This article is an excerpt from the first issue of Female Founders Magazine. You can download the full magazine here.
**Words and interview by Sara Gibbings**
The newly elected President of Equity, Lynda Rooke, has a busy term ahead with an agenda that includes tackling bullying and harassment in the industry, the “disappearing” of older women, misrepresentation and underrepresentation, and the long hours and poor working conditions faced by many in the creative industries.
She is also one of the most recognizable faces in British theatre and television. “I think I’ve done all the soaps except for Eastenders and Emmerdale,” she muses. With stints on Brookside, Casualty, Doctors, Hollyoaks and Coronation Street, as well as roles in The Bill, Silent Witness and Inspector Lewis to name but a few, Lynda has been a presence in homes across the country for decades.
She is currently back in Corrie playing Lucy Woodrow, Stu Carpenter’s ex-wife, a character which she laughingly says one fan described as ‘being the kind of woman who’d punch you to get the last Viennetta knock-off at Aldi’.
One of the barriers of entry to and promotion within the creative industries in England is class, something that Lynda has both witnessed and experienced firsthand.
Acting wasn’t on the cards for Lynda, who grew up in a working class family in Lancaster. Going to an all-girls school she never did drama but enjoyed “a bit of dance” at school and was certainly up for taking part in the school plays as that was an opportunity to meet lads from the boys’ school. She had been on course to study geography, with a likely career in teaching ahead, but at the last minute, she changed her mind. “I’m not doing this!” she exclaimed and expressed a desire to act.
Her dad, a nurse, was not impressed, and her Headmistress told her “not to be ridiculous” but her mum, a school dinner lady who loved art but never had the chance to pursue it, was more encouraging.
“I marched down to the local careers office and asked how to apply to Drama School”. In the days of having to write and post letters, Lynda nervously waited to hear back and was over the moon when she won a place at the East 15 School of Acting in Essex.
“It was so rare for someone of my accent and background to go there”, she says, and there was “no way in hell’s chance” that she could have afforded to attend were it not for her student grant, something that she is grateful for to this day. “If I ever win a big award, I’ll thank the person in the Preston Office who transferred my student grant for me.”
Thanks to a series of small parts in theatre while she was still at East 15, Lynda graduated with her Equity Card and went off to tread the boards. Among her favourite plays is Trafford Tanzi; a play set in a wrestling ring, where she learned to wrestle from the likes of Brian Glover, and which she describes as “political, on a small scale”. She toured all over the UK with the play, thoroughly enjoying “jumping off the ropes” every night, despite the bruises and injuries.
A two-year stint at the RSC led to Lynda getting an agent. “I wanted to do more telly”. She also has done brilliant film work, including working on Naked with Mike Leigh, who Lynda describes as “very laid back, decisive and versatile.”
Being pregnant and having children whilst working in the creative industries, particularly if filming on set or on location, can be incredibly challenging and leads to the dropping out of hugely talented and experienced women due to childcare costs, long hours, or simply just not getting the jobs in the first place.
It was on a Victoria Wood project with Celia Imrie, where Lynda saw it didn’t have to be the case. Lynda and Celia were both pregnant at the time and Lynda feared it would be a problem and she’d miss out on the role, but Victoria Wood didn’t bat an eyelid about it and they all just got on with the show.
Campaigning for affordable childcare is something that is very much on Lynda’s current agenda. “The industry is haemorrhaging”, she exclaims, “Women in their forties are slipping away. They can’t survive [financially]. We need to push, push, push for change. We need to have tax relief on childcare.”
But it’s not just younger women who face undue pressures and challenges in the creative industries, it is older women as well. Once women hit menopause they “are made to disappear” says Lynda. Older women are pushed out, particularly on screen, and when they are on screen it is all too often in an insultingly nostalgic way. “They’re portrayed as curtain-twitchers”, she says, infuriated.
The vast and often ridiculous age differences between male and female on-screen partners only serve to further deepen the invisibility of older women. From big budget films like James Bond, to smaller scale BBC series, the lack of male-female partners of similar age is, in 2022, unnecessary and outdated.
Has she seen an improvement for women, particularly on screen, over the course of her career? “Not really… not enough”, she laments.
“We need better investment across the sector”, Lynda insists, citing the need for genuine (not token) investment in new writing and ways of working. As to why the creative industries have been slow to change? “You have to look at who the gatekeepers are,” and says that despite a nod towards diversity, England, in particular is still very much entrenched in a class-based system. “They need to think outside of the f***ing box!”
Assumptions are made “when people hear my working-class accent,” Lynda states matter-of-factly. In the early years of her activism “I got a lot mansplaining”, so she now holds a First-Class Degree in Economics, as well as a Masters in Social Science. “This has given me confidence in a man’s world”.
The tendency to copy successful shows, or milk them ad nauseam is another way the industry keeps new writers at bay. “As much as I love the show, EVERYONE wants another Fleabag”. “And look at Downtown”, she sighs, “How many motherf*****g Downtons do we need?”. ”Well”, she quips, with a devilish grin, “at least they are being green and recycling!”
Lynda feels fortunate to have started her career without the presence of social media as “it can be awful”. As an activist she says, she has been subject to online abuse “whether I speak up or I remain silent”. She prefers to use social media for positive messages and engagement.
Body shaming on social media is something she considers to be a very serious problem for mental health in the creative industries, adding that it’s not just women and people identifying as women who are objectified and pressured, often ending up with disordered eating and life-threatening conditions, but men and those identifying as men suffer greatly too. “The pressure to be a size zero” is brutal and, this feeds into and perpetuates the misrepresentation and under-representation of many in the industry.
While costs skyrocket but budgets in theatre and television remain largely unchanged, the pressure increases for companies and this can lead to undesirable and even unsafe working conditions. With “schedules being tightened”, crew working very long days without proper breaks, and not always being given paid accommodation, “everyone ends up as frazzled as f***!” She urges production companies to have an open and honest dialogue with Equity so they can work out issues together before they get on set.
Filming on location and being President of Equity doesn’t leave Lynda with much spare time, but she loves going to theatre, listening and taking part in political podcasts, watching documentaries, and checking out YouTube. She raves about Bad Sisters on Apple TV+, Sharon Horgan’s brilliantly funny Irish adaption of the Flemish series Clan.
Storytelling is clearly in Lynda’s bones and her passion for acting is equaled only by her commitment to levelling the playing field for everyone. “The creative industries are an economic powerhouse; they generate a phenomenal amount of money”, but there is still a reluctance to see them as a future cornerstone of the British Economy, something, she reiterates, that Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, fully agreed with.
“I can’t change the world”, Lynda acknowledges, “but I can have an impact by improving the working lives of people in the creative industries”.
This article is an excerpt from the first issue of Female Founders Magazine. You can download the full magazine here