Lady Chatterley’s Lover revisited – but is BBC version too steamy or not enough?

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Papers divided over new TV adaptation, with Telegraph regretting absence of ‘sexual language’ and Sun claiming that it ‘borders on porn’

Almost a century after DH Lawrence wrote it and 55 years after the first Penguin paperback edition was cleared of obscenity, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set to shock again – either because there is too much sex and bad language in a new BBC adaptation, or not enough.

The 90-minute drama, to be broadcast next month, reputedly contains one instance of the word “cock” and one “John Thomas” – the gamekeeper Mellors’s favoured term for the part with which, in one of the more appallingly unforgettable scenes in the book, he enchants Lady Chatterley by entwining with honeysuckle and forget-me-not flowers. But there are no uses at all of the four-letter words “fuck” or “cunt”, which ensured publication of the full text was barred for decades and landed in court in 1960.

There are just three sex scenes, according to the Telegraph. And with apparent regret, it notes: “The passion will be soft-focus and almost all the book’s sexual language will be absent.”

However, the Sun is already working itself up into a muck sweat, promising that the adaptation is “so steamy it borders on porn”, and quoting the producer Serena Cullen as saying: “I have never seen anyone do the things Mellors, the gamekeeper, does to Lady Chatterley. I’m not sure what more we could have shown unless it was for porn.”

Jed Mercurio, who wrote and directed the new version, thinks that trying to shock modern audiences with the original language would be pointless. “Lawrence chose a certain type of language in his book which was then groundbreaking,” he said. “It did not feel that today we would be breaking new ground if we were to use those words. If you want to use certain words you have to justify them, and it did not seem relevant.”

He added: “The idea was to tell this as a love story, a love triangle – to concentrate on the emotions of the characters.”

The Mirror is among several newspapers quoting unnamed BBC insiders gleefully predicting that the broadcaster will pitch the adaptation directly against ITV’s “prim” Downton Abbey, which starts its final run next month.

Lawrence wrote the book in 1927 while terminally ill with tuberculosis. A version was privately printed in 1928, and a heavily bowdlerised version followed in 1932.

It was the publication by Penguin in 1960 of a full – and cheap – paperback edition that sparked a prosecution under the previous year’s Obscene Publications Act, against which the publisher’s only defence was literary merit. Among those who spoke up for the book were the writers EM Forster, Cecil Day-Lewis, Rebecca West and Richard Hoggart, as well as the bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson.

The prosecution’s case was sunk by an appeal to the jury by the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, which became as famous as any passage in the book. “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

Many saw the verdict as a game-changer that ushered in the swinging 60s. Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Annus Mirabilis: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) /Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

In 1962 Penguin published a second edition dedicated to “the twelve jurors, three women and nine men who returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ and thus made DH Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom”.

Lady Chatterley herself and many readers have found Lawrence’s use of dialect more challenging than the sex scenes. “Ah luv thee, thy legs, an’ th’ shape on thee, an’ th’ womanness on thee. Ah luv th’ womanness on thee. Ah luv thee wi’ my balls an’ wi’ my heart. But dunna ax me nowt,” Mellors declares rapturously at one point.

The book has been filmed several times: a 1993 television version had Joely Richardson and Sean Bean cavorting in the woods. The new version stars Richard Madden, best known as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, as Mellors grappling with Holliday Grainger as Lady Chatterley.

James Norton, last seen as a lovestruck and frequently hungover clergyman detective in Grantchester, spends most of the film confined to a wheelchair in the thankless role of Sir Clifford Chatterley. The character returns from the first world war paralysed from the waist down, and unlike Matthew Crawley’s character in Downton Abbey, there is no miraculous recovery to rampant good health.

At the programme launch, Norton said the role was so taxing that at one point he blacked out, but that, like the trooper he is, he hoped the frames of him struggling for breath survived into the final edit.

Powered by article was written by Maev Kennedy, for on Sunday 16th August 2015 16.15 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010