Equal pay for equal work might not quite apply, since it was Diana Rigg who did most of the swordplay and martial arts in The Avengers and matched the male lead twinkle for twinkle.
But she wasn’t paid the same. Indeed, she found, she was way down the line. Not good enough, she said, putting down the fencing rapier and going on strike.
After a good fight (or maybe that should be a bad fight), the producers caved in. Not before she noticed a distinct lack of support from the women on the set. Sisterhood was there none.
Appalling, I thought, reading this last week. And then I remembered when I was the girl reporter on RTÉ’s The Liam Nolan Hour.
The money wasn’t the issue but rather the topics. Every time I was interviewed, I would point out the irrelevance demonstrated by many of the issues turfed into “the woman’s slot”.
So I was thrilled when Muiris McGonigal, TV director par excellence, was announced as the new features head in radio and even more thrilled when summoned to his presence.
When I arrived, I was a bit surprised not to be invited to sit, but — I told myself — guys like Muiris like to get right to it. And get right to it he surely did, firing me on the spot. Not that it was difficult — like the five other women earning what we’ll laughingly call a living from features and current affairs, I was on a short-term contract.
I was doing the gig economy before it was cool, managing on week-to-week contracts. Which, right now, were finishing, because women had, according to Muiris, no place in current affairs.
“I can’t send a woman down the Falls Rd.”
“Oh, men are more bullet-proof?”
I would love to claim that I stalked out, but in truth, what I did was slink out. Did I think about the other five or six women in the department on similar contracts to mine, and, as the daughter of a passionate trade unionist, find them out and weld them into a bludgeon, striking for women’s rights?
Patrick Macnee, as John Steed, and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, in the ‘The Avengers’.
I’m ashamed to admit that thought never crossed my mind, any more than the problems facing those other women crossed my mind.
Panic can render you pretty selfish, even if you’re not selfish to start with, which I was.
I gathered my belongings, which made the desk I was allowed to use look remarkably bare, compared to its high-piled normal chaos.
I knew that despite the clubbable culture of the programme, the all-in-together excitement of getting each show on air, it would be a waste of time to seek help from any other member of the team.
Those whose names might well have been permanent and pensionable. Permanent and pensionable didn’t give the smallest sugar about freelances at the best of times, and now that the hero of the working class, Muiris, had found me unworthy of employment and deployment on the Falls Rd, well, you know yourself, I must be severely lacking.
Because we had one car between us at the time, my boyfriend’s big square red Fiat, he had dropped me at RTÉ for my session with the head of features and current affairs, and would be coming back for me about an hour later, picking me up at the TV block, to which I now trudged with my black plastic bag of miscellaneous, like a patient released from hospital.
The lobby of the TV block was much more spacious, much less cluttered, and much more inviting to sit in than it is now. I planted myself against the wall on a Scandinavian sofa and worked at not crying, which, in the face of current circumstances, was not easy.
My boyfriend at the time had no job, no home, and was in considerable debt. I lived at home with a father who didn’t speak to me because I was planning to marry the loser just described and because the loser was a former priest. Now, I had no job, either.
The thing about not crying is that it’s a continuous, rather than a once-off task when you’ve just been fired, so I was still labouring at swallowing back the oversized throat lump and telling myself in my head to get a f*****g grip, when a man I had seen around the radio centre came over to me and asked me was I Terry Prone. I admitted to it without enthusiasm.
“My name is Billy Wall,” he said, going down on his hunkers in front of me.
“I’m the producer of a new programme — a new daily programme — called The Gay Byrne Hour, and I was wondering if you’d consider being our scriptwriter?”
Honesty and greed fought within me as I considered telling him that I was unworthy of his consideration since I’d just been fired over beyond. Greed won.
I patted the couch beside me in invitation and the negotiations started, right there. Long before the red Fiat pulled up outside the floor-to-ceiling glass of the lobby, Wall had hired me at twice what I’d been making as a reporter on The Liam Nolan Hour, and I was clear on exactly what would be required of me each day.
I would need to start coming up with ideas straight away, he told me, because the programme would be hitting the airwaves 10 days later.
I would also need to talk to reporters in Cork and Galway and maybe locate a few in other parts of the country to contribute to a weekly item called The Shopping Basket, which would address the costs of shopping in different supermarkets, which, at the time, included Dunnes Stores, H Williams, Quinnsworth, Superquinn, and a couple of others.
Wall took my address and phone number and promised to have a three-month contract with me within days. At which point the red Fiat pulled up and Wall and I shook hands and parted.
“Who’s your man?” Tom asked as he tidied me into the car. Tom always got out and opened the door for any female passenger.
“Billy Wall,” I said as he climbed in the other side, reached through the steering wheel, shook loose a cigarette, lit it, and started the engine.
It was at that point I burst into tears, which caused Tom to slow the car as he considered doing a U-turn in order to go back and sort Wall out.
“No! Billy Wall is a good guy,” I sobbed.
Gradually, the story emerged and Tom, drawing heavily on the cigarette, seemed impressed by me getting fired and hired on the same day in the same organisation.
A year later, the law changed, courtesy of our EU membership and McGonigal couldn’t have done it, thereafter. But he did it at the time and we did nothing about it.
Each survived in her own way. On her own. Sisterhood was there none.