Archive for July, 2005

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Funny girl

THE TIMES – July 9 2005
Ginny Dougary

Jennifer Saunders is the unrivalled queen of British comedy. Here she talks, absolutely frankly, to Ginny Dougary about age, Eddy, shyness, weight – and the importance of being English.

Poor Jennifer Saunders. How can she possibly be expected to live up to her creation? As a fully paid-up member of the Edina Fan Club, I want the queen of comedy to lurch into the room in a pair of mad platforms, clutching a bottle of Bolly, call me “sweetie dahling” and go mwah-mwah somewhere in the vicinity of my cheeks, before passing out.

The initial signs are quite encouraging – the Ab-Fabby rendez-vous of Soho House, and an Ab Fab-sized entourage of personal make-up artist, personal assistant, advertising agency publicity assistant, our photographer and two assistants, as well as a charming, most unSaffy-like 19-year-old mini-Saunders daughter. At first, dauntingly, all nine of us crowd into a tiny room around a table covered in empty ashtrays just asking to be filled. Offered a drink, Saunders orders a post-lunch glass of white wine. Thank God – if she’d ordered mineral water she might never have been forgiven. The entourage melts away into MediaLand beyond our door and we settle into a thoroughly convivial time.

There is something quintessentially English about Jennifer Saunders, as opposed to her overblown characters; English, as in pony- in-the-paddock, self-deprecating, shyness-mistaken-for-aloofness sort of way. When Dawn French first met her future comedy partner at drama school, her opinion was that Saunders was a snooty, upper-class girl… “And her opinion hasn’t changed,” Saunders says drily. Both their fathers were in the RAF but in different ranks, and French has always placed herself firmly in the lower-middle classes. “She’s obsessed with class,” says Saunders, with eye-rolling affection.

No, as it happens, she doesn’t believe that she is snooty but she is aware that her manner can be forbidding. (Although she is never even remotely so, I must say, in our encounter.) It seems that she has had to work hard in adult life to overcome her innate shyness. As a child, Saunders would stare at people so intensely that her mother would become quite mortified. From one or two of her comments, I think Saunders is still a bit frightened of her mama, interestingly, even at the reasonably ripe age of 47.

“My mother says that I’d have to be taken away in restaurants because I’d be standing in front of tables just looking. And I had quite a cross face. In most of my pictures of me as a child, I’m frowning, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of the frown because it seems to be my natural expression.

“People are always telling me to cheer up and I’m, like, ‘I’m really not sad, I’m just thinking.’ But I do still frown and generally have my head down.”

For such a bright spark, coming from a family of Oxbridge high-achievers, it must have been puzzling, if not a little dismaying, to have failed to get into any universities. I have the feeling that Saunders’ mother, a biology teacher, was not amused. Did the rejections make her feel thick? “No, I’ve never felt thick.” Did she know why she was so unsuccessful? “I knew exactly why. It was because I was slightly sullen and unable to engage. Even though I would say I’m not shy now, I used to go bright red the second someone spoke to me and I couldn’t look at anyone, ever. But I did sort of overcome that.”

Part of the problem, I think, must have been Saunders’ aversion to self-promotion. She may even be allergic, possibly, to the idea of selling herself, which is why there are relatively few interviews in such a long and successful career. Saunders, one suspects, would just shrivel up and die were she ever to be persuaded to appear on Oprah. Her guest appearance on Parkinson was described as an historic moment in non-disclosure.

“The big, overriding thing in our family was that any kind of taking yourself seriously was the biggest, biggest crime, and that went for religion, for everything. You just didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s like my father didn’t keep his RAF title [Group Captain R. T. Saunders] once he left. All that sort of thing to him was just a little bit… no, not bad form, it was pompous.”

Until recently, Saunders considered herself only borderline as opposed to hardcore English. Her mother’s father was South African and her maternal grandmother a Scot, and compared to Group Captain R. T. Saunders, who was “very English”, his daughter believed she was not, you know, “English English”. But she has had to revise her opinion on reading a book, Watching the English by Kate Fox, recommended by Ella, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter and the oldest of the Adrian Edmondson-Jennifer Saunders’ triumverate of daughters.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as a complete mystery the things we take for granted. You know, how awful it would be if people walked into a business meeting and started business without making friends and having a bit of a tea party first. The English bonding thing which is to compliment someone on what they’re wearing, and then that person says, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, it was terribly cheap but you… look at you!’ ‘Oh, I just threw this together’, that whole thing.”

