Birmingham is going back in time to the 1950s for a new TV crime series. Roz Laws goes on set.
From the outside, it’s a nondescript, rundown building in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
But the first clue to what’s inside is a sign at the top of a steep flight of stairs.
“Down to cells,” it points.
I open the door and it’s like travelling back in time. Men with Brylcreemed quiffs and Teddy Boy jackets walk past – and there are a lot of policemen milling about.
This building has been transformed into a 1950s police station for a new BBC1 drama.
WPC 56, to be screened every afternoon next week, is about Gina Dawson, the first policewoman to work at Brinford Police Station in a fictional suburb of Birmingham.
She’s played by Coventry actress Jennie Jacques, who is wrapped up against the freezing cold of the police station in a thick red quilted coat – plus a hairnet to protect her 1950s do.
On the sideboard is a one pound note and large old penny, while a copy of racing paper The Turf from 1953 lies on a desk, next to an old-fashioned phone and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts.
And on the wall is a map of Brinford, suburb of Birmingham, where the headquarters of the Midlands Constabulary are based.
The first episode begins with Gina running to catch a bus on her first day.
“Do I look the part?” she asks the conductor, putting on her police officer’s hat.
“Criminals of Birmingham beware,” he smiles.
But her colleagues don’t have the same faith in her abilities.
“Never forget that your sole responsibility is to support the men, so they can get on with the job of real policing,” her boss tells her, before she is shown to her office – a broom cupboard.
She is set to work making tea, finding lost dogs and doing the typing for the male officers, and at the end of her first shift she is subjected to the embarrassing initiation rite of being rubber stamped on her thigh.
When allowed some input into a case, her deductions are dismissed as ‘women’s intuition’.
WPC Dawson is a trailblazer, as hardly any women were employed as police officers in 1956 – and they were expected to leave the force when they married.
“The script for WPC 56 really grabbed me,” says Jennie, relaxing between takes. “What Gina does is very unusual and not really socially acceptable.
“After training for two years, she’s excited to work on cases but she’s just expected to make the tea for the men. Her office is literally a broom cupboard.
“To be the only woman in a man’s world is very daunting and she really has to prove herself.
“You would have thought that, with the progress women made at work during the war, they would be doing well in the 1950s.
“But it seems the Government clamped down on that and promoted the idea of the perfect housewife. A woman’s place was at home, cooking and cleaning.”
Jennie reveals she was surprised just how few women police officers there were in the 1950s.
“I’m obsessive about doing lots of research and being as realistic as possible, but it was quite difficult in this case,” she admits.
“I was shocked. It was almost as if WPCs are missing from history. It was even quite hard to find anything to help me at the West Midlands Police Museum, there just weren’t many records or photos of women in the 1950s.
“But at least I found Gina easy to play personality-wise, as she’s quite similar to me. I’m quite blunt like her, and if I don’t agree with something I will speak up.”
Jennie was born at Walsgrave Hospital and grew up in Coventry, Leamington and Warwick.
“I’ve kept my natural Midlands accent for this role as all my family are from Coventry and the producers thought it sounded close enough to Birmingham.”
Jennie actually ditched Hollywood for the chance to work on home ground.
“I was supposed to be going to Los Angeles for auditions and had told my agent not to send me any more scripts,” she remembers.
“But he said I’d want to see this. The lead role in a drama is a great opportunity.”
WPC 56 features a cast of 50 speaking characters and a crew of 60, many of whom have also worked on Doctors in Birmingham.
The team also made the BBC1 daytime hit Father Brown, starring Mark Williams, which has just been commissioned for a second series.
Filming locations for WPC 56 included the Black Country Living Museum, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham Town Hall, Victoria Law Courts, the Electric Cinema and Dudley Zoo.
The front of Brinford police station is the facade of the old Birmingham Library, now the Birmingham and Midland Institute on Margaret Street.
The cast includes Birmingham-born John Light, as Chief Inspector Roger Nelson, who is hiding a dark secret which could get him arrested, and Cannock actor Chris Overton as PC Eddie Coulson.
The man behind WPC 56 is Will Trotter, the head of drama at BBC Birmingham and the series’ executive producer, who describes it as ‘Call the Midwife meets The Killing’.
He explains its origins: “I was having a conversation with the BBC daytime controller, who had commissioned a series about how policing had changed through the decades.
“He was talking about doing a remake of Dixon of Dock Green.
“But I’d seen a script by Dominique Moloney about a WPC in 1950s Birmingham and that seemed an interesting take on the period.
“We look at sexism and bullying in the workplace as well as crimes like murder, rape and child abuse. It’s a proper crime serial and a lot happens over five episodes.
“It’s a daytime drama, shown every afternoon for a week, so we have to get the tone right.
“I don’t want it to be too dark and grim, but I want our crimes to be as real as possible. I’d say it’s grittier than Heartbeat, but there’s a lot of humour in WPC 56 as well.
“I’m hoping for a Sunday teatime repeat, as it has that nostalgic feel people like.
“The 1950s are a fascinating period, full of gangs, teenagers and Teddy Boys. Things came into fashion that we take for granted now, like taking foreign holidays.”
The truck holding the wardrobe department is a treasure trove of 1950s clothes – prom-style dresses with petticoats, cigarette pants, pencil skirts, twinsets and drainpipe trousers.
“The biggest challenge was to be completely correct as far as the uniforms went,” says costume supervisor Claire Collins.
“We’ve been working with the West Midlands Police Museum to get things like the badges looking authentic.
“We use 1950s clothes where possible or copies of original pieces.
“Gina’s uniform has been tailored for her figure to make it a bit more flattering, and she’s wearing period underwear – a ‘waspie’ basque to get a cinched in waist and a pointed bra to get what’s known as a ‘bullet bust’.”
Out of uniform Jennie may look very different, but she insists that 2013 isn’t so different from Gina’s day.
“Even though WPC 56 was nearly 60 years ago, sexism still exists now,” she declares.
“It’s not quite as bad as for Gina, but members of my family still think it’s odd that I’m independent and don’t cook, clean and want babies.
“They expect me to settle down and have a family.
“There may not be quite such overt sexism as in Gina’s day, but TV is still a male-dominated industry. There were four men at my audition who decided if I got the job.
“But I hope women are slowly taking over! And if it wasn’t for ground-breaking women like Gina, I wouldn’t have the choices I have now.”
* WPC 56 is screened on BBC1 from Monday to Friday at 2.15pm.