In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: The media representation of fathers

ANDY Murray is to get a range of Royal Mail stamps to himself next month. It’s a tribute to what was achieved through the determined application of physical, emotional and mental effort over years.

However, there’s someone I would like to meet more. I look for him when I watch Andy play on TV. It’s his father, Will.

He is so often there, yet never pushes himself to the fore.

I often think of the role of fathers. As a stepfather, I am perhaps more self-conscious.

I was invited on to Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye programme recently, to discuss the media representation of fathers.

The catalyst was a survey by the website Netmums – reported here in The Independent newspaper – about the representation of fathers in the media.

They were generally painted as feckless and incompetent. Too often, the image was of David Threlfall’s character in Shameless, Hugh Dennis’s in Outnumbered and Homer Simpson.

Last month, the Centre for Social Justice reported that one million children ‘have no meaningful contact with their fathers’.

Different views are possible about the media portrayal of fathers. These scripts are mostly written my men, so you could conclude men feel secure in their roles and can caricature themselves. Or perhaps they do so because they feel insecure in their roles.

Or is it lazy writing? In crime dramas, for example, the hero is so often dysfunctional, unable to sustain relationships and, if he has children, they are estranged.

If it is ‘mould-breaking’, just change the paragraph above to: “The heroine is so often dysfunctional….” etc.

Is this the demands of the genre, or an inability to break out of the genre?

It can be difficult making well-adjusted characters interesting. Even Anthony Horowitz, one of our finest television writers, could not make Mr and Mrs Barnaby in Midsomer Murders fascinating.

When he created Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War, he gave him both a good and interesting relationship with his son, but he made Michael Kitchen’s character a widower and he had a world war as the backdrop.

When Russell Lewis created the sequel to Morse he had a ready-made happily married detective with children in Kevin Whately’s Lewis. What did the writer do? The wife was killed off even before the first episode began.

Another Morse spin-off, Endeavour, does give one of the heroes a family background. Roger Allam, as the young Morse’s boss, Inspector Thursday, has a wife, children and home-cooked meals. But this is so safely buried in the 1950s that it is almost a pastiche.

Drama demands conflict – which too many soap operas equate simply with shouting matches – and good fathers can appear boring. Their job is to be an additional source of security for their children.

My wife once said it was a compliment that our children, now grown up, used to treat me like part of the furniture. It meant they could rely on me. Judging by our son’s phone call from offshore on Father’s Day and the exceptional bottle of wine from our daughter, she was right.

But is it so difficult to write about a functional family with fathers even as the background to crime plots?

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.