She applauds Kate Fox’s example of an American going up to someone and saying, “Hello, my name’s Jack and I’m from Idaho,” and the English person recoiling in horror that anyone could be so forward. Which is entirely Saunders’ position. The English art of social intercourse is to start with general small talk, “and then, sideways, you gradually find out what they do and whether you might in any way be interested to know them at all [slurred, rather like an American, actually, into ‘adall’], and at any point you can cut the conversation off. You don’t have to know who they are or where they’re from. It’s just awful to know that sort of thing.”

Saunders is being only slightly humorous at this point, and I think – if I closed my eyes – she could be an English actress from another era: Celia Johnson, perhaps, or Joyce Grenfell. There’s a trace of Penelope Keith’s Margo there, too: the wrinkle of the patrician nose, the little moue of distaste.

But with my eyes open, what I see is how very comely Saunders is in person, with her artfully highlighted blonde hair, handsome jaw and fine, rather delicate features. She is much more small-boned, too, than she appears on screen, although, like most women who submit themselves to the merciless gaze of the camera – or, perhaps, most women full stop – she inevitably thinks she’s overweight.

We take a small break from the enjoyable pastime of bashing Americans to discuss girlish matters such as diets and clothes. She knows that she’s precisely half a stone heavier than her usual weight of between ten and ten-and-a-half stone. Today her 5ft 4-ish, 5ft 5-ish height is stacked up with a pair of red shoes (could they be platforms, indeed?) under her jeans. She blames her new avoirdupois on a recent holiday: she and her girls with Peter Richardson, her old friend and director of the Comic Strip, and his family in a house in Spain: “The most wonderful no-exercise, drinky, eat, eat, eat, lovely holiday. Get up, sit by pool, have giant Pimm’s and then giant lunch and giant supper. And there’s nothing I like more in the world than that.”

However, Saunders also likes “the ability to get up in the morning and do something without feeling really puffed out by the time I get to the top of the field, and at the moment I have to stop quite a lot because my legs are hurting… and I don’t enjoy that.” In decamping from Richmond, London, to Dartmoor, Devon, Saunders has returned to her childhood pleasures of riding and country walks.

There’s also the business of how you look on TV, presumably? “Well, I’m towards the end of my career now,” she says. What? “I mean, the end of being on telly.” What? Surely not? “I would like to write and direct. That would be my joy.” But why can’t you carry on being on telly? “I don’t know, it’s so bloody… six o’clock calls to go to bloody make-up all the time.” That must be a drag, but all the same…

“I mean, always the first there and the last to bloody leave and it does wear you down. The little things wear you down. You do think, ‘Oh, just get on with it.’ And then having to publicise everything and the endless business of…” Like this, I suppose? “It’s not that I hate doing interviews and this one is nice,” she says, diplomatically (the real reason she’s here is to promote a new ad campaign for Barclaycard). “But it can become an endless treadmill of stuff. And the endless pressure to buy more clothes. Find some more things to put on. In my normal life, I wear the same clothes for a year and then decide the boots are a bit worn out, better get some new ones.”

Although I like the way this conforms to my idea of Saunders turning into one of those careless upper-class beauties who stride around their massive country piles in threadbare old cords, the woman in front of me is too thoughtfully kitted out for me to believe she is quite as insouciant about her appearance as she makes out.

Her lovely mossy linen jacket is by the English designer Margaret Howell: “I used to buy her and then she went out of fashion for a bit and now she’s back with these fantastic clothes, great little collarless shirts… and it’s completely my uniform which is what I used to wear as a child: sort of jodhpur boots or cowboy boots, with a trouser generally with a slight flair, a good shirt and a nice jacket. Basically, riding clothes is what I wear.”

The very idea that Saunders – one of our most popular comic actors – is talking about retiring from our TV screens is plainly preposterous. French and Saunders are the Morecambe and Wise de nos jours – in other words, a venerable British institution. But for me, it’s the thought of no more Eddy and Patsy that is unthinkable. The appalling duo have surely embedded themselves in our comic consciousness as firmly as Basil and Sybil, and the shows are still cult viewing in America and Australia. It will be some time before the Alan Partridges or David Brents or even the much-garlanded Little Britains can claim that.

Anyway, don’t you just love Eddy? “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how much. I absolutely adore her and I adore being her.” Do you think she’s allowed women to feel better about behaving badly? “Yes, I would say that Eddy has legitimised quite a lot of… behaviour.” Is it a great escape being her? “It’s the most lovely thing. It’s hard to describe – but when I’m being Eddy and Joanna becomes Patsy and we’re sitting there, I think there’s no happier place to be because it is a total escape. It must be for us like meditation is for other people who can lose themselves through it,” she says. “You become these people and you think of funnier and funnier things. And Joanna and I will sit for an hour and just have a conversation about whatever Patsy might do, how they would end up, where they might have gone, what would happen if they did this or that. And it’s like eating the best chocolate, do you know what I mean?”

