from the Blackstuff, Saville manages to combine that piece’s gritty, urban reality with here a macabre sense for the unreal. And his characteristic eye for the epic is best illustrated by She-Devil’s signature location; Mary Fisher’s enigmatic tower, located near Sussex’s Beachy Head.
Arguably She-Devil’s principal success lies in its allegorical study of core themes: love, good & evil, and identity. Of the three, it is love that most dominates proceedings; with all three of our protagonists subject to its whims. In Weldon’s world, romantic love has become as destructive a force as it is spiritually fulfilling. The more it demands from its victims, the more it threatens their already fragile psyches. Such are the experiences of Ruth, Bobbo and Mary, who all at one time or another cannot bear the thought of loveless lives. Ultimately consumed by it, their only hope lies in renouncing its obsessive nature. That Ruth is the only one to do so lies crucial to unfurling events; for when she rejects the love she feels for Bobbo, not only does it free her to take her ultimate revenge, but it also liberates her from the definition of loving wife and good mother. Pertinently for her - and crucially for the others - Ruth’s rejection of love is the beginning of her personal freedom.
In relation to love, marriage is also seen as a constrictive and destructive force. Bobbo and Ruth’s ‘open’ marriage - very much a common term of the 1980s - is merely an excuse for Bobbo to explicitly ignore his marriage vows. Illustrated by his callous dismissal of her, marriage has reduced Ruth to the status of a faithful dog in Bobbo’s eyes. His reassurances of ‘loving’ her - but not ‘being in love’ - only attempt to render his infidelity more palatable; both to himself and to a watching male audience. As does his brutal description of their marriage as ‘sexual suicide’. Ruth has clearly encouraged this state of affairs for some time before we join events. But, while Mary is hardly the first example of his liberal approach to fidelity, until now Ruth has tolerated such indiscretions. So long as they were of no long-term threat to her sense of ‘permanence’. For it is not so much sexual betrayal that Ruth fears, but abandonment; and like millions of other women, she finds it better to be unhappy and with someone, than be unhappy and alone.
Weldon’s most damning indictment of love is in showing how it wanes over a relatively short period of time. Together with Mary, Bobbo has reached a state of Nirvanic bliss; but as first his children, and later Mary’s deranged mother, come to remind him, there is no escape from the baggage of one’s past. And being forced by Ruth to look after their two children is somewhat ill-fitting with his new life, so resonant are they of his prior domestication. As circumstances swiftly grow as intolerable as the suburban prison he has just left, it is with no little irony that Bobbo begins to re-appreciate his former wife’s compassion and stability; characteristics much at odds with his new lover’s rootless, carefree existence.
The subject of good and evil is another of She-Devil’s key themes. Given its very title, one inevitably approaches the piece with the expectation of demonic undertones but it is only in Ruth’s growing power as a wilful, dominating force that the drama ever slips into full-blown fantasy. The rest of the time, for ‘good and evil’ one could read ‘male and female’, so redolent are Weldon’s treatises with the age old battle of the sexes. Ruth’s description of her campaign as a ‘battle with God’ may suggest conflict of a higher order. But it is nothing more than an attempt to redress the imbalance of Nature’s inequality; where women are compelled to daub themselves in ‘war paint’ to compete for affection. Later, when she subverts Mary’s priest Father Ferguson to her own gain, Ruth offers herself as an equal opportunity alternative to another masculine ideal: religion.
She-Devil’s most pertinent theme is identity. Illustrated best by the gradual juxtaposition of its two female leads - the drama both begins and ends with women purporting to be Mary Fisher, astride her high tower - the nature of identity underpins the whole of proceedings. From Bobbo’s pretensions above suburban respectability, to Mary’s pseudo-motherhood following his incarceration and Ruth’s chopping-n-changing of personas in between, the nature of who we are and what we want is She-Devil’s raison-d’etre. ‘Peel away the wife, the mother…find the woman, and there the She-Devil is’. With these words, Ruth takes her first steps to reinvention. For when the ideals of being a good wife and a loving mother - which she at one point dictates to herself like a religious mantra - become redundant, Ruth is for the first time in her life free to be who she wants, how she wants it. But in order to create herself anew, she must first destroy the old persona; precipitating the numerous reinventions of herself on the road to Mary’s high tower. Her goal is now to be desired, not just loved; for experience has taught her that love ‘cannot survive reality’, and is an illusion lacking substance. Her new mantra - ‘A woman can be whatever she wants to be’ - provides the template for her subsequent, wish-fulfilment fantasy. And arguably gives She-Devil its deepest resonance amongst female viewers.
Likewise, Mary Fisher is clearly defined by her beliefs and infatuations. For her, sex, adoration and entertainment are the sustenance without which she would wither and die. Abandoned first by Bobbo, then Father Ferguson - whose rejection robs her of any last chance for retribution, be it spiritual or physical - Mary is left suicidal in a world bereft of love, either mortal or divine. Her tower, emblematic of her from the very beginning, inevitably falls into decay and neglect as Mary too loses her attractiveness and vitality. It is metaphorically fitting that she dies by physically falling from its lofty peak, To be replaced by Ruth.
It is in its denouement that She-Devil retains its greatest sting, and its most debated aspect. Arguably, had the preceding four episodes not had a hint of the fantastical events to come, Ruth’s physical change into Mary’s double would have been far too much to accept. But, given her final transformation occurs simultaneously with Mary’s death, it merely underlines their cyclical relationship. ‘My friend is dead’, Ruth laments at Mary’s funeral; for the connection between Ruth and Mary is implicit to She-Devil’s resolution. On the surface there is husband and lover Bobbo to inextricably tie the two together, but in final analysis the root goes much deeper. To the ultimate difference between the haves and the have-nots, the beautiful and the ugly, the loved and the lost. Ruth’s ultimate revenge on Mary is to take everything that she has and everything that she is; using her power and affluence to have anything - and, most importantly, anyone - that she wants. But what lesson does this teach the viewer, both then and now? That the price of revenge is never too high if the cause is just? Or that in the pursuit of perfection one ultimately loses oneself?
These are questions which The Life and Loves of a She-Devil chooses not to answer. Whether such ignorance avoids, or merely underlines, its remit is a matter for endless debate. But in a world - both real and fictional - where such stereotypical definitions as right and wrong, good and bad, are inevitably tinged with shades of grey, the central theme of substance over surface prevails. Mary Fisher’s face may look out to sea as the final credits role, but it is still Ruth’s voice which narrates the viewer to a dramatic conclusion. ‘Never judge a book by its cover’, the saying goes. And if She-Devil has just one message to impart it is that there are no barriers to being the person you want to be. Such a rallying cry potentially calls out to all oppressed people, be they man or woman, rich or poor. And Ruth’s own journey, if perhaps not her final destination, stands as a lasting lesson to the ugly duckling inside us all…