The Chatterley Affair

Monday, March 20, 2006 by

On Sunday night, during the closing credits of the programme which proceeded a timely rerun of Ken Russell’s once controversial adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the announcer reminded the viewer that it featured, “Joely Richardson… and Sean Bean… and Sean Bean’s bottom”. I checked the corner of the screen, but the BBC4 logo was still in place. It seemed like the kind of remark that would play into the hands of The Mail on Sunday, who ran the usual piece about the drop in standards at the BBC preceding tonight’s new drama from Andrew Davies, The Chatterley Affair, which described some of the events that might have occurred inside and outside the courtroom during the Penguin obscenity trial.

In their article, The Mail had inevitably counted the number of swear words, the sex scenes and calculated the so-called depravity. Ironically these were exactly the items in Lawrence’s novel that the prosecution would highlight as a reason for the book to be banned. Amazingly, even now the film felt slightly forbidden. Like the book (I’ve heard) it was a window into another world.

Rather than simply offer an unexpurgated dramatisation of the court transcripts, the film wondered about the interaction of the jurors and speculated whether the book might have prompted a pair of them – Helena and Keith – to enter into a relationship during the length of the trial. Captions in the opening were careful to explain that this story was entirely fictional, although a framing device – older versions of the couple describing in interview what happened during their fling and how it made them feel – leant the plot an authentic feel (a device that seemed to have been borrowed from the recent film Une Liaison Pornographique which equally allowed a couple to reflect backwards on a doomed love affair).

Overall it was a fairly mesmerizing piece of work. Despite the obviously low budget, the London of the early ’60s was evoked perfectly well, with costume and montage sequences that used newspaper print to summarise each day in court. Rather like seeing brand new “old newspapers” in similar films, watching the jurors picking up copies of the original printing of the novel was quite exciting, even though they were obviously mock-ups. Nothing in publishing could beat the clean, orange design of those Penguin originals that are often so old, yellowed and moth-eaten now.

Just as thrilling was the film which played over the closing credits as a reporter interviewed people queuing to buy the book on publication day, one wanting to hide his face in shame, another saying that she was buying for someone else. Of course you are.

In quite difficult roles as the doomed lovers, Louise Delamere and Rafe Spall had excellent chemistry and the viewer could definitely believe they would engage in the affair. In fact, as they sat offering longing glances across the jury room, it seemed inevitable. If anything the sex scenes felt completely natural and again in keeping with the novel (I’ve heard from somewhere) they weren’t feel sordid. The swearing was entirely in context and mirrored (or copied) the passages from the book highlighted in court.

The jury scenes very cleanly set out the reasons for the trial and the arguments for and against. It was interesting to see that the prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones presented his case by repeating large chunks of the book even though it sounded ridiculous with his clipped regimented accent. Cleverly, the witnesses were truncated to allow for only the important information to be reflected and it was excellent to see David Tennant being deployed as Richard Hoggart, which emphasised the of testimony of a witness who it is said helped swing the case in Penguin’s favour.

If there is a criticism it is that in places the shifts from court to bedroom to kitchen (of Keith and his wife) felt slightly too regimented. This was no doubt the intention to present the flow of the trial, but it did lend the proceedings a slight predictability, particularly as certain sections of the book would be highlighted and then reflect into the bedroom. Equally the day dreamy reconstructions of sections of the work felt slightly out of place, hitting the nail rather too sharply on the head. More successful were the readings from the book, from the couple and jury members as the words flashed up the screen. In these moments, Davies and director James Hawes understood that it is best to leave the words themselves to offer the message, the imagination of the viewer being the most visionary.

When I was at university I had a copy of Chatterley and another book about the trial (also published by Penguin Books). I didn’t have time read either of them but I thought they looked impressive on my shelf next to Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Terrance Dicks.

After this film, I’m now wondering where I left my copy…


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