As Saunders goes on, she begins to metamorphose into her creation. She is laughing, quite brilliantly, at her own jokes – remembering how one of the sketches came about. She had the lines but no theme, and Lumley started talking about how movie stars marrying other movie stars didn’t really work. Why? “‘Darling, race horse.’ ‘Race horse?’ ‘She [glam actress] doesn’t want another race horse for company, she wants a donkey or a goat. Doesn’t she, darling?’” And as Saunders and Lumley riffed on, they began to twig that within their own on-screen relationship, Eddy’s always the donkey. “So eventually Eddy was sitting at a table with donkeys – hahahahahaha [wheezing with laughter now] and they’re trying to Sex and the Ciddee up their lives a bit and just being more thin and more everything… yah, more Sex and the Ciddee kind of thing,” she swings from Eddy back to sensible Jennifer, “And it’s just totally impossible. At her thinnest, Eddy would still be too fat, you know… because it’s a whole career to be that thin.”

To stick with the donkey theme, Saunders does have quite a marked, Eeyore-like strain of gloom in an otherwise sanguine personality. This is not the first time, for instance, that she has hinted that her on-screen days are numbered. That she is more emphatic in this encounter may simply be a case of her being a year or two older – or closer to incontinent senility, as she might put it.

She seesaws wildly between writing off Absolutely Fabulous herself to saying that there’s nothing she wants more than to do another series. There have been five to date, plus specials, but the last show was filmed about two years ago. She says the negative reviews, which have been proliferating with each series, don’t really affect her life because by the time they’re screened: “You’re moving on, you’ve got some more chickens and you’re quite happy.

“I actually have finished with it now, I think,” she says. “You have a sense of when something really is past its sell-by date and it might just be now. I’ll have to burn the wigs because otherwise it’s all too convenient.” Everyone’s too old, she says, and Eddy’s developing into someone who’s going to become very needy and require a lot of looking after, “and it’s a slightly sadder sort of place to go”. But this is mad, surely; Eddy and Patsy are only in their fifties. There’s a good 20 years in them before they’ll be reaching for their Zimmer frames.

Part of the problem may be that Saunders wants to see if she has it in her to be able to invent something fresh to match the success of Absolutely Fabulous. She did have a go at writing a brand-new series, Mirrorball, which came out as a pilot a while back – but all it made her realise was how much she missed Eddy and Patsy et al, and so she retreated to her old creative comfort zone.

It was Ab Fab’s unexpected success in America – where it went out on cable after Steven Spielberg and then Roseanne Barr failed to convince the major networks that it wasn’t the work of Satan – that convinced Saunders to give the old dames a new lease of life.

“It was at a time when the critics here were being sniffy and I thought it would be too embarrassing to do another series. And then America was so cheerful about it, because in America they just think things go on and on, and why shouldn’t you? And you get infected by that and you think, ‘Yeah. Why the f*** shouldn’t I do another one?’” she says. “Because if you can think of enough good jokes – and generally I think there’s more jokes than in the average sitcom – then why don’t we do it? And we generally have a really great time making it. We have such a bloody laugh. And if I could just do that and it never went out, I would be so happy for the rest of my life.”

So what does her husband think about the future of Ab Fab? “I don’t know.” Really? But doesn’t Ade love it? “He must have an opinion, but I’ve no idea.” Hmmm. What does one make of that, I wonder. And then she says that he would like to keep the series going from a business point of view: “You think, ‘Keep it going for as long as you can,’ because, you know, TV’s so hard to break into now. Why give up something that people actually want to see or that they [the TV chiefs] actually want to commission? Why would you give that up? Because it also gives you slight leverage into people wanting to commission other stuff. It keeps you there. And that’s a horrible thought, really, because it means that you’re thinking about things from the wrong perspective.”

The quandary for pioneers is where to go next when everyone else has caught up with or overtaken you. Saunders was startled by the reaction to the first series of the show, since for her it was merely an extension of the kind of work she and French had been doing. “In England, it was, ‘Oh bloody drunk birds… there you go.’ But in America, it was as if some kind of revolution had taken place. American women are so straight. They were going, ‘OMYGAHD! These women are so CRAZEE!’ And I was like, ‘What? You mean, you don’t know anyone like that? You’ve never been like this yourself? You’ve never got drunk and fallen in the street? I don’t understand! Where have you been?’”

