BBC shines light on 'inspiring' Virago women

BBC shines light on 'inspiring' Virago women

Virago has been praised as "brave" and "inspiring" from people in the trade after a BBC documentary traced the history of the women's publisher from its early-1970s roots to the present day.

The documentary, which aired last night (31st October) 10pm on BBC Four, featured well-known authors including Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Sarah Dunant, Maya Angelou and Naomi Wolf, alongside past and present Virago editors.

Marianne Velmans, publisher at Doubleday, tweeted that the editors were "heroes" in her eyes, and agent Karolina Sutton hailed them "trailblazers". 

Virago's founders

Editorial director at Bloomsbury, Alison Hennessey, tweeted that she "loved" the documentary and reviewer Eric Karl Anderson summarised the programme as "inspiring & heartfelt women bringing books by women to the public".

The documentary, called "Virago: Changing the World One Page at A Time", was commissioned by Mark Bell, head of arts commissioning for the BBC, and produced by Claire Whalley from What Larks Productions. It starred the original Virago team - Carmen Callil, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Lennie Goodings, now Virago publisher, and Alexandra Pringle, now editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury - in a series of frank interviews. 

Goodings, publisher for Virago and one of the documentary's stars, told The Bookseller this morning: "I've been flooded with texts, tweets and emails. So gratifying to read that people feel so strongly about Virago. We had no editorial control so I was nervous about the project but I think Claire Whalley at What Larks has done a very fine job of capturing our history - and our present too. Lots of people have emailed saying they found it inspiring. The power of the book - and particularly books by women who want to change the world - is not diminished."

Lennie Goodings

The documentrary explored the "man's world" from which Virago sprung in 1973, with the help of broadcaster Jon Snow, Quartet Books co-founder John Boothe, and feminist historians Professor Sheila Rowbotham and Catherine Riley, revealing publishing was "like a gentleman's club", where, in Callil's words, "Nobody ever told you you could run anything". 

The programme also revealed the "ferocious row" which took place between Owen and Callil, after the latter was headhunted by Chatto & Windus for the position of m.d. and wanted to bring Virago with her. It also touched on the publisher's management buy-out from Cape, Chatto & Bodley Head, "hard" times during the 1990s and the sale of the company to Little, Brown over Bloomsbury in 1995.

Carmen Callil and Mary Chamberlain

Tim Hely Hutchinson, group c.e.o for Virago's parent company Hachette UK, put the publisher's success down to its "integrity" in the documentary. In a clip filmed in the Hachette offices, he said: "Because it's got integrity, Virago is successful. If it started saying 'Oh, well, we can have a little sub-imprint that does boy-meets-girl romances,' I think everyone would think that Virago is selling out, and it would be much less successful. So there is absolutely no impetus from me or anyone else for Virago to do anything other than stick to its guns." ​

After watching the documentary last night, Hely Hutchinson added today: "I enjoyed the programme very much.  It was a great treat to have an hour of intelligent and entertaining film-making devoted to publishing. If I have one observation  it would be that I should have liked more to be said about Virago's vibrant publishing now - perhaps a little less of the 'august old lady' and a bit more of their dynamic 21st century publishing, under Lennie, that includes Sarah Waters, Marilynne Robinson and many of the best contemporary novelists writing today."