Sarah Danby, the newly elected independent member of Furness Borough Council, represents Albion Ward, a seat previously held by her late husband, a much-respected Yorkshire alderman. Furness is a mixture of older housing areas - cramped, badly built, but with well-knit coherence; and new estates, and Sarah is a righter of wrongs, a sort of ombudswoman, a tough talking, down to earth, yet good humoured and quick witted northerner. And in Sarah's job it pays to keep your wits about you.
Sarah, played by Thora Hird, was portrayed as a crusading local councillor who was determined to make a difference to her local community whilst tackling the bureaucracy of both local and central government. Although writer Alan Plater, who had been asked specifically to write a drama series for Thora, was unsure at first whether a gritty northern councillor in a gritty northern town would suit her because she had only just finished the sitcom Meet The Wife, and was, in Plater's opinion, perceived by the public as solely a comedy actress.
But in fact she couldn't have been more perfect for the part. Thora was an extremely well established and much admired character actress who was indeed best regarded for her comedic roles at that stage of her career. Yet the practical and down-to-earth Lancastrian, was equally adept at turning her hand to serious dramatic roles and it was her compelling performance in The First Lady that immediately enabled audiences to empathise with her tough talking no-nonsense character, and laid the seeds for some memorable performances in single dramas such as Alan Bennett's celebrated Talking Heads monologues and the heart rendering Lost For Words, all of which won her deserved BAFTA awards.
Interviewed in the May 4-10 1968 edition of Radio Times, Thora Hird spoke about the appeal of her onscreen character, Sarah Danby, and the injustices she fought. "She's all woman, Sarah. She feels things. She reacts to things just like I do. You see, I watch television, and I see things, and I say to my husband Jimmy, 'something should be done about that.' Now, that's just what Sarah would do. The only difference is, she can do something about it, and I usually can't. Mind you, being able to spotlight this sort of thing in the programme does help me get some of it off my chest."
At that time the Labour Party had a very tough and outspoken woman MP in their government called Barbara Castle and she was to be the model for the character. In fact, Plater even went as far as suggesting that his character be a member of the same political party. But the BBC were worried about political bias and suggested that Plater's character, Sarah Danby, be an Independent candidate. "In dramatic terms I made an interesting discovery." Said Plater. "As an Independent, Sarah could believe anything she wanted to believe." Thora also discovered that the public would readily accept her in a dramatic role. "The only problem I had with The First Lady," she said, "was that some viewers really thought that I was a councillor and started writing to me to help sort out some of their local problems."
Heralding the start of a second series in 1969, producer Terence Dudley explored the appeal of Sarah Danby in a Radio Times article that observed: "Sarah's a remarkable woman. She's not particularly clever, nor is she sophisticated. She's frequently muddle-headed and often pig-headed. She's sentimental and some of her arguments are ridiculously unobjective, but she's honest; fiercely, burningly honest. And she's brave, indefatigable and tenacious. It's her courage, tirelessness and tenacity that make her a treasured friend - and a formidable foe. Sarah also has a rare humility. It's a virtue that drives her hotly to right injustices - yet, without contradiction, causes her to decline to sit on the Bench. "I don't think I could sit in judgement on other people". But that, on the other hand, doesn't stop her calling the local coroner "a stupid, sanctimonious prig!".
We're reintroduced to Sarah at a crisis point in her private and public life, and it's typical of her that she's less concerned for herself than she is about her continued capacity to help other people. But it's this very attitude that, later in the series, causes her son bitterly to accuse her of living a "substitute life" which excludes her family. Substitute life or not, Sarah Danby returns to the screen to reassure us that, in a far from perfect world, all is far from lost: that we have faith, hope and charity going for us as well as Councillor Mrs Danby. But she'll be the first to say she doesn't win all the time - and "What a bore I would be if I did!". And if that's not reassuring, I don't know what is."
With Thora Hird in the lead role, the deep, inherent humanity which informed all of Alan Plater's writing found itself wedded to a consummate performer whose own essential mixture of no-nonsense Northern practicality and air of "everywoman" warmth was in perfect sync with the writer's social concerns that found expression through the central character. If Plater's scripts were the heart and mind of The First Lady, it was the redoubtable Ms Hird's finely judged and superlative performance which was its soul.
TRIVIA: Dennis Waterman, Peter Barkworth, Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Hurndall, Bernard Hepton, Glynn Edwards, Glyn Owen and Jack Smethurst all made guest appearances in 'The First Lady'.
Ultimately the series ran for 2 years winning much critical acclaim on the way. Unfortunately most of the shows were wiped from the archives many years ago.
An example episode synopsis from the Radio Times edition April 18, 1968: "Furness Council Architects' Department wins a prize for design. The department is particularly proud of this ward and all rejoice. However, a sour note is struck when the leader of the estate Tenants' Association comes to see Sarah Danby and tells her that it would be sheer hypocrisy for the Council to accept the award. He cites the isolation of the estate, lack of community facilities, the intersection by a major road, and the misery of many of the residents. A perfect case for Councillor Sarah Danby to do some investigating of her own.
Published on December 11th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.