A while ago – well, it would be a wheen of months ago now I suppose – Greg Dyke was on the telly asking why British TV can’t make dramas like the Americans do. Greg argued, and I think he was correct in this, that the Brits do love their formulaic hospital dramas, police dramas and soaps, with the occasional costume drama thrown in. This is true – not that there’s anything wrong with TV stations producing this bread-and-butter stuff, but the real question is why the reluctance to produce things other than hospital or police dramas. It’s a good question.
Greg’s star exhibit on the other hand was the US cable outlet HBO. You may not know HBO, but you’ve surely watched some of its product, which spans The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex And The City, The Larry Sanders Show, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm, amongst many others. I know the law of imports applies here – that the best American product is imported and there are oceans of crap on the TV over there that we don’t get to see, but even so, it’s an impressive hit rate. And the thing is that what HBO is known for in the States is that, being a subscription service and not reliant on advertising, it can fill its schedules with nudiness and cuss words that the networks can’t get away with (I will return to this presently), but if you look at the programmes listed, you’re also talking about generally intelligent adult-oriented drama of the sort that has provoked the networks into raising their dramatic game.
Greg was interested to know why the BBC, with far greater resources, couldn’t produce that sort of material on a regular basis. I would guess that it has something to do with the BBC’s funding base, and its requirement to provide something for everyone, which exists in tension with the Reithian idea of giving the public what they don’t yet know they want. You get bits of this in the documentary strands on BBC4, but it’s sobering to think that Beeb bosses think of their more intelligent programming as the expendable bit. On the other hand, if the Tories get in and allow broadcasting to degenerate to the levels of Italy, we may look back on this as a golden age.
But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the nudiness and cuss words, well, specifically the former.
Apropos of HBO, I’ve lately been enjoying its new series Hung, which you may want to catch if you haven’t already. The show revolves around Ray Drecker (Tom Jane, of The Punisher fame), who works as a high school basketball coach in Detroit. Ray, when we meet him, is a man down on his luck. His wife has left him. His kids have gone to live with his wife. His house has burnt down, and he’s living in a tent. He hates his life, and he has no money. Ray realises that he does have one marketable asset, and it lives in his trousers. So he decides to put his generous male organ to work and goes into business as – let’s not beat around the bush here – a male prostitute.
This is where the show could easily devolve into Deuce Bigalow territory, but really it doesn’t. What it is, is a decent if near-the-knuckle comedy-drama very much like Californication, or that old HBO classic Dream On. The humour is ribald without being crass, and the scripting is surprisingly subtle. The important point is that Ray’s knob is really just a maguffin to hang the story on – the impressive thing about Hung is how character-driven it is. Thanks not least to Tom Jane’s nicely nuanced performance in the lead, we come to care about Ray and his various problems, emotional issues and dilemmas – his self-loathing and hankering after his failed marriage in the first instance. There’s a certain amount of flesh of course, though not as much as might be expected, and if you took the flesh out – which is always a good test – you’d still have a pretty good drama.
This leads me to ponder a question somewhat at a tangent to Greg Dyke’s, which is to ask why British TV drama, with rare exceptions, can’t do sex. I’m not talking about sexual explicitness here, nor about the physical staging but about the portrayal of sex in a dramatic sense. With the notable exception of the late Dennis Potter, it’s hard to think of good examples of sex being integrated into drama in an interesting or intelligent way. And although I’m cautious of cultural essentialist arguments, I have the feeling that this has something to do with inherited Puritan attitudes and particularly the close association of sex and guilt. You don’t get this in French or Italian or Spanish cinema. That old sexist reprobate Tinto Brass doesn’t do guilt, and his films are all the better for it – if they were guilt-ridden, they would be unbearable. Maybe it’s a Mediterranean thing. (In the context of Puritanism, it’s interesting that northern European culture – see Babette’s Feast for example – tends to stereotype Catholic cultures as voluptuous and sensual. I suppose this again shows how Irish Catholicism, with its strong Jansenist influence, is deeply weird in European terms.)
Another thing that doesn’t help is this tendency in British – or rather English – culture to put on a distanced, ironic, even supercilious air, and to distrust anything done with passion. To digress a little, as bad as Kate Thornton was hosting X Factor, the more accomplished Dermot O’Leary is far worse, because la Thornton was always willing to give it some welly. O’Leary tries to be as hip as he was on BBLB, but just comes across as Mr Insincerity, which is a terrible fit for the pachyderm bombast of X Factor. The lesson is that there are certain things you can’t do in a distanced way – if you’re going to do them at all, you have to do them with commitment.
