"I am a woman, and one day I'm gonna fly"
So wails the treacly jazz tones of chantress and sometime Communards member Sarah Jane Morris at the close of each episode of this five-part 1991 television adaptation of Ann Oakley's celebrated feminist novel The Men's Room, directed by Antonia Bird. It's curious that Susan Kemp's recent, excellent, documentary film on Bird's life and career focused on the notion that Bird's productions were invariably centred around male protagonists because, if you actually look at her credits, that clearly isn't the whole truth - and The Men's Room is a prime example of her translating her feminist political beliefs effectively into her art.
Adapted by the late Laura Lamson, The Men's Room tells the story of sociologist academic Charity Walton (Harriet Walter), a mother of four, who married her first love, James, at an early age. The story opens in 1980 and the years of bringing up a family have taken their toll, meaning that Charity and her husband have drifted apart. The arrival that summer of a new Professor and head of department at her university, the irresistable but just as married Mark Carleton (Bill Nighy) quickly turns her head and inevitably a relationship develops between the pair.
What follows is an exploration of the selfishness and self destructive element of the toxic love affair between Mark and Charity, taking us through the length of the 1980s and finally into the year 2000, when Mark waits to meet Charity once more in Amsterdam on Valentine's Day. Throughout, Charity is shown to be uneasy with the deceit inherent in adultery, whilst womanising is second nature to Mark, having done it many times before and believing that "I need to have affairs because it keeps me vital and I keep them from my wife to protect her." He simply cannot help himself, and he is the archetype of someone being led by their prick. Even when he isn't even particularly interested or sexually attracted to the woman; such as his plump man-eating New York book editor who throws herself at him, he still gives in to his carnal lust - it's almost as if it would be rude not to! Despite their obviously different outlooks, they cannot live apart...nor can they live together all that happily either.
Back in 1991, I was aware of this programme, but its bonkbuster aesthetic and its schoolnight post-watershed scheduling (episodes went out around 10:15pm) made it a no go area for the 11 year old me. Years later, having studied sociology and appreciated Oakley's non-fiction, I came to her novel and subsequently managed to get hold of a very good off-air recording of the series, which is what I have revisited this week, although the series has subsequently received its long overdue release to DVD. The Men's Room (its title derives from a discussion between the sociologists about the world being unequal between the sexes."It's a man's world" one states, before another counters that it is in fact "a men's room") is very much of its time, dripping with that middle-class aspirational style that so fuelled much of the late 80s and early 90s television landscape, along with an almost History Man style sex-among-the-academics tone. It is the production that launched Bill Nighy's career, making him something of a pin up in the early '90s. Nighy has had an interesting and international career since, becoming something of a national institution in the wake of a few starring roles in Richard Curtis comedies, but has attracted criticism from some quarters of the UK press and audiences for 'always playing Bill Nighy' (a criticism I can never understand; after all, no one complains that David Niven always played David Niven, or that Harrison Ford always plays Harrison Ford. I think its a negativity that says more about how the UK strives to knock the stars we create more than anything else) His Mark Carleton is quite a world away from his subsequent roles and he's a convincing adulterer and manchild, with a rather suitable accident-prone nature that is occasionally depicted for comic relief. He's ably matched by a strong and empathic central performance from Harriet Walter as Charity, a woman coming to terms after a hasty early marriage to the notions of her own sexuality and sexual appetite, as well as finding out at her own expense the truth of societies inherent gender inequality. Whilst it focuses on feminism and Walter's Charity is our heroine, the adaptation doesn't shy away from depicting her own faults and selfish disregard in the pursuit of love, with a neat counter-argument that she ultimately takes the traditional patriarchal, alpha male role once she sets up home with Mark. Their candid sex scenes - perhaps a touch too overwrought now - set the screen alight at the time.
The theme tune I Am A Woman is really evocative of the programme and its themes and issues and boasts fine vocals from Sarah Jane Morris from a musical composition by Andy Roberts, a seasoned musician who has played with The Liverpool Scene, Scaffold, Pink Floyd, Roy Harper and Kevin Ayers and who provided the scores for several Antonia Bird productions including Submariners, Thin Air (which also featured Sarah Jane Morris in an acting role) A Masculine Ending, Safe, Priest, Mad Love and Face.