It begins with a classic Sweeney-type chase, as three armed robbers and their driver follow a security van across Waterloo Bridge in London. In the Kingsway Tunnel, now known as the Strand Underpass, the security van explodes and three men meet a horrific end.
Move away now, avert your eyes from their charred bodies and focus on the women who are left to grieve their demise — the Widows.
Widows was a ground-breaking, appointment-viewing 1983 British TV series, written by Lynda La Plante, with Verity Lambert as an executive producer.
It features women as the main protagonists. But these women are not the stereotypical staples of crime drama — gangsters’ molls, loyal wives, clingy girlfriends.
Led by Dolly (‘Never call me Doll. Only Harry called me Doll.’), the widow of uber-criminal Harry Rawlins, they form their own gang in order to pull off the robbery themselves.
Spoiler alert: This article contains some references to plot details in the TV series.
Meet on the ledger
Harry had kept detailed ledgers of every job, all the robberies he had committed over the years, and the ones he intended to stage, including directions, pictures, maps, routes, names — ah, you’re ahead of us. Clever Harry made it known that he had committed this store of knowledge to paper, a series of ledgers, secured in a secret location. These ledgers were his security.
The police would like to have them, obviously, and so would a rival gang, the Fisher Brothers. But who has possession of the famous ledgers? Dolly, that’s who.
Harry has left her the keys to his lock-up, where they are hidden. So she could hand them over to one or other of the interested parties, or she could use the details to pull off a robbery herself, with a little help from her bereaved friends. Well, why wouldn’t you, when the details have all been worked out, and all you have to do is follow the plan?
The Fisher kings
The series’ scenarios are comfortably familiar. We know what to expect, and our expectations are deftly met.We recognise familiar types.
The Fisher Brothers seem loosely based on the Krays, with their sexual orientation half-heartedly alluded to in cliched form, maybe in a bid for humour: one of them is obsessive about furnishings and French polishing in particular, and has an eye for nice dresses. We anticipate some plot developments.
At the very beginning, we are told that the driver escaped with his life, and that Harry’s body could be identified only by his gold watch. You begin to join up the dots, so that you enjoy waiting for Harry’s reappearance.
At ‘Harry’s funeral’, we see Dolly cuddling her constant companion, her dog Heidi, and you just know that sooner or later the little thing will be a significant part of the action and probably meet a sticky end. Will Heidi’s yapping warn of a hostile presence, or will it give away Dolly’s movements, or compromise the women’s situation in some other way? It’s just a question of when and how.
Actually, Heidi has a significance beyond the function of the plot. She is an essential part of Dolly’s characterisation, and illustrates why it is difficult to see this sprightly and well-worked production as a triumph for women and the cause of equality.
Dolly is given a soft and ‘feminine’ side which is as much a cliche as that of the brassier denizens of the criminal fraternity (or should we say ‘community’ these days?). She assumes a kind of tragic status because of her sorrow at being unable to have children. Heidi is her ‘baby’.
Nun but the brave
In what may be both a compensatory action and a real desire to do some good, Dolly works in and gives financial support to a convent where the nuns look after children.
She donates money, time, and commitment — and incidentally, in a nice touch, funds the new lockers in which she eventually hides the dosh from the security van raid.
Her anger and humiliation when she discovers Harry’s deception, and that he is shacked up with the widow of one of his co-villains, is painful to see. Dolly even gives the woman money for her child, not realising, of course, that the baby is Harry’s.
Heroes and villains
The final scene shows Dolly saying, ‘All I ever did was love him, and in spite of everything, I still do,’ with Kathleen Ferrier’s beautiful voice in the background singing the haunting lament from the opera Orpheus and Eurydice.
It leaves a final impression of Dolly as a wronged wife and a victim, rather than a strong, brave woman.
This finale, and the programme’s moody lighting and film noir references — ‘Lana Turner is alive and well, and living in St John’s Wood’ — aren’t quite enough to give Dolly heroic stature.
Unexpectedly, the character who does seem a little heroic on revisiting Widows is Detective Inspector George Resnick. He’s a familiar stock figure, the cop whose obsession with a particular case or a particular person leads to personal, psychological and professional collapse.
Seen through the prism of recent events, Resnick’s obsession may be compared to the dedication and determination of journalists and investigators who doggedly gather evidence to expose wrongdoing, sometimes at cost to their personal well-being.
And at the same time, while we applaud the women’s audacity in pulling off the heist and endorse producer Verity Lambert’s insistence that they should get away with the crime, there is something a little queasy about celebrating the threat of violence and the brandishing of shotguns.
Dolly tells her gang they have to think like men, and in spite of the series being made ‘by women for women’, we look in vain for a specifically female aesthetic.
So it’s with mixed feelings that we anticipate the remake of the TV series as a big-screen film, due for release at the end of this year.
The movie is directed by Oscar-winning Steve McQueen and written by him and Gillian Flynn. The film features distinguished actors such as Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Robert Duval. The setting has been switched to Chicago.
It will be interesting to see what McQueen, who loved the television series when he was a kid, does with his raw material. It’s rather a shame that we won’t be seeing the 1980s’ blousons, shoulder pads and big hair which began to look strangely appealing as the series unfolded.
I’d quite like Heidi to appear in a different guise, though. To be honest, she wasn’t the most appealing poodle in the world (sorry, Dolly).