Atwood and Waters in BBC Virago documentary

Atwood and Waters in BBC Virago documentary

The BBC's one-hour documentary about women's publisher Virago, founded at a time when publishing was "aggressively male", is set to feature contributions from authors including Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Sarah Dunant, Maya Angelou and Naomi Wolf, alongside past and present Virago editors.

Originally entitled "The Virago Story", as reported on in June, the documentary commissioned by Mark Bell, head of arts commissioning for the BBC, and produced by Claire Whalley from What Larks Productions, has since been renamed "Virago: Changing the World One Page at A Time", and is scheduled to air on BBC Four at 10pm on 31st October.

Naomi Wolf

It will outline Virago’s development alongside the history of the women’s movement, taking viewers up to a new generation of women 40 years on, and featuring the women – authors and editors – who are involved with the publishing house today. Cut-aways include illustrative footage from the period it sprung from, such as the first UK Women's Liberation Conference, as well as production shots of the printing of Virago's books at Clays, and old photographs of Virago's editors.

The story of the publishing house is told by some of the original Virago team - Carmen Callil, Ursula Owen, Harriet Spicer, Lennie Goodings, now Virago publisher, and Alexandra Pringle, now editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury - who begin by explaining that in the '60s and '70s, "It was a man's world", where "a lot of publishing was like a gentleman's club". Callil, who founded the press in 1973 after being inspired by radical feminist magazine Spare Rib (the co-founder for which also features in the film), recalls the sexism within the industry, where roles for women were strictly limited to publicity and marketing, and, "Nobody ever told you you could run anything".

The Virago founders

As well as discussing the concept of feminism as a "dirty word" and the different strains and waves of it that exist, the documentary divulges the pressures staff were under, even taking out loans and investing their own money into the company. It provides candid character portraits of the trail-blazing editors in its history, too, including insight into the "ferocious row" caused between Owen and Callil, after Callil was headhunted by Chatto & Windus as m.d. and wanted to bring Virago with her. It also touches on their management buy-out from Cape, Chatto & Bodley Head, "hard" times during the '90s and the selling of the company to Little, Brown over Bloomsbury in 1995.

Their telling of Virago's story is split into "chapters" and complemented by interviews with authors, colleagues including Tim Hely Hutchinson, group chief executive for Hachette UK, and Quartet Books co-founder John Boothe, and commentators, such as journalist Jon Snow and feminist historians Professor Sheila Rowbotham and Catherine Riley, to give context to the ethos behind Virago and its drive to reclaim women’s literature. 

"Virago: Changing the World One Page at A Time" airs on BBC Four at 10pm on 31st October.