'New BBC adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover excises most of the sex so what's the point?' asks Pat Stacey
FEW things in television drama this year have had as much impact as Aidan Turner’s pectorals. Aidan’s pecs played such a prominent supporting role in Poldark that Aidan could probably give the rest of himself the night off and just instruct the pecs to go and represent him on The Graham Norton Show.
The sight of him stripped to the waist and scything crops sent many female viewers (and quite a few female TV reviewers too) into the kind of frenzy not seen since the bloke in the Levi’s 501 advert peeled off his T-shirt and jeans in the laundromat.
Apparently, Aidan was embarrassed by all the attention focused on his bod. The pecs, mind you, are said to be well pleased with themselves and are even considering hiring their own agent.
Leaving aside for a different day’s argument the question of whether objectifying a man’s body is as objectionable as objectifying a woman’s body, it would appear the sight of Aidan’s sweat-dappled torso gleaming in the Cornish sun is having more far-reaching — and possibly deleterious — effects on TV drama than anyone could have imagined.
The hunt is already on for “the new Poldark”, even though the current one is still galloping towards production of its second series.
An early contender, at least according to some sections of the media, is the BBC1’s upcoming supernatural drama series The Living and the Dead, starring Irish-born Merlin star Colin Morgan as a 19th-century farmer and paranormal investigator obsessed with proving the existence of the afterlife.
You can see why people are making the connection, however lazy it may be. Both are period dramas, both feature handsome young men in the lead, both have the same producer and, crucially, both are tailored to a broad Sunday-night audience... and there, in that last point, lies the danger.
Television bosses trust what they know works, and they know that what’s working right now is Poldark, which has been as big a hit in America as it was in this part of the world.
And being conservative by nature, they’ll try to repeat the same trick — apply the same formula — again and again and again, so that eventually, every period drama can be “Poldarkised” into the same Sunday-friendly, won’t-frighten-the-horses shape.
But problems arise when you try to “Poldarkise” one of the most controversial novels of all time.
This is what has happened with BBC1’s new 90-minute adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written by Jed Mercurio (Bodies, Line of Duty), which is lined up for a Sunday-night slot in September.
Lawrence’s novel, which centres on the passionate sexual relationship between the titular Lady C, whose aristocratic husband returned from the First World War paralysed from the waist down, and the gamekeeper Mellors, was the subject of a famous obscenity trial at the Old Bailey in 1960 that resulted in the book being published in Britain in unexpurgated form for the first time.
The BBC has had previous dealings with the material. The late Ken Russell co-wrote and directed a four-part version, called simply Lady Chatterley, starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean, in 1993. Unusually, it incorporated elements from the three, very different versions of the book Lawrence wrote.
Though Russell was in uncharacteristically restrained form for once, he didn’t stint on the sex scenes. He couldn’t, really. Lady Chatterley’s Lover touches on many subjects, not least class and the blighting of lives by war, but you can’t get away from the sex. Or the profanity.
During the obscenity trial, chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones — who was subjected to widespread ridicule after asking the jury if it was a book “you would wish your wife or your servants to read?” — methodically listed off the book’s swear word count.
There were 30 effs and/or effings, 14 C-words and four instances of the other C-word (the one that rhymes with “rock”), along with several uses of altogether milder terms.
You won’t hear any of these spoken in Mercurio’s take on the story — which I’ll review fully when it’s screened next month. You won’t see nudity, either. You will see sex, but not a lot of it and certainly nothing as explicit as what was in Lawrence’s book.
“The idea,” said Mercurio recently, “was to tell this as a love story, a love triangle, to concentrate on the emotions of the characters”.
He doesn’t think it needs the sex, the nudity or the profanity, because that has already been done and audiences are over it. Fine. That’s his privilege as the adapter.
But Lawrence wasn’t Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins. He didn’t put the sex and swear words in there merely to titillate readers. They served other purposes.
Take out the sex, take out the passion and you’re left with just another pretty-looking Sunday night drama that won’t make your aged granny pop her dentures.
You might as well do an adaptation of Macbeth without the murders.