Amber Regis :: "Looking Glasses At Odd Corners"

Life-writing, literature, popular culture.

Book Chapter: TV, Sex and Society

This month sees the official release of Television, Sex and Society: Analysing Contemporary Representations edited by James Aston, Basil Glynn and Beth Johnson.

I have contributed a chapter to this book on the representation of lesbian lives and lesbian sex in BBC period drama. In particular, I  discuss Portrait of a Marriage (1990) and Tipping the Velvet (2002), exploring the relationship between sexual explicitness and anxieties raised by adaptation and source material. In the case of Tipping, the original source-text was Sarah Water’s NeoVictorian novel, playfully subversive and metafictive. But in the case of Portrait, the source-text was Nigel Nicolson’s auto/biographical account of his mother, Vita Sackville-West, and her relationship with Violet Trefusis. How does the “polite” genre of period drama negotiate lesbian sex, and how might this differ when the life portrayed on screen is (paradoxically) “real”?

When drafting this chapter I originally included a short section on The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010). Due to the constraints of space, this section was removed during later revisions, but I include it below as an added extra or “deleted scene”. There are claims and references that relate to arguments in the published chapter, and ideally they should be read side-by-side, but I hope this whets your appetite…

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

Where Tipping the Velvet (dir. Geoffrey Sax, 2002) had celebrated inauthenticity to enable (yet contain) its representation of lesbianism, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (dir. James Kent, 2010) employed an intensified rhetoric of cultural legitimacy. This one-off drama was based on a series of episodes from the eponymous diary, a document of some four million words (parts of which were written in ‘crypthand’ to disguise their intimate, often sexual content) [1].  Like Portrait of a Marriage (dir. Stephen Whittaker, 1990), the drama was an adaptation of life-writing, staking a redoubled claim to authenticity: “real” lives within an accurate historical framework. In stark contrast to Tipping, and to a much greater extent than Portrait, authenticity became the drama’s legitimating framework and the means by which it was “sold” to the press. Writing for The Observer, Vanessa Thorpe described the broadcast as ‘a genuinely pioneering moment in history’, while the Radio Times tasked Jeanette Winterson—with her own brand of high-brow lesbianism—to offer a personal account of Lister’s significance, highlighting her reputation as the ‘first modern lesbian’ (a phrase oft-repeated in the press prior to broadcast) [2].

The decoding and public circulation of Lister’s diaries, on page and screen, was constructed as a historically and culturally significant act, legitimising the exposure of a “real” private life. By comparison, Portrait had been derided as the airing of dirty laundry. Following the broadcast of Secret Diaries, the BBC showed a documentary, Revealing Anne Lister, presented by “out” lesbian comic Sue Perkins. This pairing of drama with factual programming reinforced the seriousness of the Lister project, guaranteeing its authenticity while correcting the drama’s glamorised version of events. The documentary offered a ‘panoramic picture’ of Lister’s character, with Perkins torn between admiration and loathing, and concluded with a tribute to her ‘greatest achievement’: the diaries. However, in several texts accompanying the drama—both literary and journalistic—the diaries were made to signify beyond their depiction of lesbianism. In a revised and expanded introduction to a new paperback edition of the diaries, Helena Whitbread depicted Lister as ‘a trail-blazer for the emancipation of women from the mores of society’ [3]. While Lister’s defiance of multiple gendered restrictions, economic as well as sexual, is an important argument to make, the repetition of this rhetoric in relation to the drama served to bury lesbianism within the broader context of women’s history. In her Radio Times article, Jeanette Winterson universalised and de-sexualised Lister’s transgression: her example is ‘important for any woman wanting to make her own choices in the world, regardless of what is acceptable in society’ [4].  Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, this rhetoric returns us to denials of lesbianism. In an interview for the BBC, Maxine Peak insisted: ‘It’s not just about being gay or lesbian—the story is about anybody who wants to be who they want to be’ [5].  Here Lister is made to transcend the immediate context of her personal relationships. She becomes an important part of social history, while the “detective” work of decoding and dramatising her diary is legitimised as a valuable, political act: a symbolic recovery of all voices and identities marginalised by history, not just lesbianism.

In this climate of historical and political earnestness, sexually explicit content took a tentative step back into the closet. On screen, Secret Diaries reproduced the familiar heterosexual frame employed by Portrait, with its replication of butch/femme pairings and reticent depictions of sexual behaviour. Lister enjoys passionate embraces with several women, including scenes of clothed masturbation, but there is just one bedroom scene with nudity (with a brief second appearance, much curtailed, in flashback). The drama’s legitimating rhetoric of cultural and historical significance precludes the explicit depiction of lesbian sex.

[1] Helena Whitbread, “Introduction,” The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, ed. Helena Whitbread (London: Virago, 2010), xiii.

[2] Vanessa Thorpe, “Anne Lister, Britain’s ‘first modern lesbian’, is subject of BBC drama,” The Observer, May 23, 2010 (accessed 19 April 2011); Jeanette Winterson, “The love that speaks in code,” Radio Times, May 29-June 4, 2010, 27.

[3] Whitbread, xx.

[4] Winterson, 27.

[5] Michael Osborn, “Drama gives ‘first’ lesbian fresh life,” BBC News Website, May 31, 2010 (accessed 21 April 2011)

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This entry was posted on September 15, 2012 by in academic, adaptation, BBC, lesbian, period drama, publication, television, Uncategorized.

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Except where otherwise stated, "Looking Glasses at Odd Corners" is © Amber Regis and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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