Dani Garavelli: Killing Eve heralds new lease of life

Jodie Comer as the beautiful but bonkers assassin, Villanelle, in a scene from BBC America's Killing Eve, based on Luke Jennings' novella Codename Villanelle. Picture: Robert Viglasky
Jodie Comer as the beautiful but bonkers assassin, Villanelle, in a scene from BBC America's Killing Eve, based on Luke Jennings' novella Codename Villanelle. Picture: Robert Viglasky
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In common with most people I know, my current binge-watch is the gloriously unhinged crime series Killing Eve. For those of you who have not yet discovered it, the drama centres on the weird, obsessive, quasi-erotic relationship between a female MI5/MI6 agent, Eve Polastri, and the beautiful, but bonkers assassin Villanelle (think Betty Blue on acid).

Completing the triumfeminate is Carolyn Martens, head of the Russian section of MI6, who appears to have had sex with every agent in Moscow (well, two of them, anyway).

For women in particular, Killing Eve is a joyous, liberating experience. Not simply because the TV adaptation is by the talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame); nor because its bloody floors are not littered with the naked, dismembered bodies of pretty, young women (though a man does get his testicles clamped); nor even that it somehow manages to combine the humdrum trivialities of women’s lives – a flashback to last night’s drunken karaoke performance, for example – with the murder of a target with a poison-tipped hairpin.

No, the principal key to its appeal is that, as Guardian TV critic Lucy Mangan pointed out, it is feminist without having overtly feminist pretensions. In last year’s binge-fest, The Handmaid’s Tale, the moral was clear: protect your freedoms or they may be whipped away from you. But Killing Eve has no such message. It’s just women acting their socks off in challenging and often dysfunctional roles. For once, the men, though well-drawn and interesting, do not suck up all the air from everyone else. Any sexual chemistry that exists is between Eve and Villanelle. Would it pass the reverse of the Bechdel test (the one that says a film must have three women, they must talk to each other and they must talk about something other than the men)? I am not sure it would. The script is whip-sharp, the cast is ethnically diverse, and the whole is a genre-defying delight.

This would appear to be a bonanza month for exceptional women. They are, quite simply everywhere. It’s as if, after years of being forced to skulk in the shadows, they have burst out into the sunshine.

In sport, the Scottish women’s football team has qualified for the 2019 World Cup and their contribution is finally being recognised. The launch edition of the new lunchtime discussion show Politics Live had an all-women panel, all of whom seemed to display a competent grasp of the issues of the day (and why wouldn’t they?)

Last week brought us two more reasons to celebrate. First, it became clear BBC Radio 2 was determined a woman should take over Chris Evans’ breakfast time slot. It drew up a women-only shortlist, said to have included Jo Whiley, Sara Cox and Claudia Winkleman with Zoë Ball the clear favourite to get the job. And about time too. Whatever you think about Ball – and I reckon she was unfairly sneered at because she liked to party as hard as the boys – there has been a dearth of opportunity for female DJs over the years. Not talent. Opportunity.

In 2013, a survey showed only 20 per cent of solo radio show hosts were women, with listeners 10 times more likely to hear male voices than female ones on shows hosted by two or more presenters. Back in the day, male radio DJs were all mass-produced in the same factory. Let’s just say, that whole Smashie and Nicey culture didn’t work out too well for anyone. But things haven’t moved on so very far. Last year, Edith Bowman, who has been a DJ for 20 years, said it was “ludicrous” there were still so few women working in radio in the UK.

When women are given the chance, they excel and add another dimension. I love to hear Janice Forsyth or Nicola Meighan talk about music. I am not sure in what precise way their presentation differs from men’s; maybe they’re a bit less exclusive. But, in any case, it’s important the voices on radio reflect the diversity of the audience.

No-one knows whether Ball would be up to the job; however, that would be equally true of a male successor. Perhaps she’d bomb just as Evans did when he took over from Jeremy Clarkson as host of Top Gear. If she did, it wouldn’t be anything to do with her gender.

Another reason for women to celebrate is that, on Sunday, 7 October, Doctor Who will transform into the sassy Jodie Whittaker. A female Doctor. It’s only taken 55 years and 13 regenerations.

Of course, that’s a tad too hasty for some. There are Whovians who can’t get their head round a shape-shifting Time Lord changing sex (wait until they find out it can happen to non-space travellers in the real world).

The trailer looks awesome. But even in those few seconds, we hear Whittaker’s authority being challenged. “Why are you asking her?” someone says. “Because she’s in charge, bro,” comes the answer. “Says who?” “Says us”. That’s fair enough because many people still instinctively defer to men. For example, when I go out on jobs with a male photographer and I ask people questions, a proportion of them still direct their answers to him. I am inured to this; it’s the photographer who finds it uncomfortable.

The female radio presenters and the all-women panel stand out because they are exceptions to the rule. Male radio presenters and all-male panels are ten a penny, so most of the time we don’t notice . The idea that the little pieces of ground that are being gained by the likes of Zoë Ball represent a threat to male power is preposterous.

Last week, Stylist Magazine played a blinder; they got Whittaker to read out some of the critical tweets sent when her casting was announced in much the same way as her predecessor, David Tennant, read out Scottish Trump tweets on Samantha Bee’s programme in 2016.

Whittaker laughs derisively at the most negative ones. Finishing with a man called Sam, who has dismissed her with one word “ruined”, she rolls her eyes, then says sarcastically: “I hope we get to hang out some time.” Whittaker’s star quality is there for all to see.

The Broadchurch actor has got it right: mockery is the way to go. The only men who fear women taking their place on centre stage – a place denied to them for centuries – are those too scared to compete on a level playing field; those who know that without the structural advantage they’ve enjoyed all their lives they’ll lose.

Stuck in a time warp, such men will continue to fade until their light is extinguished. Meanwhile women, and those men happy to co-exist as equals, will move forward together into an era where a female-dominated TV series like Killing Eve won’t be remarkable; and a female Doctor Who won’t have to work so hard to prove she is a worthy recipient of the sonic screwdriver.