Drama's 5 Greatest Leading Ladies

From the no-nonsense headteacher turning her school around, to the monarch with an iron grip on her minions, brace yourself for the heroines who play by their own rules.

Drama’s 5 Greatest Leading Ladies

1. MARIE STUBBS (AHEAD OF THE CLASS)

Julie Walters doesn't have to do much to make a role instantly iconic. Generally, it's enough just to turn up on set and wait for the cameras to roll - that's how naturally gifted she is. When she plays a character, you root for that character through thick and thin. A case in point is Ahead of the Class, where the national treasure plays another national treasure, albeit a less well-known one. She is Marie Stubbs, the real-life headteacher who made it her mission to save a school that had fallen on hard times.

And we mean seriously hard times. One of the previous heads was Philip Lawrence, who was infamously stabbed to death while trying to break up a fight by the gates. Now, it's down to Marie to sort out the soaring truancy, casual violence and general air of apathy, which she does with the kind of no-nonsense gusto Julie Walters is so good at. While her extreme measures rub people up the wrong way (even her fellow teachers get annoyed), she does it because it's the right thing, the only thing, to do. And you'll want to applaud her every bit of the way.

Watch Ahead of the Class on UKTV play

2. QUEEN ELIZABETH I (ELIZABETH I)

Many female stars of a certain stature have played the Virgin Queen, so it says something that, in Elizabeth I, Helen Mirren manages to make the role almost shockingly fresh again. Here is a woman of unashamed extremes, of endless internal conflict: frighteningly powerful yet coyly vulnerable, her hard, diamond-like intellect at odds with her unruly emotions. Helen Mirren makes us feel and see it all, as we follow the monarch during the turbulent latter half of her life.

It's a story of politics, power and passion, focusing particularly on her relationships with two very different men - her original sweetheart, the Earl of Leicester (played by the reliably suave Jeremy Irons) and her much younger favourite, the Earl of Essex, whose boyish cockiness is perfectly captured by Hugh Dancy. By turns imperious and sensitive, dominating some men but hopelessly hung up on others, this is an Elizabeth we can all recognise - not as a historic icon, but a fellow human being.

Watch Elizabeth I on UKTV play

3. HETTY WAINTHROPP (HETTY WAINTHROPP INVESTIGATES)

Proving again that age is no barrier to being fierce and formidable (although in a more low-key way than Queen Elizabeth I), Hetty Wainthropp has to be one of the most marvellously unlikely detectives ever to stalk the mean streets of England. Played with eye-rolling aplomb by Patrica Routledge (who brings just a tiny, pleasing dash of Hyacinth to the role), Hetty is an ordinary married lady who turns 60 and is most definitely NOT happy about it.

Rather than resigning herself to a world of knitting clubs and daytime telly, she decides to become a private detective instead. She even gets her very own crime-fighting sidekick, in the form of a local scallywag she catches shoplifting. Unweaving sinister mysteries and bringing killers to justice, Hetty is a shining example to anyone who wants to stay awesome as an OAP. Watch and learn.

Watch Hetty Wainthropp Investigates on UKTV play

4. GINA DAWSON (WPC 56)

It takes guts to be a female copper in 1956, and Gina Dawson has plenty. The leading lady of WPC 56, Gina is the first woman police officer in her town and has to put up with the casual bigotry (and all-round idiocy) of the blokes around her. This being the 50s, the concept of "sexism" isn't even a thing yet: they just expect Gina to accept her place as a second-tier copper, whose main responsibilities are making tea and sorting through paperwork.

Gina doesn't even get her own telephone, because they'd "never get her off it". Yet, somehow, she's unstoppably enthusiastic and determined to make her mark - even if that means questioning the opinions of caveman colleagues and trying to prove the innocence of a black man accused of heinous crimes. She'd be a credit to the force in 2017, never mind back then.

Watch WPC 56 on UKTV play

5. ROSIE BYFIELD (FALLEN ANGEL)

OK, so admittedly Rosie Byfield is nobody's idea of a "heroine". She is, in fact, a psychopathic murderer capable of crimes that would make even a hardened detective's hair turn white. But she's still one of our most significant leading ladies, because how often do you see a female serial killer depicted in a serious, sensitively written drama? Exactly.

Cast against type, Emilia Fox utterly warps her own peaches-and-cream telly persona as Rosie, a damaged young woman we first encounter after she's kidnapped as a little girl. Ingeniously, the story takes us further back in time, to explain how a monster like Rosie has been created. Is it nature or nurture? Twisted genes or a mind damaged by circumstance? Either way, she is a magnetically malevolent thing to behold. Don't have nightmares.

Watch Fallen Angel on UKTV play