Sean Day-Lewis reviews sex on the small screen
6 March 1992
The ingenious Star Chamber (C4), the Sunday tea-time series in which politicians are questioned by a seductively voiced female computer, is recorded some time in advance. This may explain why Paddy Ashdown approached the question "What was your first sexual experience?" with such a brisk and confident evasion. "Exciting", came his reply, quick as a flash, almost as though he had rehearsed.
He was less concise with his answer to "How much are the public entitled to know about MPs' private lives?". Getting into his stride, the Liberal Democrat leader said it was his view that "there is an unhealthy attention to MPs private lives, and lack of attention to their public morality. The result is that you will have mediocre people who may be safe, but not necessarily good for running the country".
With hindsight he might have wanted to rephrase this. He also may have wished to form his own burglary team to locate and destroy the famous archive clip where a younger Ashdown is heard galvanising the Somerset Liberal faithful with the claim that "We are fighting the local elections on our erection."
This prompted a supplementary asking if he would "like to have an erection every four years" and the reply that "I think that would be rather a long gap even for a man of my age."
The personable Ashdown could not be expected to see the public airing of his private affair as anything but a misfortune. For other liberals, if not Liberals, there is a heartening aspect of the arrival in tabloid lore of Paddy Pantsdown. That is the apparent public response to his exposure.
He would want to argue that the mini-surge in the polls results from his erection of good policies and his capacity to penetrate the electorate with them. That may be so but at least he would have to admit that the news of past passion has not done him any harm. The nation, it seems, is becoming more robust in its acceptance of human nature. Optimists may begin to wonder if the opening of the Channel Tunnel could coincide with a move closer to the sexually adult French.
None of which is to suggest that Displeased of Devon has suddenly been eliminated. Here she is, in the shape of a 79-year-old colonel's daughter, speaking at her Totnes home to the local Western Morning News about a new television drama.
"There is rather a lot of nudity which surprised me a little ... I think it's the present mood. Look at the Melvyn Bragg series, A Time To Dance, about the bank manager and the young girl. That was all about nudity. The present fashion seems to be explicit sex in everything. I find it rather tedious; it leaves nothing to the imagination."
Just another inattentive and boring old fart you may think. Until you reliase that the Mary Wesley who gave the interview is also the Mary Wesley who, as recently as 1984, published the novel now adapted into the drama of which she speaks.
Ken Taylor's The Camomile Lawn (C4), the four-part serial starting this week, is nothing if not faithful. But Ashdown, who told the computer he found Felicity Kendal "extraordinarly sexy", may be disappointed that she does not contribute, in the role of Aunt Helena, to the surprising nudity.
As to explicit sex, well, consider just one early scene on the Cornish cliffs. Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard (Paul Eddington) are entertaining five young cousins at the large house with the camomile lawn in the last August of 1939 before Britain declared war on Germany. The five are taking part, according to family tradition, in a night-time "Terror Run" along a cliff path. Oliver (Toby Stephens) and the Calypso (Jennifer Ehle) he adores finish first. They embrace.
"Oliver what's that?, she asks. "What?", he replies. "This." She touched him. "Me. My cock" - "Oliver". "It's quite ordinary, I've got an erection" - "A what?." "An erection. I want to poke it up you. Have you never seen a man with an erection?" - "No".
Director Sir Peter Hall, father of the natural and candid Rebecca, is cleverer than Kevin Billington was with A Time to Dance in disguising the lack of real erections among his actors. The visible flaccidity of retired bank manager Ronald Pickup, as he leapt into bed with teenage mistress Dervla Kirwan, received a lot of attention from the male viewers who use television as nourishment for their wit. Even the Observer's ever readable John Naughton, picked as critic of the year by the What The Papers Say judges (BBC2), subjected the limpness to his careful scrutiny.
Maybe that is what the panel had in mind when it commended him not so much for his perception of television as his capacity to use it as a means of showing himself "a critic of society".
Erections apart, and the truth of course is that any such visible arousal would automatically be deposited on the cutting room floor as "hard porn", it seems to me that the sexual content of A Time To Dance and at least the first episode of The Camom ile Lawn was both acceptable and essential. It was also wasted.
For different reasons neither director managed to create the sensual moods that turn mechanical simulations into something genuinely erotic. A consummation director should be able to manage without demanding anything that might embarrass actors.
Given a two-hour stretch for their double-length part one Taylor and Hall should at least have been able to summon up the feeling of hothouse sexual intensity that was so prevalent as young people contemplated shortened lives in 1939-40.
Instead Taylor went for strict fidelity to the original, including almost every line of dialogue in the first 100 pages or so. Sir Peter settled for an even pace and a sharp eye for the look of period detail, and left the actors to create what atmosphere they could in their fleeting sequences.
Ashdown's "exciting" first sexual experience appears enviable when set beside those seen or implied in this drama.