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TV UK, 10 March

Casanova and the culture of smut.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Channel 4’s Banned in the UK (late nights) is essentially a bog standard nostalgic clip show punctuated by annoying talking heads. Its unique selling point for the post-pub crowd (over other such trivia, at least) is the promise of sexual titillation, though admittedly this is tempered by the appearance of Gerry Adams.

The notion of censorship of racy material seems increasingly quaint, and the prudish figure of Mary Whitehouse, which pops up frequently in the programme, seems from another age. Indeed, another recent Channel 4 programme used similar blue-rinsed old ladies to string together its sex clips, cashing in on their camp appeal, and encouraging the audience to feel like naughty schoolboys. Somehow the triumph of smut doesn’t feel like any kind of liberation.

In this context, the BBC’s new drama about the celebrated eighteenth-century philanderer Casanova is surprisingly tame, and in fact it is far more interesting on contemporary mores than any clip show (BBC3, starting on Sunday night). While the ubiquitous billboards promise a racy period romp, Casanova is really a rather sweet story of doomed love, enlivened as much by original music and choreography as by raunchiness. That’s not to say there is no ‘action’, but the actual sex scenes seem a bit cursory, as if the producers felt they ought to do a bit of that.

Someone told me after I’d seen tapes of the first two episodes that there is no nudity in the programme. I hadn’t noticed, but actually I think that’s right. In fact, the most effective rendering of Casanova’s exploits comes not in the bedroom but in the confession box (and no, I don’t mean he rogers a nun in the confession box, though he does roger several nuns, albeit with their modesty preserved by their habits). But Casanova does not really feel guilty about his sexual generosity. At a time when beautiful young women were married off to ugly old men for money and social position, he was merely helping them express themselves. ‘If you could do it, you would too!’ he tells his pursuers early on. Don’t worry: he does get punched.

Of course, sexual freedom is the norm today, and people have to work at their marriages to make them loveless. Accordingly, the real drama in Casanova centres on the one woman he can’t have, a beautiful adventuress with whom he forms a special bond, but who won’t put out without a guarantee of security for her future and her future children. That carefree character that so endears him to other women is now a liability. Instead of trying to break out of stultifying social convention, he is desperately trying to break in, albeit, crucially, on his own terms.

This speaks to our own ambivalent relationship to freedom far more than the lazy narrative of ever-greater permissiveness and the pushing back of boundaries. Titillation is parasitic on residual moralism, and so Mary Whitehouse is a more appropriate figurehead for the culture of smut than its cheerleaders might think. What they miss is the infinitely more subtle play of sometimes conflicting aspirations that animates the real world, and that of the undoubtedly reprehensible Casanova.

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Topics Culture

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