But that was in the days when you never saw anyone smoking or drinking on American television, before HBO transformed what you could show on the small screen and ushered in Will and Grace and Sex and the City and now Desperate Housewives… “and they’ve all taken that kind of idea and run with it. And in a way, that’s why I feel I can’t go on, because if we went even more extreme, it would sort of cheapen it in a way and look a bit desperate,” Saunders says.

Reality television has also shifted the definition of extreme: how can the imagination compete with real-life grotesques such as Jackie Stallone or the Almodóvar drama of Nadia? She says that although The Office and Little Britain new bods are huge and sell millions of DVDs, they’re still slightly peripheral to mainstream entertainment: “They’re not 7.30, BBC One Friday night. Not yet, although they will be, because everyone naturally progresses that way. Like we have. You don’t progress yourself, actually, you get progressed until you suddenly realise, ‘I thought we were BBC Two still.’ And it’s, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, you’re BBC One now.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ And it fits uncomfortably sometimes, but that’s the way television has gone now. Television prescribes the product before you’ve written it. That’s a big change and it’s very difficult, and it often makes us feel that we should just give up because you think that you can’t quite squeeze yourself into the mould.”

At the time, Saunders’ delivery was so breezily matter-of-fact that her statement didn’t make much of an impact. Yet writing this now, it sounds almost like professional suicide. She definitely hankers after the old days when she was allowed to take risks and the powers-that-be did not interfere. Now it’s “where they want you to pitch it; it’s the material they want you to cover. Yes, it can be topics, but you’ll also get suggestions about sketches and that never used to happen ever at the BBC. It’s the way most television has gone: they decide what slots they’ve got and what they want to go into it. So if you bring a product to the table, they will try to mould it into the show to fit the slot.”

The last French and Saunders, it turns out, wasn’t quite what the BBC wanted… “because there weren’t loads of parodies and it was a little bit too loose. It didn’t have enough to grab people immediately. It didn’t have enough very obvious stuff in it.” Ergo French and Saunders themselves loved it: “We enjoyed it as writers and lots of writers love it because it’s a proper writers’ show. But now, there’s a feeling that if it doesn’t work first time, it can’t work. Cut it. Change it. Do anything.”

Oh dear. It does rather look like Saunders is trying to get a message across to someone at the Beeb. Perhaps this, too, with her newfound sense of English Englishness is a convenient way to avoid the simply awful business of being direct.

In Los Angeles, in contrast, she seems to have found a way to overcome her reticence. She sees the formula now from the moment they love you to the moment they don’t even know “who the f*** you are. And it’s quite a short time space.” So now when she goes into LA meetings, she says: “‘Listen, while we’re still speaking to each other, can I say…’ ‘Whaddya mean?’ I’m going, oh forget it. ‘While we are still speaking…’ ‘But you’re my best friend,

I love you. I wanna adopt you.’ And I say, ‘Yes, while we’re still speaking, could you just…’ And you can just time the moment when they’ll actually blank you altogether.”

Saunders is fantastically proud of her daughter Ella’s voice and songs, which she describes, intriguingly, as ballads under the influence of Marilyn Manson and Nirvana. Her own musical preference is country and western, and her heroine is, of course, Dolly Parton. During the time that Roseanne Barr was attempting to recreate Ab Fab in America, Saunders became quite chummy with Eddy’s foul-mouthed US counterpart. And one jetlagged evening, through Roseanne’s auspices, she actually met The Dolly. Barr had offered Saunders dinner “without an entourage. Hurray. That is quite rare in America”. And there they were in Morton’s, home of the famous Vanity Fair Oscars party, which Saunders describes as a giant aircraft hangar: “All you can see from the outside are air-conditioning systems, and you think, ‘Where are we going? A car park?’” Several bottles of wine arrive at the table “because Roseanne thinks, like everyone does, that I’m like my character and must require not just one, but two or possibly three bottles”.

Then plates of mashed potato arrive because obviously since she’s English, that must be what she wants: “And I was in a sort of heaven. But not quite realising that I had now floated at least six inches off the ground with jet lag and bottles of wine and I’d examined all Roseanne’s tattoos, and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dolly Parton is here. Do you like her?’ And I said, ‘I worship Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has made my life such joy. I know every single song, every single album.’ And she said, ‘I’ll ask her to come over and sit at the table.’ And I was, like, ‘OHMYGOD!’

“And then Dolly Parton – DOLLY PARTON! – is sitting at our table, and it’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Oh God, I wish I wasn’t so drunk because I really do like Dolly Parton and I want to say how much I like her but maybe I’m too drunk.’”

