This Britcom is full of strong women and cruel humor
by MATTHEW GAULT
Two boys scuffled in the schoolyard, provoking their teacher to punish them with a stern talking-to. The mothers of both boys watch, and grow angry when the kids walk away with untanned hides.
“What was that love in?” one mother says. “I want that Archie boy properly disciplined. You should have used your cane.”
“I don’t have a cane,” George, the teacher, says.
“Fine, whatever you use to beat them. You know what I mean,” the mother retorts.
“We’re at cross purposes here,” George says. “I don’t beat my pupils at all. I don’t believe that resorting to violence is ever acceptable.”
His words hang in the air. George’s pacifist stance horrifies both women. “I’m taking my child out of this school,” the first mother says.
“We demand you cane our beautiful, innocent babes,” says the other. “They’ve done nothing wrong.”
It’s 1914 in Britain and the women of Rittle-on-Sea are tired of George’s shit. Almost every able-bodied man in town signed up to beat back the Hun, but the school teacher stayed behind as a conscientious objector.
The women of Rittle aim to make his life a living Hell.
This is Chickens, a British comedy about the men who stayed home during World War I and the women who tortured them for it.
Chickens centers on three men in the small village of Rittle-on-Sea. George owns a cottage, teaches school and spends his days begging his fiance Winky not to leave him. Cecil wants to join the Army, but they won’t take him because he’s got flat feet. Bert is a womanizing scoundrel and coward who barely understands there’s a war on.
The women of the village make all three men social outcasts. They huddle together in George’s cottage, riding out the war with the women while the other men are away. It’s a bizarre premise for a comedy, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Chickens runs just six episodes, which is the perfect amount for a show set during the early days of the Great War.
The three boys scramble to do basic repairs to their home, break into the fancy house of a rich man away at war and seek female company despite the entire town hating them. Even the village leper refuses their dinner invitations.
It’s a strange premise that makes for solid comedic moments. It’s also rooted in reality.
Britain’s military was an all-volunteer force during the first two years of World War I. Hundreds of thousands signed up, but many others stayed home. Parliament ran an aggressive propaganda campaign designed to shame men into joining.
One poster from the era depicts a family staring out a window as soldiers walk away. “Women of Britain say GO!” the poster demands. Another shows a family man smoking a pipe and staring at the reader while his daughter dawdles in his lap. “Daddy,” she asks. “What did YOU do in the Great War?”
Then Adm. Charles Penrose Fitzgerald had an idea … and things got strange. The 1902 novel The Four Feathers tells the story of a Brit who quit the military to the shame of his peers. In the book, the main character’s fiance breaks off their engagement and gives him a white feather meant to symbolize his cowardice.
Fitzgerald thought the idea of women offering white feathers to cowards was a great way to drum up recruits, so he organized a group of 30 women to go feathering. The practice spread, and British women took the streets to give out feathers to men they felt had shirked their duties.
The White Feather Brigades were so popular, in large part, because of the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement. British women still couldn’t vote in the early decades of the 20th century, but powerful feminist leaders had organized a movement that swayed public opinion.
That leadership saw the feather-shaming movement as a powerful opportunity.
“It was the intent of ‘The White Feather Brigade’ to shame the unenlisted of Britain into service, and, by doing so, to demonstrate their own patriotic quintessence as women by illuminating the unpatriotic nature of men,” Robin MacDonald wrote in White Feather Feminism for Ampersand magazine.
“The justification or appropriateness of these ‘featherings’ was often of no concern — many men, just returned from active duty, were presented with this symbol of cowardice … These women were, fundamentally, comparing their own characters to those of the men. It was in this instance that the women could be backed by a ‘patriotic intent’ in their effort to show the men for what they were — to show them as not only repressive, but also as inherently weak and not deserving of their favored status.”
Chickens makes comedy out of this tension between strong women and cowardly men. The ladies run everything in Rittle-on-Sea, and Cecil and the boys don’t know how to handle it.
When the boys’ water runs brown from the tap, they beg the ruling council to help them fix it. The women wave them off with derision. “We don’t have access to clean water until the men get back,” Cecil tells the boys.
“When will that be?” Bert asks.
“I dunno, probably a fortnight at least.”
“I know this war would have victims and it’s us, Cecil,” Bert moans. “It’s us.”
Early in the series, village matriarch Agnes tells Bert she wants a romantic relationship with him while her husband is away. She hates him, but she also doesn’t want go to without sex. “I’ve decided to keep you,” she explains.
“Because I’m a man?” Bert beams.
“Well, why then?”
“No,” she says. “Because you’re sort of a man.”
Later in the series, Cecil realizes the women in the village no longer revile him. As he walks about town they treat him with respect, dignity and care. His happiness at this change shatters when he realizes they treat him so well because they’ve decided he’s no longer a man.
In Chickens, shame and ridicule work. The village ostracizes the three guys, and it’s so successful (and awful) they don’t recover even when the soldiers return home.
Millions of British men volunteered before Parliament enacted conscription in 1916. By that time, the suffragette plan to shame the weak men who stayed home worked, too.
The United Kingdom took its first steps toward voting rights for women in 1918, in no small part to the aggressively patriotic stance of the women who stayed behind when Britain went to war.