Saturday, 31 December 2016

Sex and swearing in "Witness for the Prosecution" and "To Walk Invisible" - a study in contrasts

There's a terrible fug up in here
Someone at the BBC has obviously decided that diminutive actor Toby Jones is box-office magic, because he has starred in two of the corporation's "prestige" drama series this year - he's probably been pencilled in to play Mr. Darcy in the next, inevitable BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I have nothing against Toby Jones, but both productions sucked like hoovers. The Secret Agent was dismal and depressing, and this week's two-part adaptation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution was even worse, despite receiving inexplicably glowing reviews in the press.

First, the whole thing was evidently shot in  a pea-souper, both exteriors and interiors: I kept having to quell the urge to give the screen a wipe. Second, everything was grim and sordid and seedy and depressing: to quote Peter Cook, I can get all that at home, without the BBC adding its two-penn'orth. Third, what exactly is the point of shoe-horning the word "fuck" and several unpleasant sex scenes into an Agatha Christie drama? The old girl managed to become the world's biggest-selling writer - 2000,000,000 books and counting - without recourse to effing and blinding or graphic depictions of rumpy-pumpy.

Does the BBC seriously imagine we're fidgeting at home, thinking, "Well, if nobody has sex or says 'fuck' in the next five minutes, I'm switching over"? If (as I suspect) it doesn't think this at all, why does it insist on including bad language and scenes of simulated fornication when adapting written works which included neither. (Before I'm accused of missing the point, I understand perfectly well that the two sex scenes in the first part  had a dramatic purpose - one showed the ghastly joylessness of Toby Jones's marriage, and the other hinted at Leonard Vole's true character : but both points could have been just as easily made in other ways.) As for the bad language: nobody watches an Agatha Christie adaptation in the hope of hearing any of the characters say "fuck". So just leave it out, okay?

Having been depressed and repelled by the first, achingly slow-moving part of Witness for the Prosecution, I decided to give the concluding part a body-swerve.
Emily, Anne and Charlotte - BAFTAs all round!
Two nights ago, we watched To Walk Invisible, a two-hour BBC drama about the lives of the Brontë sisters, their dipsomaniacal brother, Bramwell, and their nice but weak clergyman father. It was absolutely brilliant - possibly the best thing the BBC has done in 2016. The writing, acting, direction - everything - was simply first class. Finn Atkins as the thin-lipped, almost dementedly determined Charlotte,  Chloe Pirrie as an elementally furious Emily (the very embodiment of her thrilling poem, "No coward soul is mine", and all the rage and passion of Wuthering Heights), and Adam Naigitis as the appalling self-pitying mess of a human being that the drink and drug-guzzling Bramwell Bronte appears to have been (I can't have been the only viewer shouting "Die, you useless bastard!" by the end) all deserve every acting award going. It was thrilling.

Here's the thing - it also contained bad language: a lot of it in fact, with Bramwell effing and blinding away. And there was sex (a particularly unpleasant example of the sex act in a dream sequence near the end allowed us a glimpse of the demons haunting poor, pathetic Bramwell). But it was all perfectly justified - it helped explain how three provincial clergyman's daughters came to write such heavingly torrid fiction: Bramwell had unwittingly dragged the real world, with all its sordidness and wickedness, violence and yearning, right into the family home. Sally Wainwright's script and her direction were both masterly - especiallyas the whole thing could so easily have ended up as a sort of French and Saunders parody.

I'm not against onscreen sex or swearing: it's just that there should be an effing point to the effing - and to the effing and blinding.


  1. I watched it too, and like you thought it was brilliant, and especially well cast.
    The only criticism I have is one it is rather mean to make, but as a pedant I can't resist.
    I know that the scene where the family are all dining together is convenient to furthering the plot. However, the father never ate with them. The whole family were riddled with TB, from which several members of the family had already died. The father always ate alone in his study, and had his own china and cutlery. In this way he avoided having infection passed on to him, thought whether he was aware of this I don't know. My other observation is very petty: I have this idea that the family always had painted walls, never wallpaper, which they considered a fire risk. However,perhaps I am thinking about another literary family.
    Apart from these rather trivial observations, I thought it was an excellent production and hope this will not be the last quality production in 2017.
    I have visited the Bronte parsonage many times, from the 1960s, and well remember a shop at the bottom of the hill which said:

    Toys, Jokes UNDERTAKER & Novelties.

