To mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage — if a little oddly — Channel 4 on Tuesday brought us a special girls-only edition of The Secret Life of Five-Year-Olds. The cast were a mix of new faces and old hands from previous series: among them Jet who, like a primary-school version of a traditional Hollywood actress, has been playing a five-year-old on the show since 2016.
Still, you can see why the producers keep calling — because, by now, Jet has got the tomboy role required of her down pat. ‘It’s hard to make friends with just girls,’ she declared early on, hitting the word ‘girls’ with exactly the right degree of scornful emphasis. She was also very good at looking genuinely baffled by everyone else’s desire to play with dolls.
In this, of course, she met with the feminist approval of the people with perhaps the cushiest job on television: the two child psychologists who watch the action on a laptop and provide such expert insights as the fact that Jet appeared not to want to play with dolls. Less to their taste were those participants who, within minutes, were marrying off the prettiest female doll to the most handsome male one.
But even if the girls’ girlishness was a bit of a disappointment to the experts, the programme definitely retains its considerable charm. At the risk of going out on a limb, I sometimes think kids say the darnedest things — and on Tuesday, we got some especially cute responses to the question of what they wanted to do when they grew up. One girl opted for being an inventor, ‘but only on Sundays — the rest of the days I’ll be a vet.’ Still in full method mode, Jet explained that, ‘My dream is to have an evil enemy so I could fight him.’
Which just leaves the question of what all this had to do with female suffrage. True, by carrying out a couple of polls about what to do next — one where only a few girls were allowed to vote and one where they all were — the programme established that, on the whole, everybody preferred it when they could. To prove they were as good as boys — something that it didn’t seem to have occurred to them they mightn’t be — the girls were also forced to do plenty of science.
Even so, it felt quite a stretch when another expert summarised what we’d seen with the words, ‘I’ve been really impressed by the pride they take in their gender — but, crucially, they know it’s only part of them, that they’re so much more than this.’ Call me suspicious, but might that conclusion have been preordained?
Hull’s Headscarf Heroes (BBC4, Monday) began with a fascinating plunge into the long-vanished, largely self-enclosed world of Hull’s fishing families — and, with it, the shock of realising that in 1968, the year Apollo 8 orbited the moon, the city’s trawler industry was still stuck somewhere between Victorian and feudal.
The men would be away for three weeks at a time, sailing 1,000 miles into the Arctic Circle, with no medical back-up or rescue ship and sometimes no radio operator. Yet anybody who suggested this was all rather dangerous was likely to be suspended from his job.
Then, in January 1968, two trawlers sank, with the loss of 40 lives. At the time, Lil Bilocca, whose father, husband and son were all trawlermen, was just another worker in a fish factory. But she soon began an impassioned campaign for some wildly overdue safety measures, forming a committee with three other women. In the face of her demands, the boss of the trawler owners complained of ‘a lot of women getting carried away on a wave of mass hysteria’ (among much else, an unfortunate metaphor). A few days later, a third trawler sank and 18 more men drowned.
Monday’s documentary featured the committee’s last surviving member, Yvonne Blenkinsop, her eyes first blazing as she remembered the campaign — and then shining as she recalled the moment of victory. ‘Petal, are we going to be having these things?’ she asked a minister after a meeting with the government. ‘You are, my dear,’ he replied.
In the circumstances, the programme could be forgiven for occasionally getting carried away itself. By my slightly heartless maths, its closing claim that Lil ‘saved untold thousands of lives’ was more of a rhetorical flourish than an accurate reflection of even the worst that could have happened without the reforms, before the Hull fishing industry was essentially wiped out by the mid-1970s Cod Wars. Nonetheless, this was a stirring and hugely deserved tribute to a group of women whose current status as Hull folk heroes sadly came too late for Lil. When she died in 1988, there was nobody at the funeral except her family.