Television: Let's hear it for middle youth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DID THE HEIGHTS wuther for you? To screen an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, as ITV did last Sunday, may seem a period drama banker but is - in reality - very risky. We already have before us images evoked by a text read by many of us in our mid- to late-teens, or by Larry Olivier in black-and-white, blasted-oak mode. So, we ask, do these young lovers convince us? Does their passion draw us in, make us cry? If the answer is yes, then - by and large - the adaptation has succeeded. If it further makes us reflect on how damage can be passed down through generations, so much the better.

Sadly, on count one, this particular version failed. Mostly, it has to be said, because Cathy (Orla Brady) was in her late twenties, and Heathcliff (Robert Cavanah) won't see 35 again. So, when the naughty, youthful lovers twit the Lintons about their spinet playing - grinning inanely through the windows of the Grange - it was a bit like watching those idiot parents at the kids' playground who insist on trying out the swings and the slides themselves.

The thing is, people in younger middle age demand more from life than do adolescents. But the young Cathy and the young Heathcliff are essentially very passionate post-pubescents with dull lives; they are neither educated nor thoughtful and age has not textured them. They are simple creatures of the elements, like earwigs, say, or stones.

Imagine Heathcliff's diary for an average week: "Monday. Ran on moor. Tuesday. Some more moor running. Wednesday. Ran quite slowly on moor. Thursday. Too wet for moors, stayed indoors. Friday. Walked very fast on moor. Saturday. The weekend at last! Ran on moor. Found another lapwing's nest." Etc. By the time you are in your mid-thirties, you want something moor. Er, more. So the mature Heathcliff looked as if he would rather be somewhere else. Fighting a war, perhaps, or reading the latest Bronte novel.

Not that he didn't look good. He scored on the wild hair, which the softest breeze could whip to the consistency of brown candy floss. And one had to admire those great clenched brows - four lines of tortured love, running like ravines from the top of his nose to his hairline. When he moved he looked as though he was competing for an Olympic Gold Medal in the 40- metres-indoor-angry-stride-and-slammed- door event. His thighs acted well too, combining sinewy muscularity with a certain primeval promise. I'm sure we will see moor of them.

To do the broadcasters credit, the problem they faced arose as a result of being too faithful to the book, not too little. If, as Emily B wrote it, what happens after Cathy's death is nearly as important as what went before, then Heathcliff has to survive Cathy by many years, growing middle-aged and bitter, surrounded by his menagerie on the Heights and eventually dying of grief. So there's a dilemma. Do you cast a young H who gets older (plenty of unconvincing make-up)? Do you cast two Heathcliffs, exchanging them around the time that he returns from five years abroad? Or do you risk everything with an old Heathcliff, as here?

The trade-off meant that the second part of this Wuthering Heights was excellent. The horrid house with its repressed denizens, dominated by the agony of its violent and capricious master, passing on to new generations the slights he had himself suffered, was close to being brilliantly evoked. Regret and memory are so much more interesting than snogging and ... But that's enough of that. Let us have no moor.

Over on the Beeb they were once more mining the rich seam of classy tec stories written by Minette Walters. As in her other tales, The Scold's Bridle (BBC1, Friday & Saturday), was stuffed full of intriguing women. I seem to remember a time when any actress over 30 would bemoan the lack of "good parts" (a sentence that reads a little differently in this age of cosmetic surgery). And - with the exception of Miss Marple - this was particularly true in crime drama, where the main female roles usually consisted of finding the body (scream, drop tray) or of being the body (sightless eyes, limp hand over the bath).

Actually this particular Walters had both these things too - Sian Phillips being found dead in the bath, her wrists slit and the scold's bridle on her head - by the housekeeper, who then effected a spectacular crashing tray and long, piercing shriek. But although the detective was a man (Bob Peck), the main sympathetic character was a doctor, played by Miranda Richardson, and nearly all the suspects were also gals. There was mad, drunken Virginia McKenna; wicked, sensual Trudie Styler (who offered luscious evidence that there is sex after 40, and whose buttocks could act opposite Robert Cavanah's thighs quite happily); and, playing Styler's troubled teenage daughter, the latest Winslet - Beth, this time - to grace our screens. With her big lips, large nose and chin and expressive eyes, Beth is a beauty for the post-babe era.

If I am right, there is only one more extant Minette Walters for the BBC to adapt, but it's a good one, and I look forward to it. But then, I am such a tedious old reactionary fart that some of the most important artistic developments of the late 20th century have taken place without my appreciating them.

I owe this intelligence concerning my own obtuseness to The South Bank Show: Body Art (ITV, Sunday). Admittedly, I felt I was in good company. An unusually squeamish Melyvn introduced the film by saying, "Tonight we look at artists whose work involves blood, flesh and pain ... Some people, including myself, find them disturbing."

We started with the mild and risible. A group of shaven-headed people with metal hanging from their chests made silly noises and enacted a self-indulgent, made-up ritual. They were into piercing. "The vertical clit hood is brilliant," revealed one devotee. "This is me. I'm pierced and I want to be pierced," another told the camera defiantly and pointlessly. After the pierce-artists, however, it was all downhill. I can't tell you whether it was the naked, whitewashed bald man who opened the vein in his arm and then rolled around in blood and dry ice, or the appalling Orlan, who has plastic surgery on stage, that disgusted me most. I found myself wondering why, in a century that gave us the Holocaust, we felt the need to witness yet more pain and degradation, this time in the name of art.

Enter Claire Armitstead, arts editor of the Guardian, a woman who radiated warm intelligence, but who said that "you are hiding your head in the sand if you don't think it [this kind of art] is important". All this blood and wanking clearly had significance that was beyond my intellectual reach. So I was grateful when, last week, I received a package containing some review tapes, a copy of the Kama Sutra, a small chocolate phallus and, most puzzlingly, a pair of handcuffs. This was the publicity shot for Hollywood Sex (Sky One, Sunday), a programme made by the company - September Films - who brought Hollywood Women to ITV. I ate the chocolate, read the book, watched the tapes and - lacking inspiration - put the handcuffs in my desk drawer.

In the old days of prudery, the only way you could get to look at a decent pair of breasts was if they illustrated some anthropological feature in a glossy magazine. Now, provided what you are doing is "examining" the US sex industry, you can get to look at pretty much anything. We can even see a guy having his erect member cast in rubber for his girlfriend to take to college with her. Of course, we don't see the thing in the flesh (this isn't The South Bank Show), but we do get to see his bum, and then the life-size replica, and we can put one and two together.

From there we travel around the LA clubs that cater for all sexual tastes (literally and metaphorically), from oiling to role-playing to sadomasochism. And isn't it interesting that the compulsions or indulgences that make some people seem sad in our eyes can, should they affect ridiculous silly voices and call it art, be transformed into statements about the end of the century?