Whether by accident or design, Zoë Ball took over the coveted early-morning slot on Radio 2 this week just as Radio 4 launched another of its Riot Girls series, celebrating ‘extraordinary’ women writers, those who have overturned convention, risen up against the status quo, proved themselves to be just as capable as their male oppressors (if not more so). Ball launched herself on to the airwaves on Monday morning at a pace it was hard to keep up with when it was still dark outside and the house had not yet warmed up. Her first track, that key statement of how she intends to reshape the breakfast show, give it a woman’s own makeover, was of course from Aretha Franklin. It just had to be. And the track — ‘Respect’. It could hardly have been anything else, given the overexcited anticipation that Ball’s promotion to the leading Radio 2 show has aroused in the media. She’s been heralded as the first female capable of breaking through the breakfast airwaves without frightening away the listeners by being too shrill, too dull or too safe.
It’s a tough call. Up at 3.30 a.m., Monday to Friday, into the studio, headphones on, and three hours to fill with unscripted chat between tracks, traffic and news before handing over to Ken Bruce. On Monday morning Ball admitted that ‘Pause for Thought’ was a welcome moment to catch her breath and let someone else do the talking after a couple of hours of being on-the-button, gauging what people might want to hear her rattling on about while they’re dashing through their daily rituals of shower, Weetabix, teeth, bag, phone, keys and out the door. It will take a few weeks, if not months, to know whether she will become as much of a favourite as Terry Wogan. Ball has the voice, the warmth, the interest in other people’s lives, but not so much of the chat, that ability to riff wildly yet with purpose. She ended, presciently, with ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’, but chose the Phil Collins version. Sacrilege (or just an age thing?).
Back in the late 1960s, when she was editor of Woman’s Hour, Monica Sims (who died at the end of last year) had the audacity to introduce subjects like equality inside the home, childcare and sexual orientation to the programme. The obituaries noted how later, as director of Radio 4, she disobeyed her male bosses in management and refused to interrupt the broadcast of the afternoon play with the news that the Falklands war had ended. Sims forged her career when the BBC, she once said, was like ‘a civilised man’s club in which women were courteously acknowledged, but not promoted to real positions of power’. She would perhaps have been dismayed that it’s taken so long for Ball to reach that top job on Radio 2. Or that we need series such as Riot Girls to give women the chance to speak out.
She might have flinched at Caitlin Moran’s unbuttoned version of feminism, while admiring her gift for self-expression, as seen in How to be a Woman (produced by Mary Peate). Moran herself narrated and adapted (with Claudine Toutoungi) the five-part series from her bestselling memoir.
At 13, Moran is chased home by a group of yobs. ‘I know what’s happening,’ she says. ‘I’m the weak antelope, separated from the pack.’ Quite the reverse. Moran could never be thought of as weak. By 15 she knows about sex (from Jilly Cooper) and feminism (from Germaine Greer) and is questioning, in graphic detail (occasionally too much detail), every stage of her transformation from child to woman. She can’t believe Judy Garland or Cyd Charisse ever had a period. Moran’s obsession with women’s bodily functions might have launched a thousand unclever copycat podcasts but it’s hard not to admire her sharp gaze and way with words.
Ayeesha Menon’s new three-part series, Into the Maze (directed by Emma Harding), is the most sophisticated contribution to the Riot Girls dramas. She weaves together so many threads, taking us from a village in India where Jamila and Saira grow up in a strict Muslim family to the Old Bailey via Mumbai and Riyadh, and yet we always know where we are and who is speaking. She writes about issues but is always character-led.
Saira escapes to London where she works as a chambermaid to pay for her studies, while Jamila only gets as far as Mumbai. When Saira is raped by one of the guests at the hotel, Jamila takes to the internet, vlogging as mumbaiwhisperer93 to defend her sister and ensure the rapist and his influential family are brought to justice. But he’s from Saudi Arabia and is in London with his father to negotiate an arms deal. He has power on his side.
Menon constantly overturns our expectations. The Saudi wife who campaigns for women’s rights turns out to be not quite as she appears. The men with power often, but not always, are of weak character, while the hotshot female London lawyer is brought in to defend not Saira but the rapist. Even Jamila’s motives don’t escape scrutiny. ‘When did this become about me and not my crusade?’ she asks herself.