Television: Restoration comedy, modern tragedy

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
We are in a coach, bumping through late-17th-century Lancashire. "Well, what would you do?" the busty occupant slyly asks the viewer, in an aside to camera that is Urquhartian in its complicity. What would we do? We'd bonk him, of course, just like she is going to, for this is Andrew Davies's Moll Flanders (ITV, Sunday and Monday) - or House of Bosoms - and the heroine may be flawed, but we are definitely on her side.

I suspect that Davies is more at ease with the wicked than with the mostly good, for the clever empathy that characterised his relationship with Francis Urquhart - but largely deserted his Emma - was back in this sexy drama of a woman's various ascents and descents through Restoration England. In fact, the naughtier Moll became, the more we liked her, providing a reminder that - properly done - there's nothing quite like sex on the TV.

But jolly couplings are better in historical plays. For some reason, what is embarrassing in a modern drama (roiling buttocks and grimaces) can become a comfortable part of the lusty pageant of Englande's historie. The weighing of ripe breasts, accompanied by appreciative grunts, is merely an accurate representation of a coarser and less inhibited age. Men's nightshirts may momentarily ride up to disclose a quick glimpse of 17th- century cobblers (well portrayed by the cobblers of contemporary actors) - well, so what? That's how they dressed; the costume department researched nightwear in the late 1670s and that's what they came up with.

Moll herself will cause arguments. Alex Kingston is not a modern beauty - she has hips and a nose. But it didn't take long for me to see her with a distinctly olde-worlde sensibility, as the kind of sparkling-eyed, red-lipped, enthusiastic and healthy partner that any red-blooded gentleman about town would be only too happy to get into his four-poster. The casting director done well.

And Moll has extremely nice breasts. I only mention this because their uncovering becomes a pleasant metaphor for the important conjunctural movement between mid-century Puritanism (no breasts) and late Restoration society (nothing but). If only all social history could be taught in this way. A-level passes in the subject would go through the roof.

Davies and team also have an important and dramatic way of illustrating why we moved in this country from arranged marriages to love matches. When Moll has it off with the guy she fancies, he has only to breathe on her neck, and POW! she's hyperventilating. Orgasm is milliseconds away and death must soon follow. Meanwhile, the guy she doesn't fancy must toil away, manfully copulating, while she lies there completely inert. And that is why, oh best beloved, we now marry for love.

It also may explain why Gerbil the Whore finds this period very attractive. Gerbil is not a character from an X-rated version of Star Wars, but the nom de guerre of a woman member of the Sealed Knot, the lot who re-enact the English Civil War, who appeared in Women at Play (C4, Thursday). Gerbil, who dresses up as a bedraggled and sluttish camp-follower, likes to be be tied to a wagon and flogged. "I can be more forward," she explained, "and ask men whether they'd like a good time tonight. It's my alter ego." There was room, too, for the more middle-class courtesan, who will only lie with the upper ranks (a kind of officer's Moll), and who has discovered the bawdy poetry of the Earl of Rochester. Her alter ego and her costume allow her to say "prick" and "thrust" on camera in a way that slacks, a chemise and a job at an estate agent's, one suspects, would not.

Other interviewees included an irony-free Scandinavian pikewoman, a Thatcher-admiring Royalist officer ("We fight battles like we clean our houses"), and a teenager who believes that she is guided by the spirit of Oliver Cromwell. "He gets such a bad press," she sighed. Was she in the now, or the then? Should one argue with her by pointing out that Mr Milton is quite a fan of Ollie's?

More women effecting transformations were to be found in Brazen Hussies (BBC2, Monday), in which Julie Walters and pals defied their swinish menfolk to set up a male strip evening, featuring very young and utterly vacuous boy lovelies. Featuring Muriel's Wedding-type over-the-top settings, it was a femino/gay fantasy about living a tinselly and aesthetic life surrounded by cute buns.

