Emma Thompson attends a photocall for BAFTA's Screenwriter Lecture series at BFI Southbank, 20 September. Photo: Getty
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Emma Thompson’s leap into the dark

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas. But at the outset, sketch comedy was where she saw herself.

As I enter the auditorium, there’s a woman on the stage wearing denim dungarees and a hoodie, scrubbing a desk. Thinking that I’m clearly very early for Emma Thompson’s lecture on screenwriting, I take a seat and study the programme.

At the edge of my vision, I see the woman finish her cleaning and lie down on the yoga mat next to the desk. She sticks her legs in the air and groans. Slightly bemused, I watch her get back up again and sit on the arm of a chair and weep for a while, before getting a Hoover out and giving the stage floor a going-over. Finally, she sits down at her desk and starts to scribble furiously on a pad. Her hood falls back and I see her face at last – this isn’t a member of the BFI’s cleaning team. This is Emma Thompson, the only person ever to win Oscars for both writing and acting, and she has come to her lecture early to act out how she writes.

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas (her Oscars came in the 1990s for Sense and Sensibility and Howards End). But as she explains, once she has changed out of her dungarees and returned to the stage, at the outset sketch comedy was where she saw herself. She began writing sketches at school and went on to be part of the Cambridge Footlights crowd that included Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

As difficult as it might be to imagine now, she wasn’t always the star of the show. “Stephen and Hugh were always so brilliant and funny,” Thompson says. “It was very difficult to get in sideways, really, because they were so wonderful and Footlights was quite male-dominated.”

Her early material was always political – “It was about everything that I cared about,” she says nostalgically – and the monologue from those days that she performs now is a tight, satirical take on Hampstead liberals and casual racism. But then her 1988 TV solo sketch show Thompson was ripped apart by critics – something she describes as “a very violent experience”. “I never wrote another monologue, I never wrote another sketch,” she says.

The show has disappeared from view, never having been released on DVD, but the excerpts that are online don’t seem to justify the mauling it received. (The Victorian mouse sketch in particular, which skilfully draws out the tragedy and comedy of a young woman’s sexual naivety, is very funny.) You wonder if the critical reaction was born more of the blustering perpetuation of the “Women aren’t funny” cliché than of genuine critique.

Since leaving comedy behind, Thompson has found time to craft her screenplays between acting jobs, often taking years to bring a project to completion. She proudly exhibits a crate retrieved from her attic that contains the 17 drafts of Sense and Sensibility and says that the children’s film Nanny McPhee was even harder to do (it spent seven years in development). Her latest effort, a biopic of the Pre-Raphaelite muse Effie Gray that has had a similarly long gestation, finally opens in cinemas in October.

It is clear that the actor and writer in her are inextricably linked. As she answers a question about the uncertain nature of the industry with a quotation from the choreographer Agnes de Mille, her voice takes on a lilting tone that demands to be heard. “The artist never entirely knows: we guess,” she says. “We may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark.” 

Listen to Emma Thompson’s Bafta Screenwriters’ Lecture in full at: guru.bafta.org

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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How Girls made an entire episode out of a single conversation about sexual assault

“American Bitch” is a claustrophobic and clammy exploration of horrible rape debates.

Recently, I was at a party in London that a friend had brought me to. I knew nobody else there, and was happily chatting complete nonsense with a total stranger. Somehow the conversation meandered to a problematic male celebrity accused of domestic violence.

I made an offhand comment about how I couldn’t support him any more. The man I was talking to objected. Should we believe everything we hear? In under five minutes, our conversation had reached a point where he said authoritatively, “Are you really going to confidently throw around statistics like ‘over one in 20 women are raped’? Listen, I know the legal definition of rape.”

The machinery in my brain gave a familiar, dull clunk. Oh, I’m in one of those conversations. One of those conversations where a man tells a woman about what counts as rape and what doesn’t.

It takes a few minutes to realise that the latest episode of Girls, “American Bitch”, is one of those conversations. It opens with Hannah approaching a lovely white pillared apartment block, politely telling the doorman “I’m here to see Chuck Palmer.” She reapplies her lipstick in the elevator. Is she interviewing someone for a magazine? Picking someone up for a date?

Chuck meets Hannah at the door, asks her to take her shoes off, line them up next to the others, without touching his suede boots, and mentions that the “special slippers” are “just for” him. In case we were in any doubt, he says “Yes, I’m that asshole.” We see endless copies of books with his name on the cover, and certificates branding them New York Times Best Sellers on the walls, a Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a photo of him with Toni Morrison. This is a very famous writer.

When Chuck admits it was “good” that Hannah showed up, she replies, “I’m just surprised you found the article that I wrote. You must have an ass-deep Google alert on yourself, this was like a niche feminist website, it’s not the front page of the Times.”

“It’s just I’m hypervigilant these days,” he says. “Look, I’m not trying to get an apology out of you.”

“Ok, good.”

There’s a very specific edge to their conversation – we’re in familiar territory. “I’m obligated to use my voice to talk about things that are meaningful to me,” Hannah goes on. “And I read something about you that troubled me, that troubled me greatly – namely, that you’re using your power and your influence to involve yourself sexually with college students on your book tour, and whether all those sexual encounters were consensual or not –”

“Ok, hold up, because that’s where this line is pretty fucking messy, when words like consensual are thrown around.”

Oh, here we are. One of those conversations.

The scene carries on like this long enough for us to realise that this is probably a bottle episode - with limited characters and sets to keep costs down - like Season Two’s “One Man’s Trash”, featuring Patrick Wilson. That was another episode focusing solely on Hannah hanging out in the big luxurious apartment of a richer, older man. But this one is more of an ethical dialogue about the problems of accountability verses privacy. For the full half hour, Hannah and Chuck debate. Chuck claims his own kind of victimhood. His personal life has been invaded, a kind of groupthink has ended with the presumption of his guilt, and now, he can’t sleep, having nightmares about his daughter discovering the allegations online. “You remember what happened at Salem,” he says gravely. “I’m the witch!” (A few moments later, he compares himself to “some fire and brimstone preacher”, seemingly not noticing the irony.) Meanwhile, Hannah stands up for the girls who claim Chuck assaulted them, adding her own experience as a victim of sexual assault to the discussion to try and help him to understand.

Of course, this isn’t simply an ethical problem explored in dialogue. The texture of their debate is as telling as the basic argument itself. Chuck repeatedly interrupts Hannah, when she’s saying things like “women who have historically been pushed to the side and silenced an–”. He asks sarcastic, aggressive questions like, Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job?” and, even, “How does one give a non-consensual blowjob?”

At the same time, he also tries to charm Hannah, singling her out as special. “Listen, you’re clearly very bright, I could tell that from the first sentence you wrote,” he says casually, a minute or two into their first conversation. “Why would a smart woman like you write a very long and considered piece of writing on what is ultimately hearsay?” he says soon after. “Cause you’re smart, you write well, you write sharply,” he insists, when she asks why he invited her over instead of a different journalist.

And it works. Chuck is just self-deprecating enough that we see flashes of humanity in him. He asks Hannah questions about where she grew up, giggles with her, and talks about her dreams to be a writer. “Maybe one day you’ll be famous,” he says. “And a lot of people will know some stuff about you – some stuff. I mean, they’ll think they’ll know everything, but they won’t. Like what happened to me. You thought you knew everything, but you didn’t.”

Hannah shakes her head like a schoolgirl in trouble. “No, I didn’t,” she says.

At this point, I felt a squirming in my stomach. Viewers have always been quick to blur the line between fiction and reality when watching Girls, and we know that Lena Dunham has plenty in common with both Hannah and Chuck: yes, she’s a feminist writer who has spoken out about sexual violence, but she’s a famous writer who has faced a degree of public condemnation – and was even accused of sexually assaulting her sibling. “We just wanted to look at it from all sides,” Dunham told Vulture of the episode. Was Girls really telling the story of the poor, misunderstood, sexually aggressive male writer?

The next scene takes place in Chuck’s bedroom, where Hannah is awestruck over a signed copy of Philip Roth’s When She Was Good – Roth’s only novel with a female protagonist, Lucy, who repeatedly attempts to connect with and reform the disappointing men around her. “I know I’m not supposed to like him because he’s a misogynist and he demeans women,” Hannah says, in a comment that could easily refer to Chuck as much as Roth, “but I can’t help it.”

Chuck eventually asks Hannah to lie down on the bed with him – whilst encouraging her to “keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you” – and when she does so, he unzips his fly, rolls towards Hannah, and flops his dick onto her thigh. Hannah surprises even herself when she touches it, panics, and tries to leave.

It’s a typical Girls moment - ridiculous, blunt, and sudden but still funny, and it reveals Chuck once and for all for the predator he is, whilst simultaneously portraying him as pathetic.

“People don’t talk about this shit for fun,” Hannah tells Chuck, and she’s right, these arguments are not fun. As Dunham told Vulture: “We’re having so many conversations about rape culture and assault and they’re really, really important conversations, but a lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way.” Although there’s a grim humour in the familiarity of these scenes, this bottle episode feels claustrophobic and clammy, with shots of Hannah rubbing her neck or looking away awkwardly. It’s sweaty and stressful.

“Anyway, last year, I’m at this, whatever, warehouse party in Bushwick, and this dude comes up to me,” Hannah says earlier in the episode. The two are old schoolmates, and they talk about a former teacher, who Hannah calls out as a molester. “And you know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party, like he’s a judge, and says, ‘That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.’ And he walks away.” Yup. Sounds like one of those conversations.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.