opinion Womens History

MIA Red Queens: The Lost Political Heroes of The Crown and Peaky Blinders

A delve into why The Crown and Peaky Blinders are leaving out female political heroes

*SOME MINOR THE CROWN AND PEAKY BLINDERS SPOILERS AHEAD*

I’ve waiting with bated breath and a faux cigarette holder at the ready for the third instalment of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, alongside many of my fellow historians and friends.

It feels like we’ve been treated this autumn with excellent historical fiction – particularly those that ties so closely to contemporary problems. And whilst I welcomed the majesty of Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies breathing emotion and life into two of the biggest characters of the twentieth century, I was most excited for the era of politicians that this series would bring.

I prayed, I hoped, that I wouldn’t suffer the same disappoint I felt at the equally brilliant Peaky Blinders.

From a historical point of view, there was still so much missing from Tommy Shelby’s journey between the streets of Birmingham to the gloomy, hallowed halls of Westminster. Making Tommy a Labour MP and introducing him to the unsavoury, darker side of inter-war social change was genius, there’s no doubt about that. In context of today’s politics it felt weirdly Black Mirror-esque – seeing the charisma and the tide of populism that far-right politics can get swept up on, before we even realise, is a vital part of our history.

And still, it was also missing something vital. 

The series was set in 1929. The first election year where all women aged 21 and over could vote. Female MPs came to parliament, including Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Middlesbrough. Young, unmarried, full of passion, power, and socialism.

She is perhaps the most important woman in early 20th century politics, and if Tommy Shelby was playing the part of socialist MP well enough, he would have undoubtedly been hatching plans and hanging out with her. I could fully imagine Ellen, with her blaze of auburn hair, drawing herself up to her small height and reckoning with Tommy, showing him who really had the power in parliament. She could have shone on screen, could have slotted into the story so perfectly – Tommy should have been helping her fight fascism and Mosley from the start.

But he wasn’t… 

Tommy and Ellen
The fact we we’re denied this double act will never not be devastating!

Now I do understand that decision. Of course, I get that you can’t have everybody onscreen. That it’s historical fiction for a reason and fiction should be the operative word. But I was so grumpy (immediate cross messaging my Peaky WhatsApp group level grumpy) not to have seen her brought to life on screen when she fitted so perfectly into the story.

Was it because Jessie Eden – the trade unionist rousing the workers of Birmingham – already took that part? Was it that the other female characters were already too much, too powerful, too challenging of social norms?

Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing challenging, tricky, revolting women on screen, on stage, in books, in art.

But are we too used to seeing portrayals of women fighting to be heard, to be let in – rather than women who are on the inside, who are being listened to? It’s food for thought.

So, with my disappointment in the lack of Ellen Wilkinson aside, I hoped and prayed that this series of the The Crown would treat me better, and we’d get to see one of the most prominent, unique, and inspiring politicians of the time.

And no, I don’t mean not Harold Wilson! 

Ok, yes, I did like seeing Harold Wilson there, especially looking so uncomfortable, so ill at ease in his first meeting with the Queen. After all, it fitted perfectly. Gone were the Prime Ministers who worshipped the Queen as a goddess, yet who also tried and sway and shape her views. This was a woman in power, a woman who knew herself, her mind, who has seen much and fully embodies ‘The Crown’. Her relationship with Wilson wasn’t friendly, nor intimate; it’s frank, open. It’s a business arrangement, each recognising the other’s advice and knowledge.

BUT, in another world – a forward-thinking, progressive world, there would have been another person sat opposite the Queen. More left-wing, with a sharper tongue and a wealth of experience in the political arena…if Barbara Castle, long-serving MP for Blackburn could have been selected as the Leader of the Opposition in 1960, then it may have been a different conversation, a different story. And this story should have at least nudged it’s way into The Crown.

Barbara Castle
Barbara Castle

Barbara Castle was the legacy that Ellen Wilkinson had left behind. Unashamedly socialist, a force of energy, enthusiasm, and outspokenness, Barbara had stormed into the House of Commons ready to take up the mantle female MPs had been putting into place – to battle the gender inequality that was inbuilt in society, and to disprove that women MPs were only in place to speak out for other women.

During her 24 years as an MP, Barbara not only ensured the passing of the Equal Pay Act, but took on the role of Minister for Overseas Development and then Minister of Transport, where she introduced the 70mph speed limit, breathalysers and – would you believe it – seat belt rules. Harold Wilson even said of her:

‘…she was good at whatever she touched.’

She was an incredible politician, who helped mould the era. And yet, in The Crown, she is limited to just a couple of lines in a cabinet meeting, where she lambastes Prince Philips plea for more money. Then she is later briefly mentioned by Harold Wilson as one of the lefties who might topple the monarchy right over if they had the chance. In fact, her full name is never explicitly spoken – she’s recognised simply by her tell-tale red hair.

The fact that Barbara Castle’s appearance in The Crown as a mere flash in the pan, is a waste. Like Ellen, she would have been a total scene stealer.

The Crown celebrates the merits and the shortcomings of the Queen and the women around her. But, when it comes to women outside of the royal household, they are few and far between. As they are in far too many period drama’s. This can’t continue.

Women like Barbara and Ellen should have places in these dramas.

Not only because it’s right. But because their stories are vivid, bold and simply fascinating. To miss them out is a huge disservice on a creative level and also on an ethical one – when we don’t see them on our big television screens, when the perfect opportunity presents itself…when will we see them?

It’s because of this lack of storytelling and inclusion that these women were outliers in their time, and lets be blunt,  today they still would be. It’s far past the time where women in politics should be included in television, film and books. We need to shine a light on these women, past and present.

Fingers crossed, next series will bring better.

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