WPC 56: Women in policing in the 1950s

Tuesday 19 March 2013, 13:32

Dominique Moloney Dominique Moloney Writer

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When I was first asked to pitch an idea for an original police series, which became WPC 56, I immediately knew I wanted to write about the 1950s.

The music and fashions of that decade were marvellously distinctive and it was a time of massive social change.

Britain was just getting back on its feet after the ravages of World War II, it was the beginnings of mass immigration, the birth of youth culture, the Cold War, and the feminism of the 60s was still a long way off. 

The idea of a young woman wishing to buck the trend and join the police force, a traditionally male profession at that time, seemed to me to be rich in story potential.

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'Never forget that your sole responsibility is to support the men'

Once I'd fallen in love with my subject matter, I knew I had to do it justice by doing as much research as I could. 

I began with visiting the Metropolitan Police Museum which opened to the public in 2009 and is located at the Met's recruitment centre near Earls Court in London.

It is a small but fascinating collection of artefacts taken from a vast array of such treasures collected by Scotland Yard over at least a 100 years of policing – uniforms, weapons, photographs and archive footage.

I was even allowed to try on a genuine WPC's uniform jacket from the 1950s. While I was there I chatted to a couple of lovely retired policemen who were only too happy to tell me stories of the WPCs they worked alongside, mostly in the 60s and 70s. 

One anecdote that stuck with me ended up in episode one, where the male officers give Gina Dawson a 'Brinford Branding'.

This was apparently a real tradition in some police stations, where new recruits were rubber stamped on the backside by their new colleagues, and the women had to endure the initiation too (although they proffered their thighs as a compromise).

The retired officer described the women as being "game" for it, but I wondered if it was really good fun to them, or if they were merely anxious to fit in.

PC Eddie Coulson (CHRIS OVERTON), WPC Gina Dawson (JENNIE JACQUES) PC Eddie Coulson (Chris Overton) stamps WPC Gina Dawson (Jennie Jacques)

Also I was told some female officers volunteered to work undercover as decoys, and occasionally were attacked before the male officers could intervene.

This was echoed in a book I read called The Gentle Arm Of The Law by Jennifer Hilton, a WPC in the 1950s.

She gives a vivid, firsthand account of walking along a canal at night in the hope of drawing out a reported rapist. She escaped unscathed but found the experience understandably frightening.

I was struck by the irony of the so-called "fairer sex" electing to take such risks, and yet they were generally considered less brave or capable than the men.

I interviewed Sioban Clark, Chairman of the Metropolitan Women Police Association and she told me about the impossible choice women had to make between love and career – if a female officer chose to marry or have children she would automatically lose her job.

These were some of the realities I wanted to reflect in the BBC One series.

WPC Gina Dawson (JENNIE JACQUES) WPC Gina Dawson in her office, the broom cupboard

The fact that women police were treated as an isolated section of the police force meant that even when they worked alongside the men, their ranks and responsibilities were considered separate.

They weren't fully integrated into the main force until the early 70s, and they didn't drop the prefix for Woman Police Constables until 1999.

No matter what her rank, a female officer in Gina's time was expected to do the typing for even the lowliest male colleague.

Reading firsthand accounts and listening to hours and hours of transcripts of police women and men, there were of course many differing experiences, and certainly not all of them were bad. 

However, most would agree that making tea for the men was simply part of the job!

Dominique Moloney is the creator of WPC 56, and wrote episodes one, three and five.

