What will become of the sex scene in the age of social distancing? asks Peter Fincham
Among the myriad issues arising from a global pandemic – it’s been like the arrival of Bill Haley and the Comets: after this, everything is different – the question of how to shoot scenes involving physical intimacy for films and television feels like a low priority. Suppressing the virus? Vital. Getting the economy moving again? Definitely a good thing. Finding a vaccine? Yes, please. Sex on telly? Er… do we care?
All the same, great minds have been focusing on this and considering the post-Covid options. Intimacy and social distancing are a tricky mix, since there are few sexual positions that work with a two metre gap between the participants. Recently, Directors UK issued guidance to their members, suggesting that they look to the past for inspiration. Films like Casablanca and Brief Encounter have been mentioned. In the case of the latter, sexual tension builds to fever pitch as the protagonists meet, fall in love and eventually accept that their relationship is doomed. But they don’t have sex. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnston risk their consciences, their marriages and their health – those old-fashioned coal-fired trains can give you more than just a smut in the eye if you breathe in the fumes – without so much as a snog.
So are we time travelling back to an era when, as Cole Porter put it, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking? In the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up, sex on telly was one of many ways in which barriers were broken down and inhibitions cast aside after the dull-seeming conformity of the post-war era. To my generation, sex was A Good Thing. Showing it, and enjoying it, proved that we weren’t as stuffy as our parents. The permissive society, as it was called, was all the rage, and programme makers took pleasure shocking nay-sayers with ever more frank and in-yer-face depictions of the carnal act. As long as there was artistic justification – whatever that meant – it was fine.
This had started to change long before Covid-19 came along. Those who thought explicit sex scenes essential to the plot were directors who – although it took us a while to notice it – were mainly male; those who felt obliged to disrobe were, more often that not, female. If you looked at it through the other end of the telescope, you saw a different picture. Maybe all this explicitness was, on reflection, more exploitative than empowering (not that ‘empowering’ was a word that we used in those days). The pendulum started to swing in the other direction, as pendulums do. The question of whether nudity was justified became paramount, and actors – quite rightly – were given a say in what they would and wouldn’t do. A certain amount of realism was sacrificed, but nobody minded, and directors got used to filming scenes that appeared raunchy and uninhibited, only for the actors to collapse back on the bed with their underwear firmly on. One thing everyone agreed on – sex shouldn’t be gratuitous. But what does gratuitous mean? It’s a slippery word. Drama itself is, in a sense, gratuitous. We don’t actually need it.
So we live in an age that, even before coronavirus came along, was arguably becoming more chaste. There were exceptions, as you would expect. In recent months, the enormously-admired Normal People went to great lengths to depict sex in as natural and, above all, normal a way as possible. The sex fuelled the publicity and the publicity fuelled the viewing figures, which were astronomical. Nothing new there. We’ve all enjoyed Normal People not because it’s full of sex but because it’s so good…. haven’t we? Certainly, nobody has accused it of being gratuitous, but you might well ask – why not? It would have been perfectly possible to shoot it fully clothed and in a post-Covid world perhaps that’s exactly what would have happened.
Other examples from the recent past are already showing their age. If you were filming the first few seasons of Game of Thrones today, it seems unlikely that it would feature such obviously gratuitous nudity. As the wife of a leading politician once said to me, ‘My husband absolutely loves Game of Thrones. It’s basically power and tits, right?’
That seems like a remark from another age (so is the politician, by the way – I’m afraid his identity is going to have remain a secret). In recent years the MeToo movement has, quite rightly, shone a harsh spotlight on anything that smacks of coercion of women by men. Attitudes have changed and so have working practices, with the emergence of a new class of ‘intimacy coordinators’ on film sets, working alongside directors to ensure that actors feel comfortable with what they are being asked to do.
And then along came Covid. As production restarts across the UK, there’s another new class of expert on set – the Covid supervisor, whose job isn’t to make the actors feel comfortable but to keep them safe. The director who is in charge of making a sex scene seem dramatically convincing, which is enough of a challenge at the best of times, will now be working with an intimacy coordinator at one elbow and a Covid supervisor at the other. Good luck to all concerned.
Having said that, if it’s sex on telly that you’re after, you still find yourself stumbling on it from time to time. The other day I found myself watching The Girlfriend Experience, a drama series from Starz in America which was lurking somewhere in the lower reaches of the Amazon prime menu. I’m guessing you haven’t seen it, and you may never have heard of it. It takes a premise straight out of clichéd male fantasy – the middle-class girl who decides to work as an escort as a ‘lifestyle choice’ (remember Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl? or Catherine Deneuve in Belle Du Jour?) – and turns it into something strange, unsettling and original.
Set in America, it is actually filmed in Toronto and takes place in coolly-lit and coldly impersonal interiors – offices where nobody seems to work, flats that never seem to have been lived in. The characters match the setting. They dress in tastefully muted colours and live tastefully muted lives. Sex is transactional, but so is everything else – people are only interested in each other inasmuch as they can satisfy each other’s needs, both physical and emotional. There’s no warmth, no rough edges. Every surface has been polished to a hard, brittle sheen.
The story which takes up the first half of season two features a mesmerising performance by the decidedly un-American Anna Friel, playing a character whose voice is as flat and monotonous as the surface of the moon. The plot is one part life of an escort, one part political thriller. It’s stylishly made and weirdly compelling. Alongside the sex, which is filmed unflinchingly, the themes are heavy ones – political corruption, deceipt, betrayal. An unlikely blend, but somehow it works. When the character played by Anna Friel finds her life falling apart, real emotion erupts. It’s as shocking in its own way as the scene in which the alien bursts out of John Hurt’s stomach.
By all means give The Girlfriend Experience a try, but if you haven’t got time, don’t worry – that suits me fine too. Such has been the explosion of platforms and channels that’s it’s estimated that over 500 English-language drama series are made every year. 2020 will prove an exception for obvious reasons, but barring a second wave of coronavirus the floodgates will open again in 2021. The downside of this is that it’s simply impossible to watch everything, and entire series that have taken years to make, and cost somebody a fortune, often pass us by completely. The Luminaries, anybody?
The upside, though, is that if you burrow deep enough into the EPG [Electronic Programme Guide], you might find a perfectly good series that you can enjoy all on your own reasonably secure in the knowledge that you’ll never meet anyone else who’s seen it. The very opposite, in other words, of the ‘shared experience’ that television is there to provide. For some reason, I like that.
Anyway, back to our theme – sex on telly. Time will tell whether we’re on the brink of a new era in which a glimpse of stocking is rendered shocking all over again. I suspect not. Sex sells, and people will continue to find justifications to film it. It’s survived all manner of censorship and back in the day even the determined efforts of the Mary Whitehouse brigade – remember them? – couldn’t stem the tide. Let’s see whether it can find a way of coping with the demands of the newly-appointed, face mask-wearing, tape measure-wielding Covid supervisors. I’ll wager it can.
Peter Fincham was MD at Talkback until 2005. He then became Controller of BBC One and from 2008 to 2016 was Director of Television at ITV. In 2017 he co-founded independent production company Expectation.