The misery of sex

Television - Andrew Billen on a grim but ungrubby dramatisation of Lawrence's <em>Sons and Lovers</e

In theory, Lawrence's novels should make ideal TV dramas. They are baggy family sagas, but with the extra ingredient of sex - so much sex that even Andrew Davies would find little need to add to it. And, as we all know, sex plus costume equals ratings plus awards.

Yet the humping in ITV1's Sons and Lovers (12-13 January) was unsatisfactory in every sense. For a start, the sex was not only more explicit than the scenes Lawrence wrote (his writing got franker and franker until it got Lady Chatterley banned) but also nastier. As unsatisfactory coition followed unsatisfactory coition, Sons and Lovers became a kind of Misery of Sex video.

We knew that Gertrude, the mum, was going to be no good at it. She was from Kent, for one thing, and we were in Nottinghamshire. For another, when her husband, Walter, first asked her for a dance, she said she "couldn't". Miriam, her son Paul's mousy, on-off girlfriend, did not dance, either, and turned out to be so bad in bed that she made Gertrude look like Dr Ruth. "Will you have me now?" she asked, as invitingly as Mrs Mopp asking: "Can I do you now, sir?" In the missionary position, she was the fire that failed to light, however vigorously the poker was wiggled. When Paul "took" from the rear like a heathen, she grasped a crucifix in her fist for safety.

A lot of her problem, one felt, was her reluctance to take all her clothes off. We knew it would be different with her rival, as soon as the suffragette Clara Dawes appeared before us starkers. A director does not ask for full frontal nudity from an actress unless he means something by it (ask any of them) and the meaning of this was that Mrs Dawes was bed-wise. Yet after a promising early range of noisy orgasms, she too ended up as bored as a stiff, eyes wide open as her lover jiggered about on top.

The joy of this production was, then, not the sex, but the exquisite casting. William and Paul's three girlfriends, all brunettes, looked like aspects of the same woman. Louie, William's fiancee, played by Georgina Chapman, was a functionally illiterate clotheshorse and no keener on sex than the rest of the women, but Chapman gave her sheen and dignity. Lyndsey Marshal as Miriam was intense and nervy, but afire with inner certainty that she could love for England. Esther Hall, as Clara, has admitted lacking Clara's pendulous breasts, but her sly performance was heavyweight in every other way.

Rupert Evans, playing Paul, was a revelation, getting across the vulnerable cockiness of a closeted child and being adorable with it. As his mother, Sarah Lancashire was no revelation at all, but only because Coronation Street's former Raquel Watts has long since proved herself a formidable actress, most recently in Birthday Girl in which she played a sick woman bravely enjoying her last birthday party. Her terminal disease in the Lawrence story was Reverse Oedipal Complex Syndrome, but she died of a tumour anyway, giving some momentum to the less compelling half of the story.

Her death did not, however, supply Paul with the liberation he had the right to expect and he was left with neither Clara nor Miriam as a bedmate. This version concluded with him chummily sharing a pint with Clara's husband, a scene that hardly did justice to the novel's homosexual implications when Baxter's and Paul's "elemental men" meet.

The film looked surprisingly pastoral and ungrubby, a sleekness that competed a little with the script's geopolitical conceit that everyone was being "buried" by this mining community. But you could see why the director, Stephen Whittaker, wanted to avoid the usual pit saga cliches, particularly since they were inevitably going to be personified in the drunken, occasionally violent miner Walter Morel, Gertrude's husband. Hugo Speer was credible in the early scenes, but once his character had lost the "battle for supremacy" with Gertrude and was left with nothing to do but limp, sup and fall over at parties (he spoke five words in part two), caricature set in and memories erupted of a cloth-capped Graham Chapman in Monty Python skits. What snobbish, ungenerous sketches they, in retrospect, were, but they did permanent damage to the cause of northern realism.

I have more reservations about Simon Burke's script. Reasonably faithful to the plot (Gertrude's third son, Arthur, remained unborn), Burke was intolerant of Lawrence's windy dialogue, but had nothing to replace it with. The result was that few conversations lasted more than a couple of sentences and the screenplay was full of awkward silences when it should have been full of awkward talk.

Granted, too many lines of the "Don't you think we have been too fierce in what thy call purity?" variety really would have made the thing a laughing stock, but it was cheating to get round Lawrence's intellectual difficulties by emphasising the bonking over the talking about the bonking. Similarly, Burke's decision to avoid the charge that Lawrence was a misogynist by making the film as much about the lovers as about the sons deprived us of the intense crotch-level view Lawrence gave of young manhood. It goes without saying that this well-intentioned but uneasy project was wrapped in prophylactic solemnity.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 January 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can he be stopped?