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Harriet Walter joins call for more realistic older female roles

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Olivier Award-winning actress Harriet Walter has become the latest high profile industry figure to criticise the portrayal of women in dramas on stage and screen, and has called on writers to create more realistic roles for older female performers.

Her comments follow the publication of results from a Europe-wide survey carried out by the International Federation of Actors, which found that women have shorter careers than their male counterparts and see ageing as a disadvantage in terms of the variety of roles available to them.

Walter, 58, who is starring in ITV’s forthcoming series Law and Order UK and is about to go to Broadway with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Mary Stuart, told The Stage she was “discouraged” by the portrayal of women in drama and said that the issue of roles for older female performers in theatre and television is one that is “uppermost” in her mind.

“It’s one of those subjects I talk about nearly every day of my life,” she added. “Obviously I’m very lucky because I do keep working, but I am also a member of an audience and an older woman, and I get very discouraged by the portrayal of women – or the absence of women in dramas at all – and the function that older women play in dramas sometimes.

“It seems to me there is masses of work to be done there. A good dramatist should reflect what is going on in life – we make up a large percentage of the population and we don’t die off when we are 30.”

Walter, who has been in the business for more than three decades, said the problem lies in the fact that drama is often based around themes such as “conflict and responsibility” that have historically been associated with men.

“Historically, men have had responsibility of running things and been at the cutting-edge of conflicts – and somehow we have not shifted from that enough. Now, women are in more or less every arena. It’s a bit of an over-generalisation, but we don’t tend to operate through conflict so much.

“We therefore make very good subjects for novels – where it’s a slower burn and where things are formulated over a longer period of time. But in short, punchy dramas, women have to be wicked or silly,” she said.

The actress said the situation has improved in theatre, but accused film of being the worst offending sector when it came to being too male-focused.

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