So Saunders staggers off to the loo in an attempt to sober up and it’s a long, long way away. She’s sitting on the loo thinking she may by now have been gone for half an hour but what she feels would be a fitting mark of respect would be to sing a medley of Dolly songs to Dolly: “Because, you know, she needs to know how much I like her.

“By the time I’d negotiated the aircraft hangar back to the table where Dolly was sitting, actually quite merry herself, she was absolutely up for anything, lovely – I’d forgotten every single thing she’d ever done. I never got to tell her that I thought she was really… quite good. And she was sitting there, thin as a rake, huge tits, looking great, and I thought – in that slightly above-your-body-looking-down way – ‘I am sitting at a table with Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr. Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr.’ And I thought, ‘I must not forget this moment.’”

A few years later, when Dolly did her show in London, Saunders sent her a present backstage: “But she didn’t remember me.”

And what could be more English, or more Jennifer Saunders, to end on that note.

General, Women

Women’s hour

THE GUARDIAN – July 4 2005
Ginny Dougary

Women In Journalism started as an accident … well, certainly by a sort of fluke and I was there to witness the unlikely uprising. In 1993 Eve Pollard, then editor of the Sunday Express, was also that year’s appeals chairman of the Newspaper Press Fund, and hosted a fundraising evening with a panel of high-profile speakers. The topic she had chosen for discussion was something along the lines of Are Women Getting their Fair Share in the Media?.

At the time, I was writing a book about women in the media (The Executive Tart & Other Myths) and had gone along hoping I might pick up some good stories. It was one of those veal-coloured corporate dining-rooms, and there was nothing in the air-chilled atmosphere to prepare any of us – and there were a lot of us, I noticed – for the heat of the impending debate.

I don’t remember much about the individual speeches but the outcry which followed them was unforgettable. One woman after another got to her feet and told a story about the antediluvian attitudes in her workplace: unequal pay; unequal promotion; lack of women in the boardroom; family un friendly policies. Up stood several very senior respected figures, well-known editors of glossy magazines, and junior reporters – women from newspapers on the left and right, broadsheets and tabloids.

As more and more diners clamoured to have their say, the mood in the room began to take on the emotionally-charged feeling of a revivalist meeting. The refrain was always the same: No, women are not getting their fair share and we’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. “You do know that if you take on the men,” one newspaper veteran warned darkly, “there will be blood on the floor.”

At the end of the evening, Eve suggested that perhaps what we needed to do was to form some sort of lobbying group – like women in film and television and advertising. Did anyone think that was a good idea? A resounding cheer. Was anyone interested in get ting involved? Hundreds of hands went up. And that was it.

I was roped into joining the fledgling committee, something I had never done before or since. Amanda Platell, who was then doing something ultra-senior in the Mirror group, made a room available for our initial meetings, and passed the mantle on to Linda Christmas, who ran the post-grad journalism course at City University. We first became official in Eve’s glass-walled eyrie in the Express. Mary Ann Sieghart said, “Right. Let’s all put in £25 and that’ll get us started.” (There were about 30 women crowded around the boardroom table.) I remember Deborah Orr snorting magnificently at this and scribbling a cheque for £25 plus an O.

We were – and still are – a very disparate bunch of people, with our own particular hobby-horses, but united with the feeling that change was long overdue. I was amazed, for instance, while researching my book at how very few women there were in the top ranks of broadsheet newspapers: they existed as editors of colour supplements or Living pages, but were rare in politics, news, foreign, business, sport – all areas which have real clout within a paper. As for the top two jobs, there were only two women editors compared with more than 60 men (the tabloids were only marginally better). Back then, we were yet to see a female editor of the Independent, Independent on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Daily Express, the Sunday Telegraph or the Sun. It was still highly unusual to see women as deputy editors, whereas now it almost seems unusual not to.

The other area I was keen on monitoring was the way women are written about in newspapers. Other journalists were more concerned about not being sidelined after having children; pressing newspapers to adopt a more reasonable approach to balancing work and family life; finding a way to exchange information about pay and working conditions, or networking in the post-Fleet Street social wasteland.

There were 300-400 women at the launch party of Women In Journalism held in the library of the Reform Club. For the first couple of years, we seemed to have all our parties in similarly august, rather masculine clubs. (I suppose it must have added to our sense of storming the bastions.) On that night, among the festivities, we also started the more sober business of forming groups to tackle the different issues.

Ten years on, or more, I would have to say that although we did take on the men, there was no blood on the floor. There was some initial sneering from one or two male columnists – that was to be expected – but the great majority of newspaper editors were keen to show that they were on side. (Partly to send out the right message to the senior women journalists that were on their papers, but also because all editors are looking to attract more women readers). We did get to do a campaign on the portrayal of women which was widely picked up on and debated, and there has been research into family-friendly policies, the prospects for older women journalists, the ratio of women to men in conference, and so on. There are regular seminars with terrific speakers on everything from How to Ask for More Money? to How to Keep Your Job? (post babies or post menopause).

