Once Upon a Time There Were Three Little Girls Who Went to the Police Academy…

...and changed the lives of teenagers everywhere. Julie Burchill was one of them. 

I don't know about you, but when I'm auditioning people to be my friend, there are a few questions I always try to run by them, casual-like. First, I'll want to know if they've ever said "Enjoy" in that sickening way only sad little castrates incapable of enjoying anything do. Then I'll want to know that they're not going to be dreary and boring about the loyalty thing, and that we both understand that if a better offer comes up and Kate Moss wants either of us to be her best friend on pain of never seeing the other one again, then naturally it's all off. But the third question is, inevitably, the tie-breaker. Answered right, I'll pass on the other two. And it is: Who was your favourite Charlie's Angel?

Now some people might think that this is a trick question. The coolest Charlie's Angel of all time was Tanya Roberts as Julie, the last draftee before the show's cancellation. Unlike the other girls who must have married their Carmen rollers, Julie had poker-straight hair and a voice full of guts and gravel compared to their breathy babeishness. Tanya turned out to be pretty damned cool, too; a tough, working-class, New York girl with a nice line in put-downs and - it eventually transpired in the Sunday papers - a liking for Cocaine Sex Parties With French Girls.

But that's beside the point. The draftees don't matter: if you say that Tanya was your favourite, or Shelley Hack, or even Cheryl Ladd, you're missing the point. Only Jill (Farrah Fawcett), Sabrina (Kate Jackson) and Kelly (Jaclyn Smith) really matter, really signify in the rich tapestry of pop culture. It's like Boss Cat also being called Top Cat, or ignoring the fact that there was more than one Darrin in Bewitched - if you have to ask you'll never understand. The correct answer is, of course, "Jaclyn!" - said with a gasp before and a sigh afterwards.

Jaclyn, Jaclyn - beautiful Jaclyn Smith, with the gimmicky name and the timeless beauty, as completely and uniquely herself as Helen of Troy or Sade Adu. A sphinx without a secret, an angel without wings, a Jewish girl from one of the richest retailing families in Texas, Jaclyn was always something of a mystery, which is a mystery itself in a business where the participants are only too happy to splurge every last detail of their private lives in our faces. All we knew about her, really, was that she'd been married to a man called Roger but they divorced, and all we know now is that she eventually married a Scots technician she met on the set of a TV film and had a baby which she called Gaston. But, hey, nobody's perfect.

You weren't meant to like Jaclyn best - Farrah, "Jill", was the sexy one, and Kate, "Sabrina", was the "clever" one (which meant she was flat-chested). But Farrah had a vulpine, masculine face beneath her spectacular blondeness and Kate had a witchy little voice. My friend had a theory that women liked Jaclyn because she was divorced - whereas Farrah was smugly married and Kate stroppily single, Jaclyn combined both the idealism and combativeness of the modern woman, thus resulting in her divorcee status. It was her character who was immortalised on the most resonant and haunting LP of recent years - Air's Moon Safari, with Kelly, Watch the Stars. I once recall the Air boys, in their charmingly halting English, explaining themselves: "Eet ees not Jaclyn Smeeth we are so fascinated by, eet ees Kellee. We think of Kellee as being the most perfect person, ever."

But for myself and most of the other teenage girls who grew up with Charlie's Angels, it was hard to tell where Jaclyn stopped and Kelly started, as indeed it was with the other actresses. Farrah really was a sports-mad airhead, we could tell, and Kate was obviously a bit of a cow. But it didn't matter; the original triumvirate of Angels, lasting only from 1976 to 1978, were as perfect as a circle. If Jill was sporty, Sabrina was analytical; if Sabrina was abrasive, Kelly was comforting; if Kelly was soft, Jill was crisp. When Farrah left after only one season - her character Jill Munroe being replaced by Cheryl Ladd, as Jill's younger sister Chris - the circle slumped and became a sort of squidgy oval. By the time Shelley and Tanya had been substituted, the show was a big, shapeless mess. When it was finally cancelled in 1981, after 109 episodes, everyone had had a gut-full.

It was all so different in the beginning. ABC was always the poor relation of American TV networks, ranking lowest ever since its creation and only ever managing a couple of really big shows, one of which was Happy Days. Obviously, they were delighted when Charlie's Angels became the top show of the 1976-77 season and the only new show on any network to become an out-and-out hit. By the end of the first run, 59% of all televisions in use when the show was aired were tuned into it: 23m households. And it never left the Nielsen top 10 for its first three years. There were further surprises when a breakdown of the audience showed that it had ranked fourth in metropolitan areas, seventh amongst college graduates and seventh with the highest-income group. The girls got 18,000 letters a week and ABC charged the highest advertisement rate ever for commercials: $100,000 a minute by the end of the first season.

