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Good manners, creative genius and deleted expletives

Ranez.Ru > Помощь в учебе абитуриентам и студентам > Студенту > Английский язык > Topics advanced (ПУПР) >

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Our culture boss, Virginia Bottomley, warns broadcasters that there are too many four-letter words on the airwaves. I don't suppose Britain's pornographer in chief, Michael Grade, will take any notice. But the BBC governors are holding a seminar on the subject. Here is my advice to them. There are two principal objections to using disgusting language on television. The first is that it is bad manners. It is easy to decry political correctness, and I often do. It can be seen as political censorship. But it can also be seen as a clumsy left-wing attempt to impose a code of manners in a mannerless age, by identifying and banning words which offend groups of people: blacks, Jews, women, the overweight, the aged, the tiny, etc. Oddly enough, the broadcasters accept this second view of PC and observe the code. A Channel 4 scriptwriter who happily sprinkles his dialogue with four-letter words would never dream of allowing his characters to abuse blacks or Jews, for instance. In other words, the principle of verbal banning as a form of imposed good manners is accepted in broadcasting.

Why then does it not apply to swearing? Analysis of complaints about what is broadcast received by the BBC, ITV, the Government and MPs shows quite clearly that swearing offends far more people than sex, violence, political bias or any other source of annoyance. Manifestly, a great many viewers still find four-letter words odious in any context, and regard it as revolting bad manners for an actor to bellow them into their living-rooms. Why, then, are they treated with less respect than smaller but more vociferous minorities? The answer, I suspect, is because they are not a minority at all, but a majority. By offending them, broadcasters can still get the thrill of pretending they are rebels.

The second argument against a license to swear is that it tends to produce bad art. How so? A scriptwriter with whom I recently argued the point on television claimed that his aim was 'to show life as it really is' and that to prevent him using bad language in dialogue was to destroy him as an artist. This is poppycock, of course. Nothing can destroy an artist except himself. The public does not object to swearing which makes a genuine artistic point. Eliza's sensational exit line in Pagination, 'Not bloody likely!' got an amazing reception on the play's first night, 11 April 1914. The audience gave a gasp, there was a huge burst of laughter while Mrs. Patrick Campbell paraded the stage, and then a second burst of laughter. They laughed themselves into such utter abandonment and disorder,' Shaw wrote, 'that it was really doubtful for some time whether they could recover themselves and let the play go on.' Criticism of the use of 'bloody' came from the outside, from members of the Women's Purity League, who never set foot in a theatre. Note that point: Shaw was not shouting his words into millions of houses all over Britain. If so, he would not have got away with it.

Note also that Shaw was not trying to present 'life as it really is'. At the time, the Daily Express was able to produce a Covent Garden maiden who testified, 'No self-respecting flower-girl would say such a word, it sounded simply horrible/ No doubt she was right. What Eliza says is not what a flower-girl would say, but what a middleclass Anglo-Irish intellectual wanted her to say in order to achieve a certain artistic effect in a London theatre. No scriptwriter actually describes real life or gets his characters to use actual speech. If he did, no one would employ him. Real life is, for 99 per cent of the time, unutterably boring, and most of what we say to each other is not worth listening to. Coronation Street and EastEnders are only superficially about life. They are artfully contrived stories concentrating into 30 minutes more events than most ordinary people see in five years. If you don't believe me, go to a pub, sit and listen for half an hour, and then try and construct soap about what you see and hear. The truth is, in life as it really is, nothing happens most of the time. So even the humblest of scriptwriters is inventing

Ranez.Ru: Good manners, creative genius and deleted expletives

incidents, and thus falsifying life, from his first line.

The need to invent, then, is the greatest of all restraints under which an artist operates, besides which a constraint in the use of particular words is nothing. And it is precisely the constraints, which produce art. Inhibitions such as artistic canons force an artist to think hard, to mobilize his intellectual resources in the permitted areas, and to operate confidently within them. Consider the restraints — musical social, political, artistic — within which Mozart was operating when he composed The Marriage of Figaro in 1785-6, or for that matter the restraints inhibiting his librettist, Da Ponte, or the author of the original play, Beaumarchais. They were enormous. There were countless things Mozart was not allowed to do. That forced him to concentrate on what he could do, and to innovate from within the system. Hence the masterpiece which emerged. All great art, and especially innovative art, needs a canonical straitjacket. Artists on whom no rules are imposed are usually lost.

This applies, for instance, to the case of Caravaggio, about whom I have been brooding recently. As a man, he was lawless and violent. During the six years he spent in Rome he crops up in the police records on no less than 14 occasions. He was jailed seven times and he killed at least one man. And wherever he subsequently went there was trouble, ending in his death at the age of 39. Had he lived today, in an art world free of professional rules, he would have gone berserk and produced modish nonsense. As it was, working in the years 1590-1610, he was forced by the artistic, religious and indeed political constraints of his day to concentrate his' efforts over a narrow permitted area and so produced a succession of masterpieces — no artist has done more in a working span of less than 20 years. Nor did the contemporary canons prevent him from pushing forward the frontiers: he was one of the most innovative and influential painters who has ever lived. Great art thrives on rules, and rules there must always be to produce it. A complete television ban on four-letter words will worry no real artist working in the medium. If anything, it will produce more self-discipline and therefore better scripts. Can a master creator be diminished by a mere ordinance? Caravaggio would have dismissed the idea — with an oath of course.

PAUL JOHNSON

THE SPECTATOR 28 October 1995

 


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