Sex, lust and confusion

The English male has confused desire with a yearning for a woman who can take charge
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A CERTAIN amount of unseemly boastfulness has attended the allegations that two of Hollywood's most beautiful and dignified film stars, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, required daily coaching in the art of making love from a couple of English - yes, English - sex experts.

Elsewhere, as if to confirm this new and unexpected aspect of the national character, it was reported that Candace Bushnell, the American author of reports from the front line of New York singledom, Sex and the City, had visited London and found that Englishmen were wonderful, sensitive, erotically attuned creatures. The international rumours about their performance - starting much too slowly, ending much too quickly, and so on - had been put about by jealous Englishwomen anxious to discourage potential sex tourists from flying in from Manhattan.

It is all very flattering and, some would say, after decades of leering contempt from smug, randy foreigners like Norman Mailer, much overdue. "She had a gift," Mailer wrote in An American Dream, before interrupting his sex scene for a joke at our expense. "She was giving me a short lecture with her tongue on the habits of the Germans, the French, the English (one sorry bite, indeed), the Italians, the Spanish." The cliche about the English being bad in bed has been given a regular outing in books and TV programmes ever since, and even appeared on TV in last week's Frasier, an episode during which the ghastly Daphne was revealed never to have slept with her boyfriend. "She's English," Niles explained to gales of knowing laughter from the studio audience.

No doubt, the ever-busy spinners of Westminster will seize on the Kidman/ Cruise case and Bushnell's enthusiastic endorsement and set out to change our image in this, as in other areas. Forget Cool Britannia, the message will go out. From now on, it's Red-Hot Britannia. Pistol-Between-the- Sheets Britannia.

If this is the case, the first target for the marketing folk should be the English sex symbol - for nothing reveals more about our confusions and insecurities than the examples of national womanhood that are held up by the media as exemplars of erotic perfection.

How startling it must be for a foreign visitor, for example, to discover that according to the press, the entire male population is in lustful thrall to a cheerful, ruddy-faced, ginger-haired gardener whose main claim to fame appears to be that she mulches and digs without wearing a bra under her shirt. To her credit, Charlie Dymock is as startled and embarrassed as anyone by her elevation to the ranks of national pin-up, although a quick consideration of other favourite fantasy figures suggests that her solid, homely, unthreatening good looks and no-nonsense competence made her ideally qualified.

For, somewhere along the line, the English male seems to have confused desire with a deep, irrepressible yearning for a woman who can take charge, who can bring order and discipline and a certain rough companionship to his life.

It would be too easy to blame the class system with its nannies and boarding schools for this longing for an authority figure, and it would also be wrong: every Englishman, whatever his background, seems to hanker after a Mummy figure.

Twenty years ago, a character such as the newsreader Angela Rippon or the sullen actress Glenda Jackson played the role to perfection. Serious, ambitious and masterful, they were occasionally skittish enough to appear in self-parodic mode on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. During the Eighties, the entire nation abased itself in masochistic adoration of Margaret Thatcher, with the more daring MPs and political commentators later owning up to what Julian Critchley described as "a bat-squeak of sexual desire" as she bullied and hectored us all.

Somehow, as the Mummy figures grow older, their allure remains. There are film and theatre critics who will still attest to the allure of Dame Judi Dench, while Charlotte Rampling, now at an age when she no longer frightens us with her dangerous, erotic power, has also become a leading sex symbol of the Mummy variety. In the political arena, Clare Short has taken over the Thatcher role while Harriet Harman, described by Gyles Brandreth in his forthcoming diaries as "an inexplicable half-inch away from being wonderfully attractive", is waiting in the wings. In fact, for the Mummy figure, matters of conventional attractiveness are of secondary importance: doubtless there are discipline-crazed Englishmen who harbour intimate fantasies about Ann Widdecombe. While it would be unfair on all parties to put Charlie Dymock in that company, she intoxicatingly combines the bossy competence of the mother figure with a hint of that other English sex symbol, the jolly little sister, most memorably exemplified by Felicity Kendal.

Equally reassuring to the English male is the more obvious pin-up, the dirty-postcard blonde, with her inevitably large breasts spilling in comic profusion out of a low-cut dress. The trendsetter here was probably Diana Dors, whose life is being dramatised in ITV's The Blonde Bombshell this week, and who was the subject of Sunday paper tittle-tattle over the weekend. "She was not sexy," a former lover called Michael Caborn-Wakefield recalled. "She was one of the least randy girls I ever went out with. For her, sex was a game."

That, of course, is the point of the dirty-postcard blonde. The exaggerated blowziness of Dors and such successors as Barbara Windsor, Samantha Fox and Melinda Messenger does not represent sex any more than a McGill postcard or a Carry On film does. It's an idea of naughtiness, a one-dimensional substitute, something hilarious and furtive, a quick flash of knicker, a giggle, maybe even a grope, while the missus's back is turned. The idea of a genuinely arousing scene - touch, tension, feeling, vulnerability - involving Babs or Sammy or Melinda, is unthinkable. They stand for the female distant, comical, inflated and, above all, safe.

If only we could report that it was only the English male who was fearful of intimacy, preferring authority, competence or a laugh to the real thing; but there is evidence that women are just as confused. Alan Titchmarsh, the grinning, bashful middle-aged gardener is said to set hearts a-flutter across the Home Counties. Even more disturbingly, Des Lynam was reported to be receiving 10,000 letters from adoring female fans during last year's World Cup coverage, the tabloids describing him, in all apparent seriousness, as "the nation's heart-throb". The blazer, the boring saloon-bar drone, the twinkle in the eye, the grey moustache: are there really women across the country for whom this is the stuff of erotic fantasy? It defies the imagination.

The spin doctors aiming to rebrand the country's sexual image might also have a word with our novelists. In fiction, perhaps as in life, something goes awry when the Englishman becomes passionate. Who could forget the the sex scene in Richard Thornley's The Dark Clarinet when, at a key moment of seduction, the lover was received "like the flaps of a security-screening machine at an airport", or Kingsley Amis's attempt at erotic fervour in The Green Man? "There was a lot of wool and other material, some cheek, some panting, some movement, some pressure and lack of everything else. Suddenly it all turned very immediate and as much as anybody could deal with."

Some cheek, some panting, Charlie Dymock, Des Lynam. If this is the English way of sex that Nicole and Tom are alleged to have been learning, no wonder they ended up in court.