But these days smokers are a rare breed on screen, so that it came as a minor shock, watching the first part of Tobacco Wars (BBC1), to see so many people poised with fags drooping rakishly from their lips. One side-effect of cigarettes' new invisibility has been the creation of a new form of pornography: apparently, men will pay good money for videos of women smoking - according to one actress, they "like to see a lot of creamy, thick smoke in your mouth." I don't think we need to go into the psychology.
The sexiness of cigarettes is obvious (but just to remind us, we got Paul Henreid proposing to Bette Davis in Now Voyager, "Let's have a cigarette on it"). What is hard now to grasp is their sheer ubiquity: looking back over the last 90 years, your view is obscured by a thick haze of smoke. The cigarette's zenith was the Second World War, when Britain spent more on American tobacco than on American tanks and planes, and the government had plans in place to ensure that even in the event of invasion every adult would get 45 cigarettes per week. (Possibly the idea was to repel Jerry by sheer force of halitosis.) By the end of the war, 82 per cent of British men smoked.
The second half of the programme shifted to examine the aftermath of the realisation, in the 1950s, that smoking caused lung cancer. When this conclusion was first published, Imperial Tobacco's public stance was that it was not qualified to make judgements on health matters. The industry went on to prove the point by inventing filters, which cut cancer mainly by giving smokers emphysema first. From here on, the programme was a rap-sheet of cover-up, stalling and outright deceit on the part of tobacco companies in the face of evidence that they were killing people.
It ended with a group of throat-cancer sufferers croaking out a song, as far as they could without voice boxes. They were led by a former Miss Lucky Strike, who is now not such a good advert for the benefits of smoking.
The 1979 film A Change of Sex (BBC2) introduced George Roberts, chubby, unhappy and determined to become Julia. In retrospect, what was most shocking here was not George's need to change, or his juvenile history of prostitution in public toilets, but the contempt with which doctors were prepared to treat him. Interviewing him to assess his suitability for the operation, a psychiatrist asked if he was a tidy, well-organised person. "Well, I try to be," George answered. "Ah," the psychia- trist said, triumphantly, "mildly obsessive." By the end, you were rooting for George to have it chopped off and show the bastard. There are three more films to follow, and I'm looking forward to them keenly.Reuse content