    Good to have two strings to your bow, I suppose.

    1. Thanks, Helen. It's always a shock to be reminded of what a terrible scourge TB was - especially as it's now so easy to cure. Your account of how Patrick Bronte avoided it is fascinating! I also didn't know that about wallpaper - in fact, it would never have crossed my mind. Thank you.

      As for the shop sign: well, they always say it's grim up North!

  2. After the latest cinema version of "Dad's Army" the word was out that Toby Jones, Bill Nighy and Sir Michael Gambon would never work again. Fat chance.

    To my shame I have never read any of the Brontes [sat through too many cheesy film versions and TV productions of "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"], but "To Walk Invisible" [watched it on the iPlayer after reading your blog and comments] was quite excellent so am determined to have a go [and also to finish "Old Curiosity Shop" which I have been reading for 20-years and am only half-way through]. Thanks for the recommendation.

    1. "Wuthering Heights" is the one I'd go for - Emily knocked spots off Charlotte as a novelist, and her poetry was pretty damned good, too. As for Charlotte, "Villette" defeated me, but "Jane Eyre" was readable.

  3. Oh dear, The Old Curiosity Shop is hard work. Not one of the master's best. You would have to pay me to read it again. However, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol (if you've not been overwhelmed by the numerous film versions) and The Pickwick Papers. Lots of good un's to choose.

    1. I'm ashamed to say I've never been able to get through "Bleak House". One of these days... Meanwhile, "Hard Times" is good (and short, by Dickens's standards), "Oliver Twist" is very readable, and "Barnaby Rudge" and "Our Mutual Friend" are both excellent. And I agree with you about "Great Expectations" and "A Christmas Carol". Never tried "The Old Curiosity Shop", but I've read the famous death scene, and discovered that I don't have a heart of stone. (I'm saving Pickwick Papers for a rainy day - or a rainy month.)

  4. I always take the recommendations in this blog more seriously even than the Guardian Arts page, so I shall now watch To Walk Invisible. As I understand it, rather like the actresses in the early days of nudity on screen, you are suggesting that we all ought to be prepared to take our clothes off if the artistic integrity of the scene demands it. Fine by me and if I need you as a character witness I'll be in touch.

    On the Old Curiosity Shop - Blogmeister you are toying with your readers. You are subtly referring to the Oscar Wilde quote that 'one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing' in order to see if any one spots it. I really wouldn't bother with the OCS. It's one of his novels that appeared in paid-by-instalments, against a deadline, where it is clear that he had not worked out the end before he started and completed it in a massive exam-crisis rush. Even though ships arriving in New York from England were greeted by Americans at the dockyard asking new arrivals what had happened in the final part, it really doesn't stand up.

    Mind you, I quite like Dombey and Son so what do I know?

    1. Why, thank you - I hope To Walk Invisible doesn't disappoint, but I don't think it will. I've become increasingly prudish with advancing age, and I find the intrusion of pointless sex scenes and profanity distracting and silly. If it's got a point - well, yes, I'm willing (for a large fee) to get my kit off and eff and blind till the cows come home (or until the police arrive).

      I suspect writing a serialised story helped the likes of Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Dostoevsky get on with it, and it imparts some of the sense of urgency they must have been experiencing to the narrative - but one can't sometimes help wishing that a vigorous, talented editor had been around to blue pencil large tranches of their output. Or is that blasphemous, and should we welcome the chance to read their words, warts and all, as they (occasionally) blatted them down in a last-minute sweat-panic? Joib be, Belbyb Bragg, on Radio 4 on Bubday, to find out...

      Toby Jones and Jonathan Pryce. Did they pass a law making it compulsory for one or other of them to appear in every single new BBC drama? Pryce is in the truly execrable "Taboo", which started last night (full of anachronistic bad language and Tom Hardy simultaneously channeling Ray Winstone and Oliver Reed at their hammiest), while Toby Jones is the baddie in "Sherlock" tonight.