There have been founder members’ lunches with international guest speakers; a surreal dinner in the revolving restaurant of the BT Tower when editors pledged hefty sums to support Women In Journalism; a memorable drinks party hosted by Gordon Brown in No 11 Downing Street where he learnt that feminist journalists were anything but unfriendly; dilemmas and public arguments (Piers Morgan, a big WIJ benefactor, berating Rebekah Wade, then chair of WIJ, for being sanctimonious; should we be doing a candlelit vigil for WIJ member Yvonne Ridley captured by the Taliban?; what will we do if Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore turn up at the same function?)

It’s been fun, instructive and necessary – and we’re still going strong. Here’s to the next 10 years.

Tina Weaver, Editor, Sunday Mirror and current chair, Women In Journalism
A lot of guys in the newsroom have a laugh about Women in Journalism. But men have gathered in pubs and golf courses for years, so why shouldn’t women get together? As the chair, I’ve seen how we are an influential networking organisation, offering support and celebrating achievement. It’s very important we are not seen as a very right-on, politically correct, anti-male organisation. Things have changed enormously from the days when women in newsrooms were few and far between – and even then, were just given the girly, soft jobs. Among the first things I was asked to do on the Daily Mirror in 1992 was to dress in a gold bikini and be fired out of a cannon at a circus. Obviously, I told them where to stuff that idea. But gender is not even an issue anymore, as each reporter is judged on their own merit. Women get a good crack of the whip, whether it’s covering wars, politics or the Asian tsunami. WIJ has largely achieved what it set out to do, getting more women in newsrooms and the challenges facing female journalists are those facing any female in employment: family friendly policies in the workplace. The fact Trinity Mirror has a female chief executive and a female national editor shows how far the industry has come.

Eve Pollard , Former editor of Sunday Express and Sunday Mirror, author, honorary president of Women in Journalism
I was the founding member of WIJ. We wanted to campaign for equal pay and to improve the way women were written about in the press. We’ve been more successful in some of those areas than others. One of the first bits of research we did was to find out how many women were included in decision-making conferences. We’ve helped as women are now included far more. That’s not just down to WIJ, but we’ve done our bit. We’ve also helped with equal pay.

Unfortunately, newspapers don’t write about women any better than they used to. It’s a hard one because there’s a whole culture to change. It would be good if we looked at the way women were reported in the press and had some effect. We could be a neutral place to conduct debates and discussions, not only for women but the whole industry.

It is still easier for men than women but with every year, it gets less easy. We now have a constant three or four female newspaper editors, which is very different from when I was a number two. For women coming into the industry, that must help, psychologically.

I’ve had a fantastic time in my job and it’s my duty to pass that down and help. If there’s an old boys’ network, there should be an old girls’ club.

Sue Matthias, Deputy editor, New Statesman
When I joined the Independent on Sunday’s founding team, I was the only senior woman. Even in 1990, it felt old-fashioned, particularly after joining from the Observer, where there were more. In national papers, women have moved upwards into senior positions, but when it comes beyond that, to board level, there are still very few women up there.

We are moving towards a more balanced industry, but we’re not there yet and it would be nice to see more female editors. One of my roles when I joined the New Statesman in January was to increase the female circulation by bringing in more women writers. So in the election campaign, we published the New Stateswoman to reflect and explore the women’s vote. Overall, there has been a feminisation of newspapers, particularly when you look at the direction of the Independent and the Observer, where news is being featurised.

The old stereotypes of women doing features and men doing hard news is changing and we’ve seen much progress over the past 10 years. That old kind of discrimination is being phased out, but it’s noticeable that women in newspapers disappear over the age of 50.

Polly Toynbee, Commentator, the Guardian
I joined WIJ on the grounds that maybe it would want to create a better type of journalist, with higher standards and different perspectives than the macho style that has always run Fleet Street. This was a mistake; it was certainly not how things turned out to be. It’s just about girls networking, not about quality, standards or taking a different approach. Women are only really interested in it as a job promotion scheme. WIJ has made no stand for standards or quality because they are proud of women like Eve Pollard, who have been editors of pretty disgusting papers. They regard doing things just like the boys as a triumph. Sun editor Rebekah Wade has been as dreadful as anyone could be – as dreadful as the men before her. In the past 10 years, the portrayal of women has not changed much in the popular press. The Daily Mail is trashing women every day; their attitude is to tear them down for being too fat, or too thin. Being a woman, if you make it to the levels of being a political commentator, you are rather privileged, but the lobby is still a very macho, male-dominated atmosphere. Female journalists have a responsibility to look at the world through different eyes, not by mimicking men. They should think how to better reflect women instead of joining the lads’ culture.

