The Chatterley Affair, BBC4

by | Mar 21, 2006 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

After mounting our high moral horse, this tale, which mirrored the trial for obscenity of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the simmering lust of two of the jurors hearing the case, became a marvellously literary passion play.

What was good about it?

• A sparkling economical script by Andrew Davies that cleverly wove the affair between downtrodden, married invoice clerk Keith and sophisticated socialite Helena into the obscenity trial without ever leaving any untidy loose ends.

• The brilliant cast that starred Louise Delamere (from no Angels) as Helena and Rafe Spall as Keith, who were backed up by Pip Torrens and David Tennant, to name but two.

• The clever incremental manner in which the affair between Helena and Keith tracked their reading of Lady Chatterley. After two days reading the novel, they were in bed together. And this is where another intricate dramatic device was employed. As the couple, especially Keith, became more conversant with the world of DH Lawrence, so their lovemaking became more complex and varied. Their first “f**k” was just that – him humping for all he was worth (and he was observed moving from the metaphorical barnyard to the bedroom by taking a rare wash later); but this gradually developed so they soon moved on to foreplay, oral sex, bondage and ultimately anal sex.

• And all the while Helena, who was a flesh and blood figurehead for middle-class liberalism, was educating the working class Keith in the idiom of intimacy. When Keith spoke about the trial to his wife his vocabulary about the book was limited to “It’s alright”, “”I like it, as it happens” and “Dunno. Nuffin’”. But after five days, he and Helena were speaking articulately about their feelings for one another using Lawrence’s language, which lost much of the supposed sexual explicitness in the dialogue.

• One point the defence in the trial had made was that the frequent use of swear words – f**k, balls, c**k – was Lawrence trying to reclaim the dignity of the words from being simple terms of abuse. Witness Richard Hoggart (David Tennant) correctly identified that sexual repression is best exemplified by their being no simple verb as effective as “f**k”, its otherwise “euphemisms”.

• And, with no witnesses to call against the avalanche of musty, tweed-jacketed Oxbridge erudition summoned by the defence, the prosecution read aloud the passage detailing the anal intercourse between Lady Chatterley and Mellors. Uniquely amongst all the passages read in court, this was the only one that used the circuitous “euphemisms” so despised by Hoggart and his fellow academics. Emerging from court, Keith had to be told that the passage was about buggery by Helena and later that evening the pair engaged in “buggery” simply because they had earlier agreed to do everything that Mellors and Lady Chatterley did. But here they were both reluctant, Keith because “buggery was what homos do”, while Helena simply didn’t enjoy it. And it was at this point, it was obvious they would stop seeing each other as soon as the trial concluded.

What was bad about it?

• The way in which the viewers were forcibly ushered to side with the liberal perspective of the absurdity of the ban on the novel rather than present both sides of the argument and let them decide for themselves. Such objectivity would not have disturbed the dramatic pace, and would have awarded it more credibility. The main problem was that the prosecution barrister (Pip Torrens) was so repugnantly haughty, on one occasion insisting that “people” wouldn’t like their servants or wives to read the book, implying a bias towards conservative middle-class values. He also bullied or curtailed witnesses to warp their unfavourable testimony to suit his own ends, while the more considered defence barrister approached each witness with a venerable air of intellect and reason.

• This theme was continued amongst the jury members. While the upper-class jury member was sympathetic to the novel, the middle-class jurors were incorrigible snobs.

• Keith using the baseball euphemism of “first base”, “second base” and “third base” to describe the levels of his sexual adventures. We don’t believe that such slang was about in 1960, but Andrew Davies is much older than us so we may be wrong.

• The wan effort to drum up tension as the jury filed back into court to deliver their verdict. Everyone knew the result; moreover, if Lady Chatterley had its ban renewed, and remained banned to this day, there would have been no chance of this drama ever having been commissioned.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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