The main problem was that the aging hetero Lothario, played by Robert Lindsey (as a Peter Stringfellow lookalike - all ludicrous self-regard and a death-defying lust for young flesh), completely stole the show. Lindsey's strip version of Saturday Night Fever was the great comic moment of the week. In the Suddenly Last Summer ending, where Lindsey is debagged by the women and pretty boys, all your sympathy is with him - which was not (I would guess) supposed to happen.

The most common phrase in your modern British hospital is, apparently "Piss off!" I counted six in Staying Alive (ITV, Friday), and their occurrence gives a fair idea of what the main characters think of each other. This is a classic and truly British feel-bad show. It even inverts the title sequences of American drama series - where hunks and hunkesses walk past and smile, "Welcome, come into our programme, admire our houses, have a nice day now" - and gives us the tear-stained cheek, a scowl, and a grimy wall. "Ain't life a bitch?" is the message. And it is a bitch, for after five episodes shagging each other, it's payback time and everybody is unhappy.

In Staying Alive, patients come to hospital expecting to be treated by the cast of Casualty - and find themselves at the mercy of the inhabitants of Brookside. There's the loony nurse, whose idea of a good time is to cut off the life support from recovering coma patients; there's the pregnant, unmarried black nurse (who inadvertently drinks the morphine cocktail prepared by the loony); there's the tortured Scotsman, the arrogant doctor who carries out the wrong operation. No wonder the one-legged bloke discharges himself - it was only a matter of time before the arrogant doctor, the Scotsman and the mad nurse ganged up to whip off his remaining leg.

Amidst this entertaining misery I had time to note that when the philandering inadequate surgeon jumped out of bed (leaving the jolly hockey-sticks nurse behind) the camera coyly followed the passage of his boxer shorts up his pallid legs, thereby sparing us a sight of 20th-century cobblers. This requires great dexterity by the camera operator, and one wonders how often such scenes have to be redone because a millimetre of testicle has dropped into shot.

What I wondered more, though, was why we are so keen on exploring fictional horror when the real stuff is all about us. Any parent will have found Hillsborough (ITV, Thursday) almost unbearable. Jimmy McGovern's drama- documentary made me weep for the parents of those killed, without in any sense exploiting their grief - "Deep calls unto deep."

The drama also made me aware that there were two distinct phases of the Hillsborough disaster: the event itself and its aftermath. With regard to the first, Tony Parsons on Late Review (BBC2, Thursday) was absolutely right when he said that if the tragedy hadn't occurred then and there, it would have happened somewhere else. The treatment of fans as animals (partly because, for several years, some of them had behaved like animals - remember Heysel?), the pens, the fences, the discomfort, all made it virtually inevitable. I remember a surge on the Wembley terraces in 1987 that convinced me that someone would soon die. So I suspected that I too could have made the sort of terrible mistakes that the police made.

Afterwards was different. The total confusion, the lack of flexibility, the bovine rigidity in the face of the unexpected and the unplanned-for, when what was needed was imagination and responsiveness - that was almost unforgivable. But command organisations like the police are not places where individual flair flourishes. Nevertheless the lies, the evasions, the defensive hostility with which the parents were treated, and whose depiction was the strongest part of the drama, testified to a rottenness of culture and a moral corruption that were as bad as any criminality.

If it was hard to get a picture of the motives and actions of those behind this corruption, this was because the author and producer were scrupulous about not depicting what witnesses had not attested to. So we could only guess at what sequence of events lay behind the instruction to officers pre- sent at the disaster not to write anything in their notebooks, or the disappearance of crucial video evidence. Instead the principle of cui bono had to be our guide.

But should it have been shown? Were not events too fresh, memories too raw, scars too livid? Hillsborough was an important moment in our recent history. Despite the disgusting efforts of the Sun, it was one of those times when the "other" (the enemy within, the hooligan, miner, underclass) suddenly had a face, a history, a tragedy of its own. And it was our face and our tragedy. You can never learn that lesson often enough.

Comments