More favourite characters

The top TV characters meme lives on! Stu_N has added his list to the mix; Marie’s crafted a much-admired ‘women only’ list; and there are other suggestions in the comments list of the original meme.

In addition to my original 20, we’ve now added

21) Stringer Bell from The Wire

22) Stewie Griffin of Family Guy (thanks Rosby!)

Stu_N has tempted me with David Callan, Will Scarlet and Steel, but I’m still not sure they’re great characters. I’m half-tempted to add Robert de Rainault – aka the Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin of Sherwood – simply because he was:

a) clever, unlike every other version of the Sheriff of Nottingham so far (and I suspect to come)

b) able to kill Robin Hood. Yes, kill him, stone dead. Well, technically, “so filled with crossbow bolts then trampled by horses that we couldn’t stick his head on a pike outside Nottingham castle because no one would recognise him” dead.

But I’ve decided not to. Again, good but not great. Still Stu_N and Marie both had one name in common on their lists, which has prompted me to come up with a 23 and a 24 for my list.

Drum roll (humour me)…

At 23, we have Liz Shaw from Doctor Who; and at 24, we have, from The Avengers… Cathy Gale.

Who they? I’m glad you asked. Because in both 23 and 24’s cases we have a similar thing happening. We have two pioneering, feminist characters whom everyone’s forgotten, in favour of two not-quite-so feminist characters.

Let me alpha nerd you for a moment…

Liz ShawLiz Shaw: Old-school Doctor Who fans will cite Sarah Jane Smith as the first “feminist character”. A few will cite Zoe, who was allegedly smarter than the Doctor, but frankly all she did was scream a lot while wearing a sparkly cat suit. But four seasons before Sarah Jane came along and started refusing to make coffee for the Doctor and demanding that everyone take her seriously, Liz Shaw was simply making everyone take her seriously.

A few comparison points for you

  1. Liz Shaw got hired as scientific advisor to the most important military operation in the country because she was pretty much the smartest human being in Britain at the time. Sarah Jane… wasn’t.
  2. Almost all Doctor Who companions scream. Liz Shaw screamed once – it was more like a yelp actually – when she was pushed off a bridge towards a raging weir. Sarah Jane screamed every single episode (disclaimer: may not actually be true, but it felt like it)
  3. In her first story, Liz Shaw saved the whole world and the Doctor by fixing the very complicated piece of alien machinery the Doctor had built using her brain, rather than twatting it one with a mallet; he was indisposed, being attacked by an alien octopus thing, so Liz Shaw saved the day. Sarah Jane once talked a robot that had fallen in love with her into almost giving up. Once. Oh yeah, and in that spin-off series, she beat up a market gardener.
  4. The only time Liz Shaw was ever captured by baddies, it was because they were specifically trying to abduct her – she was the only one smart enough to do the things they needed doing. Sarah Jane was abducted every story as a recreational sport.

As you can see, Liz Shaw much better and a far more feminist character than basically any other companion before and after. Including Ace and Rose Tyler. She also a good sense of humour, spending most of the time taking the piss out of the Doctor and the Brigadier. Plus she went to Cambridge. So there.

Yet completely forgotten in favour of Sarah Jane! Oh the injustice of it all

Cathy GaleSpeaking of injustice, here comes Cathy Gale. Again, everything everyone loves about Emma Peel, more or less, was done better and before by Cathy Gale.

Most people haven’t heard of her though. That’s not totally surprising: all her episodes were black and white (as were the first load of Emma Peel episodes, before the stonking big injection of American money that glammed everything up); they’re rarely repeated and quite a few of them were used by Lew Grade to light his cigars with anyway; and they have a jazz theme tune that quite rightly all sensible people shun. They were also a little more grown up than the more escapist Peel episodes so don’t quite capture the imagination (ie garner nerd love) the way the more crime-oriented Cathy Gale episodes did.

Still, she fares better in the memory than Venus Smith, Dr Martin King and Dr David Keel, Steed’s other companions for the first two series of The Avengers. They were just rubbish.

Yet, apart from having a more charismatic, slightly posher, slightly prettier actress playing her (although Honor Blackman was pretty charismatic/posh/pretty herself), Cathy Gale was better than Emma Peel because

  1. She had a sensible name. What’s silly about Emma Peel? It’s short for “Man appeal”. Seriously. The producers (well, one of their PAs, in fact) thought “we need someone with man appeal… ‘M’ appeal… Emma Peel!” A character whose main aim was to appeal to men. Huh.
  2. Emma Peel was supposed to be able to do Kung Fu. Diana Rigg couldn’t. So they just got a load of stunt men to fall over in response to some rather feeble kicks and strikes. Watch any Peel fight scene and laugh at it, my friends. Now watch a Cathy Gale fight scene and remember it was broadcast live. Honor Blackman was a yellow belt in judo at the time, having been taught that – and some stuff too nasty for TV – by a member of the French Resistance. Every one of those fight scenes she did on the night, live, before rushing off to do the next scene. She fractured one bloke’s collar bone – he still had to carry on with the scene… And while Emma Peel inspired a whole load of women to buy her dresses (see below), Cathy Gale inspired a whole load of women to buy her clothes – and to learn judo.
  3. Leather outfits. Pioneered by Cathy Gale. When you’re doing judo live on national television, you need an outfit that doesn’t rip easily
  4. Self-made woman. She was an anthropologist who married a farmer in Africa and there learned to hunt, fight and take care of herself. When her husband was killed, Gale returned to London to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology. She was the curator of a museum when she first encountered Steed. Emma Peel? Got her money from Daddy.
  5. Sparkling, flirty dialogue and sexual tension? Cathy Gale got there first. She even lived in Steed’s flat for a while
  6. Cathy Gale actually had arguments with Steed and objected to his methods. Mrs Peel? “He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise”. Bah!
  7. Getting captured and in need of being rescued? Cathy Gale – not much; Mrs Peel – quite a lot.

So there we go. Two pioneers who just go to prove that even great female characters get forgotten about, while even quite insipid men seem to linger on in our collective consciousness. What’s up there, I ask again?

Now all I’ve got to do is come up with number 25. Maybe I should make that Mrs Peel. No reason why they can’t both be in there, even if Cathy Gale is better.

Oh dear. This is going to be hard…


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.