Embarrassing bodies: why the BBC's Lady Chatterley made me squirm

The adaptation was – quite a rare feat, this – at once clichéd and anachronistic.

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Poor old D H Lawrence isn’t terribly fashionable these days, though some people do think slightly better of him now than they did in the 1970s, when Angela Carter reduced him, in the course of a mere 3,000 words, to little more than a stocking fetishist. (You can read her brilliant essay “Lorenzo the Closet-Queen” in Shaking A Leg, her collected journalism, the latest edition of which comes with an introduction by yours truly.) Whatever his standing, however problematic (that is, misogynistic) his work continues to be, if you’re going to adapt it for television, you might as well have a stab at doing it properly. Change it too much and you’re left with something so crude – yes, even cruder than Lawrence! – that the whole exercise becomes pointless. Why not just commission a new drama instead?

The BBC’s new version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (6 September, 9pm) was written by Line of Duty’s Jed Mercurio. In essence, his idea was to make the three central characters vastly more sympathetic and modern and then simply to disappear most of Lawrence’s other, more secondary creations, mere distractions all. Unfortunately, do this and you inevitably ditch the novel’s complexities and nuances. In particular, you lose its underlying preoccupation with social class, a system that its author sensed was in flux, the trenches having thrown up all sorts of in-betweeners (the novel was published in 1928).

In Mercurio’s hands, the narrative was – quite a rare feat, this – at once clichéd and anachronistic. The now super-posh Connie Chatterley (in the book, she marries up) had become an unlikely proto-feminist who always took the lead, in the boudoir and everywhere else. (Was it, I wonder, thanks to this new-found confidence, or in spite of it, that she consistently managed to reach orgasm in five seconds flat?) Meanwhile, the now super-oik-ish Oliver Mellors (in the novel, he flits between the mining class into which he was born and something just above it, having received a commission during the war) was never anything less than totally sensitive to his woman’s needs, performing open-air cunnilingus with such expertise and wild enthusiasm that I half expected to see a well-thumbed copy of The Joy of Sex back at his ’umble cottage.

Mercurio was determined to treat Clifford Chatterley’s impotence, the result of a war injury, with an empathy so intense that it bordered on a kind of reverence. But he was much less certain of what to do with Mellors’s embarrassing sex talk. So, he reduced it to just two speeches – a single mention of “John Thomas”, a quick C-word, but definitely no weaving of violets down below, and so on – both of which were not only predictably squirm-inducing but also baffling, having seemingly come out of nowhere. One minute, he was going on about his pheasants; the next, he was describing in loving detail the luxuriant hair in which his penis pranced. I suppose he had every reason to feel proud.

Back at the big house, poor Clifford was being attacked by a doctor who was attempting to gather his sperm in a syringe, to help him father an heir. It was like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He even had his own Nurse Ratched, in the form of Ivy Bolton, a character whom Mercurio had turned unaccountably into a class warrior so plucky that she told her patient what his gamekeeper and his wife were up to. I don’t remember any of this stuff – the syringe; Ivy the avenging angel – from the book and I’m damned if I know what, exactly, it added.

I should say something about the performances. The best of the three was James Norton as Clifford, whizzing through the Nottinghamshire woods in his motorised wheelchair like Davros, the leader of the Daleks. Richard Madden was suitably muscular and brooding as Mellors, if your idea of Mellors is muscular and brooding (I’ve always pictured him as wiry and weaselly), and Holliday Grainger as Connie was suitably pink-faced and dewy. Happily, all three managed not to look too embarrassed by the final scene, in which Clifford nobly agreed to a divorce and Connie and Mellors drove off in a white car, The Joy of Sex stowed in its capacious walnut glove compartment. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles