Phwoar and Peace
A few days ago I was watching a tedious piece of cinematic hagiography about Abraham Lincoln. Most of it was devoted to politicking over an Amendment to outlaw slavery. I stayed with it to the end, believing rather naively that it could only improve. It didn’t.
There seems to be a conviction among film, television and theatrical producers, on both sides of the Atlantic, that the best way to keep audiences happy is to provide a large ration of smut and obscene language in every script, no matter how anachronistic and inappropriate it may be. In Lincoln this even took place in mixed company, and even on the lips of the President himself—who, I understand, was really a rather strait-laced character. The most bizarre example of this was when Lincoln is regaling his cronies with a joke, on these lines…
Shortly after Independence, an American ambassador was being entertained to dinner at the house of a great English Lord. When he retired to the privy, he found on the wall a picture of George Washington. When he returned to the table, the ambassador commented to his host that this was an excellent cure for constipation, for what better way could there be to scare the s**t out of an Englishman?
The joke should ring a bell with anyone familiar with François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. In the original, written over 300 years previously, it is King Louis XI of France (I think) who responds to a call of nature in the palace of King Henry VII of England. There he finds a picture of “the great oriflamme of France” (see below). On encountering King Henry, he responds in almost exactly the same words as Lincoln’s ambassador. (The oriflamme, in case you are wondering, is a long, sacred banner of red silk on a lance, received by early French kings from the abbot of St Denis when they were starting out for war.)
But to return to my thesis. The same principle of “dirtying down” occurred in the first episode of War and Peace on BBC television last Sunday. In Tolstoy’s marathon novel two characters, brother and sister Hélène and Anatole Kuragin are quite unusually devoted to each other. In this series, they are portrayed as actually having an incestuous relationship. In one preview I read, it was argued that this was merely making explicit what could only be hinted at in the book. Television people call this being “edgy”.One reviewer argued this was quite OK because it might encourage some viewers actually to read the novel. On Twitter, one wag has rechristened the series “Phwoar and Peace”.
A final example. In a recent televised adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers (now, perforce, renamed And Then There Were None in order to avoid any offence) there was quite a bit of mild porn and lots of unChristie-like obscene language.