A lot of rubbish is talked these days about girl power and how Charlie's Angels were there first, and an equal amount about how exploitative and sexist it all was. In truth, it was neither: neither saint nor sinner, dom nor sub. It was, instead, one of those sublime, silly, shimmering moments when popular culture gets it absolutely right, like Mony Mony, Coca-Cola or The Simpsons. Up until the 1970s, women on American TV shows had been housewives and mothers; even big stars asked us to suspend our credibility and buy them as dizzy broads forever being scolded by their hubbies. Then Mary Tyler Moore, who had spent the 1960s as the archetypal American angel of the hearth in the Dick Van Dyke Show, reinvented her self as a bold yet vulnerable big city career girl for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

So great was the resonance of this show that Oprah Winfrey, by then the most powerful woman on TV, would be reduced to tears when she greeted a frail, much older Tyler Moore on an episode of Oprah. You'd have needed a heart of stone not to whimper along as Winfrey recalled how, during her impoverished and abused youth in a deep south shack, this paragon of white WASPishness had been her greatest inspiration in holding on to the dream.

That's how desperate we were then for TV heroines who weren't wives and mothers; Mary Tyler Moore, stuttering in fear before her fierce editor Lou Grant, seemed like the shining path. In this context, it's not surprising that the Angels - with their guns, judo throws and ability to escape from any situation unscathed, no matter how savage or sordid - seemed like salvation.

Would they have been the same if they'd been called The Alley Cats? This was what Aaron Spelling, who created the show as a vehicle for Kate Jackson, star of his series The Rookies, wanted them to be known as. Another abandoned blueprint was that they would be three undercover policewomen; in a typical act of puny yet pungent Lib-Lite, Jackson suggested that the trio should instead be private investigators who had not been able to advance in the male-dominated LAPD, and that Angels was rather less offensively stereotyped than Alley Cats.

It was Jackson, the most conventionally feminist-minded of the actresses, who suggested the gimmick of the ever-absent Charlie - and, though this has since been reinterpreted as a terminally chauvinistic touch, I think there is something to be said for the way it added to the male-free feeling of the show, to a degree unparalleled before or since. Even the "real woman" dramas of Kay Mellor feature the boyfriends and husbands of the heroines week in, week out; but Angel-land truly was an Adam-less Eden in which the only men were agents of evil or disposable dupes.

Once in a while you'd see them get off with some Brett Rockjaw at the end of the show, but next week, they'd be back on the couches together waiting for the word from Charlie, and none of the previous week's romantic nuances would ever be mentioned. At a time when the only test of maturity is whether or not you have an all-important boyfriend, the Angels indicated that it was really grown-up and glamorous not to bother with that stuff at all.

Or perhaps the motivation was more sinister, in the way that pop star scream idols were always instructed by the management to appear single at all times (it says a lot for John Lennon's "integrity" that he kept his wife Cynthia under wraps for years; Ronan Keating never bothered). Perhaps the Angels were made to appear permanently unattached so that male audiences would become more loyal and more partisan about their Angel.

While women watched to see women doing "men's jobs" in fancy frocks, men were apparently attracted by what came to be known as the "jiggle factor". Typically, at least one Angel will be put in a position where she must strip down to a bikini in the first 10 minutes, or thereafter bring the future of western civilisation into question. The episode titles were all a big tease, too, the first season containing the notorious Angels in Chains as well as Consenting Adults, Dirty Business, Lady Killers and The Blue Angels. The last was an investigation into the pornography industry, but the Angels kept those bikinis on.

Call me an old-fashioned girl, but I would much rather have been an actress in the days of tease and jiggle than now, when every role offered to women between the ages of 18 and 35 will at some point include a close-up gynaecological examination. But that, as they say, was then. This is now. Now there's a film. When Drew Barrymore took it into her head to produce a big budget Charlie's Angels movie a couple of years back, you could practically hear the horny hands rubbing all across Hollywood at the prospect of every guy's favourite fantasy - the catfight - played out between mega-babes.

When it was confirmed that Cameron Diaz (aka Sexy Blonde Ex-Model) and Lucy Liu (aka Horny Oriental Wildcat) would star alongside Drew (aka Curvy Bisexual Wildchild), the media flew into a frenzy of activity detailing alleged friction and fur-pulling between the three and a spectacular bomb at the box office. It didn't happen and the film opened earlier this month to take $40m on its first weekend, going straight to the top of the film charts and staying there.

Diaz, Liu and Barrymore are good actresses and cool icons - but they seem diminished by playing the Angels in a way that the original cast did not. This is, I think, because they are taking it far too seriously, trying to make a feminist statement in an arena which is singularly unsuited to it. The problem is most clearly illustrated with the theme song, by the clumping Destiny's Child: "We're independent women/ All the honeys got the money/ All the mommas got the dollars." Which is blatantly both untrue and horribly self-righteous. What was fine as throwaway seems utterly demeaning as a big deal.

