Terence Blacker: It's a fascinating time for love – but TV can't keep up

The Way We Live: As for the scene of a sexual nature about which we had been warned, it was hilariously coy and tame


Every night on TV, it seems that there is something about which we need to be warned in advance. Inappropriate language might be used, or there are scenes which some viewers might find upsetting, or adult themes might be addressed. Not long ago, the BBC included a health warning before a Gillian Welch concert; some jobsworth had presumably found a rude word in one of the lyrics.

Perhaps, then, viewers should not have been surprised on Sunday night when a BBC announcer solemnly warned that the programme they were about to watch contained scenes of a sexual nature. On the other hand, it was 10.30 at night and, since the programme was a play called True Love, a bit of sex was possibly to be expected.

On this occasion, the effect of a broadcaster's fear of offending was not simply to annoy and patronise viewers. It messed up the story, revealing the outcome of a will-they-won't-they tale of infidelity before a single word of dialogue had been spoken.

As for the scene of a sexual nature about which we had been warned, it was hilariously coy and tame. Meant to be the last, tragic, erotic meeting of lovers doomed never to be together, it looked more like a Saturday-night marital cuddle beneath the blankets.

Love is going through a peculiarly interesting phase at the moment, and yet television seems bizarrely unable to capture what is going on. The power balance between women and men has shifted, a parallel universe of sexual fantasy is available online, and new kinds of meetings and relationships are available through chatrooms. In spite of all that – or perhaps because of it – there is a general sense that couples are becoming more understanding and adult about the compromises involved in love.

Yet 21st-century love, while reflected in contemporary fiction, rarely appears in a recognisable form on TV. Romance is wrapped up safely in the clothes of the past, or given a celebrity gloss, through the fairy tale loves of Kate and Wills (good love) or Jordan and Peter Andre (bad love). Drama is on safer, easier subjects – sex, ambition, crime.

It was bold of the BBC to commission a series of short plays on a romantic theme, but the format they have chosen highlights why TV struggles to capture the spirit of modern love. Inevitably, high-profile actors have had to be involved, but their presence risks changing the dynamic and mood of the plays entirely. The husband in Margate, caught between a happy marriage and the love of his life, is no mere bloke in a muddle. He is David Tennant, a star playing ordinary.

Then, as if to compensate for the glitter of its cast, the series has demoted the script, making each play semi-improvised. Everyone has had romantic problems, the thinking must have gone. Why not use that personal experience, and liberate the actors to use their own words?

Yet it is precisely because the components of love – lust, loyalty, guilt, fear, regret, insecurity, relief and so on – are so universal that they need to be written by a good writer. Modern fiction has faced up to the complexity and perversity of love in a frenetic, sexualised, computerised culture, whether in full-length novels (Tessa Hadley, Jeffrey Eugenides, AL Kennedy, Sue Miller) or short stories (Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Alice Munro, John Updike), but television has so far ducked the challenge. As if uneasy with what it was doing, and desperate to place the series in a safely romantic tradition, the team behind True Love added a desperately corny musical track, in which Dionne Warwick's "What the World Needs Now is Love" and Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" featured heavily.

There is a great early 21st-century romance to be told, a Brief Encounter or a Love Story for the internet age, but it is more likely to appear between the covers of a book than on our television screens.

Sorry Margate, but a Mary Portas makeover doesn't come without strings

It has been a big week for Margate. As well as providing the backdrop for David Tennant and True Love, the town has been at the centre of a controversy involving Mary Portas and her Government-backed scheme to regenerate the high streets of some of Britain's towns.

Having been granted £100,000 of public money, Margate will also be the focus of a Channel 4 programme which will follow "Mary Queen of Shops" as she tries to revive its exhausted retail sector. Unfortunately, some of the shop-owners involved have complained that they have been obliged to sign a "draconian" contract, which includes a clause which prevents them talking about the programme for a year.

The Margate Town Team, which put together the bid for a grant, has complained, with some justification, that the needs of a TV programme are being put before those of the town. Whatever happens to the shops of Margate, and those of the other pilot towns, the Government, with its very contemporary policy, involving a celebrity and guaranteed publicity, is certain to be delighted by the outcome.


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