Sarah Sands, Editor, Sunday Telegraph
I only ever went to one party. I like the idea of female solidarity but in practice women – as individuals – have different aims. Moreover, working women are all short of time and I had to miss the meetings because I was always stuck at the office.

Mary Ann Sieghart, Assistant editor and columnist, the Times
Today it’s more of an embarrassment among male executives if there aren’t women writers in their pages. When I started there wasn’t a single female voice in the op-ed pages of the Times, now there isn’t a day without one. Likewise, I don’t always feel I am in a tiny minority in morning conference. On average though, I still think women are paid less than men, because they are not good at asking for pay rises. A WIJ seminar we did with a role play about how to ask for more money was very popular.

Glass ceilings are still a real problem in national papers, although less so in magazines. Looking at the number of senior executives, I think about 80% are men. Women are not being promoted enough and their views are not taken seriously enough in terms of commentary. Today all papers are targeting female readers. while men are more interested in what are thought to be women’s and family issues. Yet the depiction of women hasn’t changed much.

Suzanne Moore, Columnist, Mail on Sunday
I was a member of WIJ at the beginning. I went to the initial meeting when Eve Pollard and Amanda Platell were there. I’m not a member now, not because of any ideological difference. I just sort of drifted away.

I did one session where you give a talk and people ask questions. I spoke about being a columnist and found the kind of questions people asked were impossible to answer. “I work at Cross-stitch Weekly but want to move across to a knitting magazine, how can you help?” I couldn’t.

I think there’s a networking idea that has permeated the media and actually it’s bollocks. You get a job through what you write. I’ve never got a job through networking. Lots of people think if you turn up to the parties and meet the right people, it will all fall into place. It doesn’t.

The thing WIJ does which is good is people should know how much other people are paid. If you ask for more money they treat you as though you’d made some terrible faux pas.

I was always confused about what the group’s aims were. They talk about family-friendly policies, are they a union? Is it just a networking organisation? Is it just a place to ask for advice? Women in Journalism does have a place but what it could offer me now I don’t know.

I’d be happy to get behind any real campaign. You have to ask, who are the people getting promoted? Are women getting their jobs back after maternity leave? What is being done about sexual harassment? Women in newspapers should push much harder on those issues in their own work environment.

Linda Christmas, Former head of journalism, City University
WIJ was born in my little office here at City University. Journalists didn’t meet because Fleet Street was a diaspora and we thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get together? Journalists aren’t really joiners; they’re not good at getting together in a group. They’re too independent-minded.

What we did, very consciously, was get together a group of women who had succeeded, otherwise we would have been earmarked as whingers. That was wise. When we opened our mouths, we had to be informed, rather than speak from anecdotal experience.

I definitely want to see WIJ producing more good research because they’re all highly talented people with access. For me, the research we’ve done is the most important thing because it gives us gravitas. We were born out of a rant but now you have to prove your point.

I want to think about the “so what” factor. If women are just going to go on churning out the same news and the same newspapers, there’s no point. We have to be able to add value as women in executive roles.

The Financial Times has a job share for their news editor between two women. When women wanted to work in a job share in the past they got the gardening page. This is really great, because it means you can’t say anymore you can’t take a job because of the hours.

Jane Johnson, Editor, Closer magazine
There weren’t many female role models in senior national newspaper positions when I started out on my local paper the Southport Star 14 years ago. Although I was inspired by the success of trailblazing News of the World editor Wendy Henry and could look up to columnists like Lynda Lee-Potter, there was a sense that women had to fight tooth and (manicured) nail to get to these coveted positions. Now it’s different – there are three female red top editors. And, spurred on by this, many more ambitious young female reporters going into the business. But I’d say there is still a lack of women on backbenches, the production engine room of a paper is still seen as the macho end. In my experience women are perfectly good at writing brilliant headlines and doing arresting lay-outs. Now I’m fighting for men’s right to work in the increasingly challenging and competitive world of weekly magazines!

Sarah Kilby, Freelance journalist, Former editor, Woman and Home
I became involved in WIJ in 1995. My background is in magazines and I was concerned that very few women managed to get up to the board and they often disappeared after the age of 30. My major concern was about mentoring. I was a magazine editor at that point and was very concerned that not enough women were managing to get into the industry, especially on the business side. The seminars have been key. Women have a reputation for not sharing knowledge but that’s not actually true. Women at WIJ have been very generous with their experiences, happy to make themselves look silly by sharing their mistakes for the benefit of others.

