'Three women are in crisis, that brings them together'
Scripts by Kay Mellor, three exciting female leads and plenty of drama - new ITV series Girlfriends has all the makings of a hit. Stars Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker tell Georgia Humphreys their reasons for getting on board
When Kay Mellor realised there was a lack of women taking centre stage in drama, she decided to do something about it. "I went to a seminar, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse many years ago, and a lot of women were saying, 'We only ever play the nana or the mum and nobody speaks for us'," the Fat Friends writer explains. "There was a need to give women - and women of a certain age - a voice."
Enter her new, six-part drama Girlfriends, which focuses on the lives of a group of women aged 50 and over. The ITV series stars Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker as friends Linda, Sue and Gail, who rally together when Linda's husband vanishes from a cruise ship.
Magazine editor Sue, ditzy stay-at-home mum Linda and dependable Gail might not be the most predictable gaggle of mates. They've led very different lives but remain best friends since meeting 30 years ago.
Girlfriends is mainly about the women and the problems they face - from age discrimination at work, to caring for grandchildren.
It's something Downton Abbey actress Phyllis, who plays Linda, relished. "It's nice to be at the foreground, and the men are add-ons," the 61-year-old says with a laugh.
Oscar-nominated actress Miranda says Kay's scripts were a big attraction. "She's got such a fab track record and she writes for women," adds the 59-year-old, who plays Sue.
Expect the feel of the drama to be a little different. Zoe, who plays Gail and is perhaps best-known for her role in sitcom My Family, explains: "I think it's very British. It's something that's unusual. It's not glossy, it's not chic - it's very real."
The starting point of the show is the disappearance of Linda's husband. The situation gets even worse when she realises the family is in financial dire straits. "What attracted me to Linda was the fact that she's quite straightforward but with hidden depths we slowly begin to find out about," says Phyllis.
Linda turns to her closest friends for support, but they have their own problems too - take Gail, whose son is just out of prison. "Gail puts herself furthest down the list for looking after people," 68-year-old Zoe explains. "She has very little self-esteem."
Miranda, meanwhile, gets to play the "poshest of the three". But while it may seem as though her character has everything - the career, the partner, the successful lawyer son - it becomes apparent she's in denial.
"People will enjoy watching Girlfriends because it's about three different but connected characters who have rather interesting journeys and complicated lives," says Miranda. "There will be something that everybody can relate to in at least one of those characters."
Phyllis agrees, explaining: "In Linda's case, her kids have flown the nest, so there's a bit of empty nest syndrome going on. I can identify with all of that."
It's impossible to watch Girlfriends and not applaud Kay for bringing visibility to older actresses. "I think it's smart to write for this generation," says Miranda. "Women of middle years and upwards have an accumulation of experience and stuff going on - connections, responsibilities."
This focus was another reason Phyllis was so excited to read Kay's scripts. Asked how the industry has changed over the course of her career, she says: "Maybe there are slightly more (roles) for women over 50 (now) because people have discovered that they're actually quite interesting."
But Zoe is keen to point out that, while older women feeling unheard is a prevailing issue in the industry, her reasons for taking on roles remain the same. "You're going to be retired at some point, somebody younger is going to come up - that's to be expected," she says. "It's always interesting to carry on working, developing and finding new things that excite you and frighten you."
The show's central theme - the importance of having long-standing female friendships - is something all three actresses profess to finding great solace in.
It's Zoe who perhaps best sums it up, though. "You share emotions and secrets and frailties to each other that you wouldn't normally do to a stranger," she says. "In this series, we find these three women in a state of crisis, and that's what brings them together."
"It's the people that you feel, if you had to, you could ring up in the middle of the night and say, 'What do I do about this? I have no idea. Help'," says Miranda of her lifelong girlfriends.
And Phyllis recalls the various holidays, heartbreaks and weddings she and her real-life pals have gone through, explaining: "Our friends are part of who we are."
Girlfriends starts on ITV on Wednesday, 9pm