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Poldark by Gaslight


Posted by Dr No on 08 September 2015

mad_doctor_1.jpgDr No approached last Sunday evening’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (BBC1) in a bad mood, having just had his computer freeze up in the last moments of an ebay auction he was particularly keen to win. Maybe there’s an app out there baddies can use to freeze up other bidders’ computers at the critical moment. Any road, he hoped some good old fashioned rumpy pumpy would distract him from his ebay woes, all the more so as the BBC’s adaptation was by Jed Mercurio, once upon a time a doctor, and known more recently for dramas such as Line of Duty. He was up against stiff competition, not just in the trouser department. For Dr No, Ken Russell’s Women in Love is the defining big or small screen adaptation of DH Lawrence’s work, with a none too bad 1980s BBC adaptation of The Rainbow definitely in the running. How did Mercurio do?

Viewers hoping for fanny by gaslight were to be disappointed. Mercurio blew it, literally, in the opening scenes. First there was an explosion in a coal mine, with charred corpses. This was followed soon after by an explosion in a WWI trench, which blew Sir C’s chances of ever fathering an heir. A third explosion came as Lady C narrowly prevented her husband from blowing his brains out in impotent frustration. Lots of banging going on, for sure, but not quite of the kind of explosive climaxes one expects in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The thrust, if one can put it that way, of the novel is meant to be about the release of frustrated sexuality against a backdrop of rigid class divisions, of personal liberation through the natural rhythms of sex. Opening with a lot of explosions in quick succession may fire the melodrama rocket, but it’s never going to touch the G-spot.

Constance, Lady C, was played as an pretty airhead, with all the air taken out. Clifford, Sir C, redirected all his manhood to his upper lip, which remained stiff at all times, except when he was having a tantrum, which he did quite often, when the afore-mentioned lip would tremble and quiver, before returning to its stiff state. Mellors was played as Poldark by gaslight, with black coal replacing golden corn. There was a lot of symbolic hammering away in the woods, but on nails rather than straw bales, and the production of fluffy little chicks. Mellor’s hovel was dark and steamy inside, not from passion, but from rising damp.

Being a Mercurio adaptation, there was a poke at the medical profession, in the shape of a steel-rimmed white-coated mad doctor with a hideous ejaculation apparatus, which consisted of an electric shock machine deployed down below, where the sun don’t shine, with a view to stimulating the pelvic nerves into causing ejaculation. Instead of producing what the butler without missing a beat called ‘the event of fluid’ – had he already ear-marked one of his ubiquitous silver salvers for the delivery? - the apparatus delivered the soul-wrenching screams of a tortured impotent. To add insult to injury, a pretty young widowed nurse was on hand to witness Sir Cliff’s agony. Downstairs, Lady C was under strict instructions not to leave the building, and to be in a state of immediate readiness, but in the event, the only fluid to be had came from the beads of sweat issuing forth from the brow of a tortured man.

Scenes like this are inclined to give medicine a bad name. Medicine in the early twentieth century was rather keen on electro-mechanical apparati – one only has to recall the life-saving but in its own way hideous iron lung to get the picture – but as it turns out the first reported human use of electro-ejaculation was in 1948, though apparently Australian rams were having their balls blown by trans-rectal electric shocks back in the 1930s by an appropriately named Dr Gunn. Had the mad doctor achieved electro-ejaculation in his patient, there would be only one way to describe it: as, at about half a century before its time, the most premature ejaculation in history.

Back in the 1990s, Mercurio wrote Cardiac Arrest, a TV series depicting life on the wards. Criticised by many for being too cynical, it was nonetheless a great success with many doctors, including this one, who saw in it a neatly observed hôpital noire drama. In a typical scene, a likeable but incompetent surgical houseman, lacking water to hand, fills a catheter balloon with tea from a nearby cup, only to get a red face later when the catheter is removed and what looks like pus drains from the balloon. Black medical humour, and the black drama of Line of Duty, are Mercurio’s natural ground, meddling with Mellors isn’t. Lawrence’s work is about individuals caught in the dark striving to reach the light, whereas Mercurio’s characters start in the black, only for things to get darker. He would do well to stick with what he knows. Why, there is even a starting point for his next drama in his Lady Chatterley’s Lover: a mad sexologist, with a hideous apparatus.

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