WPC 56 continues daily until Friday, 22 March at 2.15pm on BBC One. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I don't usually watch daytime TV so I was amazed to find such a quality drama screening in the middle of the day. It was fast moving and compelling, with a completely believable and sympathetic protagonist, and I think that it deserves a prime time slot to do it justice. Will there be a series two?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This programme has been well researched. I really like the Station Sergeant. An old timer who has seen it all and who people can turn to. I joined the Police Service in 1968. The Service has changed a lot since then but if the programme truly reflects 1956 - then there had been little to no change in those 12 years. Women earned only 95 per cent of their male colleagues pay. They were wonderful people and I married one. Well done to all involved in the production.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I've happened upon WPC56 by accident. What a great programme. I don't usually watch day time TV but have been on leave this week. I'm amazed by the quality, no compromise here for day time viewing. I'm a brummy so tuned in for curiosity at first, but now I'm hooked. Great acting, story lines, accents and a social history well portrayed of women in policing and society in the 50's. please show this again in the evenings or Sunday. I can't wait to watch more episodes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Loving WPC56, I was WPC61 from '89 to '97. Male officers like these still existed ! I wandered off and got lost aged 8 and when I was found a lovely WPC came to gave me a right ticking off ,warmly of course and she inspired me to join the Police Force( they dropped Force because it was too aggressive )

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Absolutely loving this new drama. Record it and watch in the evening when viewing is poor.
    Well done BBC.....more like this please

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I am overwhelmed by the positive response to the show. There are too many of you to name, but thank you all for your comments. Writing can be a rather solitary process and it's just wonderful to hear that the work is being enjoyed when it finally goes out. I too would love WPC56 to get an evening repeat, and a second series. A good public response makes all the difference when Commissioners make such decisions, so thanks again for your support, and spread the word!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I expected some cosy nostalgia, but this quality drama offers far more. Enjoyable and informative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    What an extraordinary series! There is so much story packed into each episode and so much emotional depth as well as tension. Absolutely loving it, I really hope to see this become a regular fixture on our screens (and not just during the day!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    What a fantastic series really enjoying it, hope there will be a second series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    This is brilliant drama and well worthy of an evening prime time slot. So glad to see the BBC doing something other than rehashing 'reality' shows and ever more unrealistic 'soaps'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Very powerful drama for me as a mixed race rasta-man, born in the UK in 1965. After just the first episode I found myself relieved to meet a black police woman on the other side of the pump I used at the fuel station. In Surrey, that would have been quite a moment anyway and she must have realised that it was more than her stunning good looks that made me so happy to see her.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I have just watched the third episode with great interest and nostalgia as I was a serving policewoman (as we were then called) in Birmingham, in the late 1960's. I can identify with so many things, the uniform, the hat, Victoria Law Courts in which I sat or gave evidence on numerous occasions and unfortunately the conduct of some male colleagues, however perhaps time had moved on a bit by then as actually we were given a little more credence and respect than is portrayed. Brilliant series and I must go on I Player to catch up, well done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    As an officer in the West Midlands I'm so pleased I was able to catch this series. I recognise most of the locations, Birmingham Magistrates court, Cannonhill Park, and I even believe I have seen Birmingham Central station (Steelhouse Lane).
    There are some fantastic characters in this program and it also shows how times have changed with regards to how suspects are dealt with, and how officers speak to the general public.
    This series is very gritty and very surprising to be aired on a weekday afternoon. I hope there will be more of this promising series commissioned in the near future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I joined Birmingham City Police in 1965 and was WPC66
    Really enjoying this series. Some of the incidents are totally
    reminiscent of what life was like for a young policewoman in a
    big city.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Chanced on this drama on a wet afternoon, don't usually watch daytime tv. Excellent portrayal of characters in the 50's - and teddy boys were spot on! Good story and brilliant acting. Let's have more like this .....

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Excellent - Amazing for daytime. Why not take off all the cooking shows and put it on around 7 BBC 2?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    This series reminds me of the series where a new new doctor from India arrived in Wales which was the same format of five days.
    This came back for a second series and I feel that this series deserves to be treated in the same way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Got so carried away with how the first episode affected me, in my previous comment, that I forgot to mention how brilliant WPC 56 is. Thank you Dominique. My son is on a creative writing course at university, he has to see this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    What a fantastic programme! 10 out of 10 for acting - attention to detail etc. Can I ask why it hasnt been given prime time viewing instead of an afternoon slot? I dont watch day-time television so I have been recording to watch later. It is equally as good as "Call the Midwife" (dare I say even better) - it totally captures the era and brings back so many memories. Really hope this will be given the prime time it so richly deserves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    This is a great show and worthy of a prime time slot


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