Why Has the BBC Defiled Madame Bovary? (and Caused Us All So Much Embarrassment)

Daily Mail (London), April 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Why Has the BBC Defiled Madame Bovary? (and Caused Us All So Much Embarrassment)


Byline: NICOLA TYRER

ONE OF the greatest gifts of television is its ability to bring the classics to life and one of the great pleasures of family life is to sit down together and watch a really good dramatisation.

And so it was with a sense of pleasurable anticipation that I sat down on Monday night with my husband, two teenage children and 96-year-old aunt to watch the BBC's two-part dramatisation of Gustave Flaubert's mighty French novel of passion, repression and perdition, Madame Bovary.

I'm sure ours was one of thousands of middle-class households whose parents were thinking the same thing: 'Teenagers today can't be bothered with books with hundreds of pages and long, rambling sentences. This is the chance to introduce them to "good" literature the easy way.' But the mood in our sitting room changed from one of anticipation to red-cheeked embarrassment (not least on the part of our children) as some of the most explicit sex scenes I have seen on the small screen began to unfold in all their gratuitous, grunting, thrusting glory.

Nothing was left to the imagination, visual or aural. Much of the sex was 'written in' simply to titillate the viewer. It bore as much relation to the inhibitions of 19th-century provincial thinking as a pagan orgy to a Sunday school outing (at one stage, Emma Bovary is seen naked in bed with one of her young admirers in a 'fantasy' clip).

An audience unfamiliar with Flaubert's writing might think he had written a raunchy romp reminiscent of the Emmanuelle soft-core films of the Seventies.

The wedding night of Emma, the 19-year-old heroine who has just married Charles, a stolid doctor, offered plenty of scope for prurient camerawork.

Instead of being apprehensive and bashful, which seems to have been the case with most 19th-century brides, the convent-educated Emma paraded in 'naughty Nineties' underwear.

THEN the camera took us between the sheets. We were forced to observe in graphic detail extensive pelvic thrusting and a crescendo of grunts from the husband while close-ups of Emma's face thumped home the point that the earth has not so much as quivered for her.

But this appeared almost tasteful in comparison to the scene in the forest where Emma decides to surrender to her longing for sexual fulfilment in the arms of a man who has effectively picked her up.

We saw Emma's naked breasts being fondled from behind; then as if we were in any doubt as to what was happening, we were shown her lover leaning back between her spread thighs to unbutton his flies. As a coda, we were treated to a lingering aeriel shot featuring his bare buttocks moving between her legs.

The indignation I felt at finding myself unwillingly reduced to the level of voyeur and forced to watch vulgar simulated sex alongside family members both older and younger than myself has little to do with prudishness (no one who lives a life peopled with dogs, cats and horses can be other than sanguine about nature's urges).

It has more to do with a feeling of betrayal. Like many parents, I have long ago given up watching Channel 4 because you never know what deviant spectacle you will find confronting you. But it has come to something when a family can no longer sit down together and watch a BBC-produced classic because worship of the great god of ratings decrees there are bound to be over-the-top sex scenes.

But there is more to it than that.

In spicing up the classics in this vulgar way, the producers are guilty of an even greater betrayal - that of artistic truth. …

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