Which is a roundabout way of coming to the way British drama deals with matters sexual. There is of course the vacillation between the censorious and the gratuitous – the former can be seen in something like The Vice, where those involved in the sex trade are so unremittingly grim and grotty and evil that it just sinks into this misanthropic mire. But there are also the two key dramatic paradigms. The most straightforward is the Bouquet Of Barbed Wire paradigm, which quite obviously draws on issues of guilt and concerns of respectability, and which ends with the moral lesson that the character of loose virtue (which is almost invariably to say, the promiscuous woman) must be punished for upsetting the social mores.
This is why I didn’t like the BBC’s Mistresses, billed as the British Sex And The City. I don’t like SATC much either, but the whole point of it was surely the lack of guilt – Samantha shags her way through New York and has a ball doing so; she has her share of heartbreak, but that isn’t set up as a heavy-handed punishment for her promiscuity, and if aspects of her life are empty, then she’s learned to cope with that. On the other hand, Mistresses, although it had an excellent cast (I’ll watch Sarah Parish in just about anything), high production values and decent writing, couldn’t escape suburban moralism. You had these nice, prosperous women with their nice jobs and nice families and nice houses and nice bits on the side – and the whole story revolved around how miserable they were. Thirty seconds of a woman indulging in some illicit rumpo would be followed by twenty minutes of her sitting around with her friends, drinking red wine and moaning about how miserable she was. Maybe there was a female thing I was missing, but unless you’re Dostoyevsky there’s a limit to how much dramatic mileage you can get from people being eaten up by guilt, especially when there’s not all that much to justify the guilt. Sometimes, and by this point my attention may have been wandering, the women seemed to be wallowing in guilt over sins they hadn’t committed, which is taking the Puritanism just a teensy bit too far.
The other dramatic paradigm is of course the Carry On paradigm, which is more widespread than you might think. This isn’t, by the way, incompatible with the guilt scenario. The important thing about the Carry On films and their 1970s offspring was that coitus was permanently interruptus, and much of the humour derived from Sid and the other lecherous old blokes failing to get their leg over. Moreover, a bit of Donald McGill saucy humour can work well as a means of sidestepping (not challenging) a puritanical culture.
So there is of course the direct line of descent from Carry On through the Confessions series and other 1970s sex comedies; to shows like the late lamented Eurotrash, which almost seems like nice clean fun in this age of Babestation; and indeed into modern British porn – Ben Dover’s character is basically Sid James with a camcorder, and the Omar series is essentially constructed in terms of Robin Askwith movies with real shagging. But the influence of the Carry On aesthetic goes well beyond that, even into the realms of costume drama – The Tudors has more than a hint of the classic Carry On Henry about it, and the recent Desperate Romantics partook of the same approach. Even if you take the BBC’s adaptation of Fanny Hill, which had fantastic source material plus the reliable Andrew Davies on script duty, there was a pronounced undertone of Carry On Up The Brothel. ITV, on its occasional breaks from Lynda La Plante police procedurals, sometimes does a “raunchy” drama, usually starring Suranne Jones, and they invariably fall into the Carry On mode.
So, there is a huge swathe of human experience that is habitually treated as either a nail to hang moral lessons, or as an occasion for nudge-nudge wink-wink tomfoolery. This doesn’t leave much space for other interpretations. Maybe it’s me, but I find that an approach of at least moral ambivalence – the way the prostitution in Hung, like the gangsterism in The Sopranos, is not taken as the subject for a treatise but as a window onto our protagonist’s character – works better dramatically. I say this not in a prescriptive way, but in the sense that cliché is the enemy of good character-driven drama.
There are two other points that are worth flagging up. One is an aesthetic point, in that the dominant mode on TV is naturalistic, as exemplified on the soaps. Obviously this is not documentary but a faux naturalism, and is a very stylised aesthetic in itself. And it’s an aesthetic that draws a lot on the theatre, in being very dialogue-heavy and plot-heavy. You can of course get this in the cinema, but cinema is a different medium and different aesthetics work well in it, especially with a heaviness on the visual and a willingness to tolerate periods of silence. Some American TV dramas – Without A Trace comes to mind – are moving towards a more cinematic style, and the HBO phenomenon has encouraged that, but it still hasn’t really filtered across the Atlantic. And the cinema’s visual aspect means it can draw not only on the theatre, but also on the aesthetics of (say) painting, or more often photography.