Deborah Orr, Columnist, Independent
I was initially involved in WIJ but typically my job in journalism was so all-consuming, I didn’t have enough time to contribute. In the very beginning, there was no agenda to join for but it seemed to be shaping up as a networking organisation and that’s why my interest waned. When I first started in newspapers at the Guardian in 1990, there were hardly any women. There was Melanie Phillips, the women’s editor, and a few subs. In the past ten years, there have been lots of breakthroughs with women becoming editors but that was changing anyway. WIJ was more a consequence of that change than a driving force behind it.

I really find WIJ very peripheral. I have no awareness of what they’re doing. I think a campaigning group would be a good thing. A lot of women, even those who think they are feminists, don’t understand what it’s like to have children and how much it changes things. Men’s awareness needs to be changed but so does that of young single women.

The whole culture of journalism is macho and a lot of the time women are encouraged to act like men. The worrying part of WIJ was their idea that you needed to have a girls’ network to rival the old boys’ club. You have to act differently to change that culture rather than acting the same way. There is a dichotomy. You’re trying to challenge a culture that expects to work 60 hours a week, bring up children and still find time to campaign for change.

Lindsay Nicholson, Editor, Good Housekeeping, Chairperson of WIJ, 2002-2004
I wasn’t part of the original founding group. I came along later. WIJ are famous for their fantastic parties and I went along to one of those. Those parties are fabulous because you do really network. Women haven’t built up the sort of networks men have over the years and to underestimate their importance is naive. Women have been marginalised by not having access to their own role models.

At WIJ parties, the fact that editors like Rebekah Wade and Eve Pollard not only show up but are really active and talk to people who haven’t yet reached their position in the industry is extremely important. WIJ hasn’t changed how the media operates, that was changing anyway. It has provided a fantastic support for women coming into the industry.

The situation in 2005 is very different from that of 1995. A lot has changed but there is still an old boys’ network. Although the situation has dramatically improved in the past ten years, hopefully in ten years time WIJ will be irrelevant and men and women will be exchanging ideas freely without their having to be a gender split. The ideal would be if WIJ became an irrelevance. If women felt supported, confident and integrated enough, access to role models and turning up to parties and seminars would be unnecessary. WIJ is an organisation working for its own dissolution.

Jean Rafferty, Freelance journalist, Secretary WIJ Scotland
Eve Pollard came up to Edinburgh and threw a massive meeting there. I wanted to be involved because I’m an old-fashioned feminist and I agreed with what they were trying to do to keep women on the agenda. We seem to go forward then we step back. People think women have won equality and we haven’t.

I think WIJ was particularly effective when it was producing research. They did change the industry because with all those women’s contacts, they got things out to the public. Many high ranking women have been on the WIJ committee and that’s validated what we’re trying to do. Women’s subjects are on the agenda more in all newspapers but we’ve got an awfully long way to go because news reporting is still very male. Wars are reported in terms of casualties and “our boys” while humanitarian areas aren’t commented on.

WIJ could do more but the problem is most people on the committee are volunteers. WIJ can’t change the world on its own. The talks they put on in London are fantastic. I’d love to do the same in Scotland but we’re not a big enough pool. I just don’t have the time.

A lot more changes need to be made, especially in the way we report things. I’m a features writer and that’s regarded as a soft option but I’ve written about punishment beatings and I’ve been to Rwanda. The fact that the news agenda is still set by gung-ho men who settle things down the pub is frustrating.

Louise Chunn, Editor, In Style magazine
I was a founder member of WIJ and became involved because I could see working on a newspaper and looking around me, there weren’t as many women as men and very few women who were middle aged. I wondered where they had all gone.

Women do have better jobs but there are still issues to deal with. There still aren’t very many senior women. Not all women want those top jobs but it still seems they don’t get as many opportunities as men. It’s important to remind people there are differences.

Things have changed. There has been a trend towards the female columnist. But in general, it still comes out that men are better at asking for more money or are just given it.

WIJ might like to think it’s about research and campaigning, but it’s also about meeting other women in journalism who inspire you or who you can get a job through. If we were in America we’d say, it’s a networking organisation, get over it. Because we’re in Britain, we don’t. They think it’s somehow spurious, but it’s good. WIJ should be as multi-faceted as it can be without spreading themselves too thin. It should reflect its membership without too many senior members saying it should be about campaigning.

· Interviews by Phoebe A Greenwood and Rob Harris