The BBC’s long running Two Ronnies series, with Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, was a much-loved sketch show that followed a very specific format for the whole run – opening and closing with comedic new headlines, a sketch with the two stars (usually meeting at a party or such), solo bits for both Ronnie, a closing musical number and an on-going serial that would last the whole season. The most famous of these was The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, a glorious satire of gothic horror and Jack the Ripper.
The Ronnies followed this in 1980 with The Worm That Turned, a serial that was far less loved and is now, if remembered at all, often seen as an example of everything sexist and patriarchal in the 1970s. A running theme of comedy and drama on film and TV well into the 1980s was the nightmare scenario of women taking over the world, where men would be oppressed by fascistic female rulers – the science fiction series Star Maidens played on these fears, as did many an episode of other shows where the hero would find himself in a society or on a planet where women ruled, and men were down-trodden slaves. Even as a child, I was aware that these stories were a touch hysterical, cringeworthy and, yes, a bit sexist – while I don’t doubt that some of the more extreme feminists would argue the toss, the fact is that even before equal rights legislation, women were not actually enslaved during the 20th century (at least, not in the West) and the idea that if they somehow came to power, that they would impose a cross between sexual apartheid and Nazism seemed a touch over the top. Of course, we can look at the way the lunatic fringe on social media howl about toppling straight white men from power and think that there certainly are women who would like to impose such a social structure… but the key point here is ‘lunatic fringe’. We’ve had female leaders around the world, and so far, none of them have yet stripped human rights from men.
The Worm That Turned ran for eight episodes, and told the story of a future Britain dominated by a fascistic army of women, where men are made to wear dresses and adopt female names (no, it makes no sense at all, but stick with us). The Ronnies play the heroes, Janet and Betty, who join the male resistance and attempt to flee to the macho stronghold of Wales. The villain is the military commander played by Diana Dors, who oversees a police state where the feminist rules are enforced by a leather hot pants-clad female military force. Because obviously, a feminist dictatorship would dress its police like go-go dancers.
The inspiration for the story seems to have been the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 – the story makes explicit reference to this as the start of female domination. And to be fair, it ridicules everyone, male and female, and arguably posits the idea of gender stereotyping and the enforcement of social roles as inherently ridiculous – though lets not get carried away here. This is not a feminist text by any stretch of the imagination. However, it’s probably less a misogynistic tract than some critics might have you believe, though even in 1980, it felt a little embarrassing and defensive. At a time when right-on alternative comedy was routing the old guard, the Ronnies probably did themselves no favours with this story.
Curiously, the serial does seem to have a cult following with gay men and lesbians, and the kitsch, camp aspect of the production – alongside a few gags that still hit the mark – makes this a curiously entertaining museum piece. And we mentioned the leather hot pants, right?
You can watch the feature-length edit of the serial below. Don’t expect to see it rerun or remade by the BBC any time soon though.