As you art buffs will know, both painting and its offspring photography deal in large part with the human nude, and this is an aesthetic of form. Apart from a few extreme moral puritans or radical feminists, not many people have a problem with it. But such is the theatrical influence that it still feels odd if that attitude is translated into moving pictures. The cliché is that nudity must not be gratuitous but must be justified by the plot. Let’s say you are a film director and you have Kelly Brook in your cast – how do you justify getting her naked? To stay respectable, you have to use some plot device. Actually, Kelly Brook has been naked in a few films, not very good ones, where some flimsy plot device has been found. But a film director who just said that Kelly Brook looks beautiful naked and he wanted to capture that on screen – that comes across as a bit off, even though it would be perfectly acceptable from a still photographer.
So it goes. Tinto Brass has a reputation as a sleazy old perv, and maybe he is a sleazy old perv, but is what he’s doing essentially all that different from Lucian Freud’s painting? His film Miranda is essentially an extended study of Serena Grandi’s naked form – it’s the fact that it’s in moving pictures and not stills that’s the issue. An analogous example from the Anglophone world would be Nicolas Roeg’s infamous Full Body Massage, which consists of little more than Bryan Brown and Mimi Rogers talking philosophy as Brown rubs oil into Rogers’ breasts. The camera’s lingering on Rogers’ body is an absolutely photographic aesthetic – and it’s no coincidence that Roeg is a cinematographer by background – it’s just not something we’re really used to in film, still less in TV.
Finally, there’s also the question of what you’re trying to say – or if you’re trying to say anything. If you like the commedia all’italiana of the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll know that it’s not just a matter of saucy humour – many of the directors, writers and actors were communists, and had some things they wanted to say about Italian society, bourgeois morality, corruption, religion and so on. To go downmarket, the German B-movie genre of nunsploitation relies on some sort of critique of Catholic morality and sexual repression – well, all right, it’s mostly about actresses in nuns’ habits getting their tits out, but there wouldn’t be much point if it didn’t tap into some social attitudes, if it wasn’t subversive or satirical in some way.
Possibly part of this relates to the consequences of sexual liberation. What used to be transgressive is now commonplace. In the 1970s a drama like Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, centred around extra-marital sex and illegitimacy, could be considered risqué. In times gone by, homosexuality could be used to shock, but now it’s almost totally mainstream. There aren’t many taboos left, and it’s much harder to work in a shock factor. Actually, in strict terms, that may not be a bad thing – if you can’t reach for an easy shock factor, that could create an incentive to write something imaginative. But again, it depends on programme-makers being creative rather than lazy, and on having something to say. American TV drama shows that’s possible – British TV drama is a bit dispiriting at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine that the potential isn’t out there. If only it could be put to some use.
Tangential to this, there’s an interesting discussion of porn over at AVPS.
 There is the perennial problem, experienced by everyone from novelists to pornographers, of how to actually present a sex scene that isn’t hackneyed. As gonzo porn auteur Ben Dover says, at this point in his life he can’t tell whether that last anal scene was any good, because it looks indistinguishable from any one of the last hundred he’s done.
 This finds expression in the iron rule of horror movies, that the girl who shows most skin dies first, and the one who keeps her top on survives at the end.
 My basic objection to SATC is that it’s shoehorning female characters into a gay male fantasy. But then again, millions of women love it. Go figure.
 At this point one recalls veteran pornographer David McGillivray quipping that he started to agree with Mary Whitehouse at that point in the 70s when you couldn’t go to the cinema without seeing Robin Askwith’s naked arse. Mind you, it’s not as if McGillivray raised the tone much himself.
 Omar’s faithfulness to the Askwith template is remarkable. The basic plot is that Omar finds himself in a situation, like joining a gym or becoming a door-to-door salesman; he meets a woman and engages in some saucy dialogue; he and the woman shag; immediately after the pop shot, there is a loud banging on the door from the woman’s husband/boyfriend/dad; Omar has to flee, running with his knees up in the air like he’s in a Madness video.
 We must emphasise here, the classic approach is to examine the whole form – not some airbrushed beauty, but a whole that incorporates the imperfections.