I was hardly a sweet innocent thing during the reign of the Angels - when it started, in 1976, I was a scrappy young punk of 16; and when it ended, in 1981, I was a notoriously cynical young madam of 21. But it spoke to me in those difficult years, nevertheless, about the gap between what you want and what you need, and - more importantly - between what it says on the shampoo bottle and the hair you end up with. I still can't hear that beautiful, yearning, swirling theme song - which spoke to us nervous young suburban virgins of career girls and swank apartments and sumptuous loneliness beside a swimming pool - without smiling and thinking, yep, it was worth it after all.

In its purest form, Charlie's Angels spoke dumbly to our dumb hearts, in those days before Aids, pierced navels and cable porn in every home. They were foolish, Day-Glo, layered, what's-your-sign, yes-I-like-pina-colada days, and frankly I loved them. But we're not that dumb any more, so there's no excuse.

And I won't be going to see the film.

What the angels did next- -

Farrah Fawcett (aka Angel Jill Munroe)

Fawcett quit Charlie's Angels after one season to pursue a film career, appearing in sci-fi flicks Logan's Run and Saturn 3. After splitting with first husband Lee Majors, she had a son, Redmond, with Ryan O'Neal. In the early 1980s she had a hit with The Cannonball Run, then disappeared into a string of TV movies. In 1995, she stripped for Playboy and has since been plagued by accusations of drug and alcohol abuse. On Letterman in 1997 she seemed "confused" and rambled incoherently for 20 minutes. She has been in Ally McBeal, and was cast by Robert Altman in his new film Dr T & the Women, for which she demanded cast and crew watch her nude scenes.

Kate Jackson (aka Sabrina Duncan)

Jackson was forced to turn down the Meryl Streep role in Kramer Vs Kramer because of her Angels commitments. After leaving the series in 1979, she tried her hand at the movies in Making Love, a romantic comedy about LA swingers. Jackson went back to TV in the mid-1980s with Scarecrow and Mrs King, playing a suburban mom opposite Bruce Boxleitner. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and campaigned to raise awareness of the condition. She had more health problems - including cardiac surgery in 1993. Two years later she adopted a child, Charles Taylor Jackson. Most recent role: alongside Shannen Doherty in the TV movie Satan's School for Girls.

Jaclyn Smith (aka Kelly Garrett)

The only Angel to last all five series, Smith stuck almost exclusively to TV movies afterwards. She played Jackie Kennedy in 1981, Jennifer Parker in Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels in 1983, and Florence Nightingale in 1985 - she was soon nicknamed "queen of the miniseries". Smith got a TV series, Christine Cromwell, in 1989, in which she played the eponymous amateur detective. Before Angels, Smith was a Max Factor model; afterwards, she continued to front for the cosmetics company, as well as managing a signature collection for the oh-so-classy K-Mart chain. Smith is currently on her fourth husband, heart surgeon Bradley Allen.

Cheryl Ladd (aka Kris Munroe)

Fawcett's 1977 replacement recorded two albums, Cheryl Ladd and Dance Forever, while doing the show. After it finished, she too graduated into TV moviedom, appearing in a stack of Danielle Steel adaptations. Her main movie highlight was playing a pill-popping hypochondriac in 1992's Poison Ivy - alongside, ironically, Drew Barrymore. Ladd divorced her first husband David (son of Alan) and married movie producer Brian Russell. She recently began writing children's books. In Permanent Midnight (her one recent movie credit of note) she played an ageing TV actress, star of a fictitious show called No Such Luck. She is currently appearing in Annie Get Your Gun! on Broadway.

Shelley Hack (aka Tiffany Welles)

Before Angels, Hack was a successful model (the "Charlie" perfume ads) and struggling bit-part actor. Afterwards, she starred in two failed TV series, Cutter to Houston and Jack & Mike. She had small movie parts in Scorsese's The King of Comedy and the ur-domestic-slasher The Stepfather. In the 1990s, acting took a back seat to activism: she was a polling station supervisor in the 1997 elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was asked by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to produce televised presidential debates there. She is currently working to restore TV production in the country.

Tanya Roberts (aka Julie Rogers)

After her brief Angels stint, Roberts got into features: sword-and-sandals fantasy The Beastmaster (for which Roberts did a Playboy spread in 1982), leopardskin cheesecake Sheena: Queen of the Jungle; and Roger Moore's final 007 flick, A View to a Kill. She then declared: "Most of James Bond's leading ladies have gone on to become big, big stars. And I'm going to join them… I'm not taking my clothes off any more." After three years of unemployment she began to crack, and became the doyenne of the straight-to-video "erotic thriller" industry. She packed all that in in the mid-90s, and rode the retro wave to score a leading role in That 70s Show.

BACKGROUND CHECK

By Julie Burchill November 17, 2000 The Guardian