Up the Women is the new BBC Four sitcom penned by Twenty-Twelve and Spaced star, Jessica Hynes. Set in 1910 in a village hall in the Oxfordshire countryside, the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle convene every week to stuff their faces with Victoria sponge and pretend to cross-stitch. But change is afoot. Margaret (Hynes), a deeply intelligent, patient woman who writes love poems about Ovid and makes jokes about Newton’s third law, has been swept up in a women’s suffrage march on a visit to London. She finds it so empowering that she becomes determined to bring the same fighting spirit to Oxfordshire, by proposing to rename the group ‘The Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Frankly Demands Women’s Suffrage’.
Unfortunately, bringing the women’s movement to Oxfordshire is not going to be quite so easy. The megalomaniac matriarch of the craft circle, Helen (Rebecca Front), finds the idea horrifying. ‘Women,’ she says, with frosty determination, ‘should not have the vote. We are simple, weak, emotional creatures.’ Not to mention that all the suffragettes are ‘mannish, flat-footed, bottom-heavy spinsters’. She immediately becomes the founding member of The Banbury Anti-Suffrage League, and takes the ginger parkin with her. Will Margaret be able to convince the rest of the group to fight for their right to vote?
Hynes and Front are fantastically funny as always, but unfortunately the sophisticated characterisation of Margaret and Helen does not extend to the rest of the female cast. Raucous grandmother Myrtle is predatory in her approach to flirtation, Eva’s thick as two short planks and is single-wombedly responsible for maintaining the Banbury population, Emily’s bottom lip juts out so far it could be seen all the way from Kidlington, and Gwen is an ineffectual babbler who (we are reminded every two minutes) has never found a husband.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, and the humour occasionally falls back on bawdy jokes, made worse by a grating laughter track. Make no mistake: this is a tame sitcom. But as conventional comedy goes, Jessica Hynes has done an admirable job. Up the Women’s quaintness is endearing, its mockery of gender norms gently incisive, and Hynes’s mansplaining-induced grimaces painfully familiar. I am looking forward to seeing the characters and plotlines develop as the series continues. Whoever said feminists don’t have a sense of humour?