The Daily Telegraph

Silent smiles speak volumes in this timely drama series


There has been a recent revival of old-fashioned baby names: stand in any north London playground and you’ll hear Arthurs, Bettys and Berties. Watching Mrs America (BBC Two) was a reminder that names of a certain vintage have yet to make a comeback. Gloria, Phyllis, Shirley, Jill, Brenda – will their time come again?

The cool one here, of course, is Gloria, as in Gloria Steinem, with her Afghan hound hair and ever-present Aviators. In Mrs America, Phyllis Schlafly is prim, buttoned-up and wearing clothes that hark back to the 1950s, but because she’s played by Cate Blanchett she is ineffably glamorous. Blanchett’s performanc­e is a masterclas­s. You could watch an episode with the sound off and read the whole story in her changes of expression: the ruthlessne­ss, intelligen­ce and vulnerabil­ity. Some smiles mask hurt, others conjure up the White Witch of Narnia. I can see why Blanchett leapt at the role.

Episode five illustrate­d Schlafly’s double bind: going up against the feminists as a representa­tive of America’s housewives and playing the doting wife, while working as a de facto lobbyist with far more political clout than her husband. When a newspaper came to interview Fred Schlafly (John Slattery) and the resulting article billed him as “Phyllis Schafly’s husband”, she had to soothe him by telling him how handsome he looked in the picture. After describing him as the boss of the family during a TV debate, she walked backstage with a face like thunder.

In episode six, she had a new adversary in Jill Ruckelshau­s (Elizabeth Banks), a Republican appointed to head a presidenti­al commission on women’s rights. Her husband was on the shortlist to be the vice-presidenti­al pick but didn’t get the job, the suspicion being that his wife was considered too “outspoken” in the very role the party had asked her to take up. “I told them I don’t control my wife,” her husband said.

“I just wish you’d said, ‘She’s not outspoken, she’s the normal amount of spoken. She speaks about as much as any man,’” Ruckelshau­s replied.

Later, a bunch of men make lewd jokes while Schlafly is in the room, smile painfully intact. It garnered a sympathy sorely tested earlier; Schlafly in the confession booth speaking of her “pervert” son, or dismissing secretarie­s’ accounts of being sexually harassed. We’ve come a long way since then, Mrs America tells us, but these issues are still very much alive.

T he title of Bears About the House (BBC Two) wasn’t exactly misleading – it featured bears, romping about the house – but it suggested a Bears Do the Funniest Things-type of show for all the family. While there was plenty of footage of cubs being adorable, that only made the context more horrific: these were animals rescued from unimaginab­le cruelty. In this second episode, their rescue did not have a happy ending.

Conservati­onists Giles Clark and Matt Hunt, the latter chief executive of the Free the Bears charity, rescue bears in Laos. The young ones have been orphaned after their mothers were captured or murdered; the adults kept on illegal farms and used for meat, fur, and the bile prized in traditiona­l medicine. There was undercover footage of a bear being caught in a trap, which I had to turn away from.

The charity had rescued two moon bear cubs, named David and Jane, who were initially kept in the house as the first part of their rehab. Clark was soon feeding Jane apple slices, but David was too terrified to leave his crate. When eventually he did, he tried desperatel­y to scale the walls because a bear’s instinct is to climb to safety. Clark patiently built the cubs’ trust, like a proud father as he watched their progress. Moon bears are unruly house guests, and had soon destroyed the room like naughty puppies.

Next came the move to an outdoor ‘nursery’, where they took tentative steps exploring their new home. But then the devastatin­g blow: while Clark was away, the bears were stolen.

The programme didn’t dwell too long on this awful event, which seemed odd after the film-makers had spent so long introducin­g us to these cubs; it meant all of Clark and Hunt’s work had been for nothing. The details were skimmed over. We were told the thieves had probably been watching the sanctuary, that an investigat­ion had turned up nothing, and that was it.

The episode ended with Mary the sun bear gaining a friend and a new enclosure for her to enjoy her freedom. Clark coaxed her on to a tree trunk with a pot of honey. A heartwarmi­ng moment, and much needed.

Mrs America ★★★★

Bears About the House ★★★★

 ??  ?? Not to be crossed: another masterclas­s from Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
Not to be crossed: another masterclas­s from Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
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