Trouble and strife

Words:
Pamela Buxton

If you’re struggling with gender inequality in practice, thank your lucky stars you don’t work at Gillies Warnock Architects

Ellen (Morven Christie) and her maternity cover Paula (Vicky McClure) in The Replacement, a BBC thriller set in a Glasgow architectural practice.
Ellen (Morven Christie) and her maternity cover Paula (Vicky McClure) in The Replacement, a BBC thriller set in a Glasgow architectural practice.

Well this is timely. As survey after survey highlights the persistent difficulties of combining a career in architecture with motherhood, along comes a tv drama exploring just this theme.

Written and directed by Joe Ahearne, The Replacement is a thriller set in fictitious Glasgow practice Gillies Warnock Architects. Our sparky heroine Ellen (played by Morven Christie) finds out she’s pregnant after winning a major library project for the practice via competition. The drama unfolds after the hiring of her seemingly super-efficient maternity cover Paula (Vicky McClure) whose overlapping presence in the studio increasingly undermines Ellen’s position in the practice. But is Ellen, with her apparently all-at-sea mother-to-be hormones, imagining Paula’s ever-so-subtle subterfuge as she constantly refers to motherhood in their business conversations and unwantedly touches Ellen’s bump? Or is Paula, who we are led to believe is hiding some dark secret, really as scheming as Ellen believes? And if so, to what end? Surely there are easier ways to land a job in architecture. Or does she have another agenda…

This is all very watchable and gripping, if faintly ridiculous in its depiction of architectural practice – from the opening scene of the architectural model of the competition-winning project being doused in champagne to the miraculously fast gestation of the library. The robust client is treated as a delicate creature who mustn’t be overburdened with too much new information at once while the architects spend an awful lot of time lurking around the building site after hours in the dark.  A lot is made of the addition of a skylight to the design – so much so that we know this is leading to something, and it certainly does in the dramatic climax of the first episode.

The robust client is treated as a delicate creature who mustn’t be overburdened with too much new information at once while the architects spend an awful lot of time lurking around the building site after hours in the dark

But what does the story say about women and architecture? Let’s just say this drama wouldn’t make good careers guidance for encouraging women into the profession. The overwhelming message is that architecture and women is a toxic mix. In The Replacement, the choice seems to be don't have children, as was practice boss’s Kay’s choice, or have children and decide whether to give up work for 10 years to look after them, or attempt both career and motherhood and risk your world crashing down around you. There is no sense of any middle ground.  Surely this isn’t the first time anyone at the practice – which has been going at least 10 years – has been pregnant? Yet when Ellen tells her bosses their reaction is to laugh at the very preposterousness of the idea. They are then initially incredibly supportive, so much so that you know it will all end in tears – and in Ellen’s case her suspension for a health and safety transgression reported by Paula.

This is just a drama, for entertainment, but there are things I’m uncomfortable with. Many women in the real architectural world face sexism from men. But in The Replacement, it is women who are both the victims and the culprits – whether through sly manipulative behaviour (Paula) or Ellen’s uncharacteristic meanness in making Paula do a key presentation at the drop of a hat in the misguided hope that she’d fail. There’s no sisterhood here, just instability. Women pursuing a career in architecture are, it seems, either hormonally deranged, coldly manipulative, or end up dead.

But I’m gripped. Were any of the main protagonists involved in the first episode’s  death? What’s the big secret lurking in Paula’s past? Who will triumph, and at what cost? And will that library ever get finished?

The Replacement continues on BBC 1 at 9pm on Tuesdays, March 7 & 14 and is available on iPlayer