Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Patricia Hodge/Phyllida Trant

This lovely red-headed actress has been ubiquitous on British TV for nearly 40 years now, an even more regular face than others of my 1970s nostalgia picks in this series like Jan Francis and Gabrielle Drake. And she epitomises many of the qualities, both in looks and in character, that I most often tend to be attracted to in a woman: the height, the flame-coloured hair, the strong jaw and vertiginous cheekbones, of course; but also a suggestion of uncommon intelligence, or of a species of shrewdness, anyway, and a self-reliance, a certain toughness and steeliness of purpose too, and of course a provoking aloofness, an intoxicating whiff of patrician hauteur (ah, yes, the unattainability thing again!).

Ah, but I did not love her in everything she was in (she tended to get typecast rather as snooty upper-class totty), and she was not overall one of my more major crushes. No, whenever I think of Ms Hodge and melt, I am thinking of her as Phyllida Trant, the lady barrister who was a kind of protégée of the wily but disreputable old soak Horace Rumpole in several episodes of the long-running ITV series Rumpole of the Bailey. [I was reminded of this series by a comment-thread exchange just the other day. Although I never had the slightest interest in practising criminal law myself, I'm sure it was Rumpole, along with the earlier Crown Court (which used the compelling gimmick of having a real jury deliver a verdict at the end of a scripted trial played out over a week of daily episodes on lunchtime TV), that was mainly responsible for nurturing my insane desire to become a barrister myself.]

Ms Trant ultimately disappointed me - and countless other male fans, I'm sure - by marrying another barrister in her chambers, the amiable but drippy (upper-class twit!) Claude Erskine-Brown. Until then, she had been my perfect embodiment of the single, professional woman. Luckily, I didn't really follow how that came about. I suppose I only saw the first four or five seasons, before heading off to university and all but abandoning TV. The series carried on for the best part of a decade more, but I only caught a random handful of the later episodes.

Gosh, there's something about lady barristers! I don't think it was just the loveliness of Ms Hodge/Ms Trant that implanted this particular erotic fascination in my mind. The prim simplicity of a black business suit, the stark contrast with the crisp white blouse, and then the black tights or stockings, of course, yes, the stockings.... damn, there's even something oddly fetching or provoking about those godawful horsehair wigs (they make the scalp itch something rotten; and I regard it as my chief consolation for having failed to make my way in the profession myself that at least I escaped the torture of having to wear one of these darned things; perhaps it's the sympathy trigger that makes a woman wearing one seem attractive - it makes us feel sorry for her?!).

Uniforms in general, of course, are commonly perceived to have a frisson of sexiness about them - something about the aura of power they emanate, perhaps... and the sharp tailoring? In addition to that, though, I think there's something particularly alluring about the way that a strong personality manages to shine through even more strongly in defiance of a costume that's designed to depersonalize. And, more so than almost any other uniformed ladies (such as air stewardesses or traffic wardens), female barristers are necessarily formidably intelligent.

Yet, despite the poise and power bestowed by their academic pedigree and their vital role in the judicial system, there's also usually a beguiling air of vulnerability about them, a sense of the struggle they must undergo to assert themselves in what is still a predominantly masculine - and often rather sexist - arena, or an intimation of discomfort in maintaining the facade of 'male' toughness that is so often expected of them in their work. Lady barristers, I have found, are often a tad intimidating, sometimes even downright scary... and yet I almost always want to give them a hug.

My days of law school, Bar school, and pupillage were a dizzying succession of ephemeral infatuations. Another reason, perhaps, to be grateful that I didn't make my career at the Bar....


Tony said...

Strange tastes you have. Now, if you really want a lady barrister who fills you with uncontrollable lust, there was a little black one in a few episodes of Kavanagh..... clever, too.

Froog said...

Sorry I missed that.

But I think our tastes are programmed - and our abiding affections develop - early in our lives.

I encountered Phyllida Trant in my teens. She is the yardstick by which all others are measured.

Tony said...

Yes indeed. Some men grow up fancying women who look like their mother, or their nanny. I imagine you had a governess who looked like Patricia Hodge.

Froog said...

Indeed not. I am not in the governess class, Tony. Although, in retrospect, that is a titillating fantasy.

I think the predilection for chiselled cheekbones and red hair must be somehow genetically programmed. Patricia/Phyllida was the first paradigm of it I ever encountered, I'm pretty sure, and I feel the weakness was in me already. My first real-life exposure was almost certainly The Evil One, the great lost love of my life - and I was into my thirties by then.