Everyone likes a bit of sauciness in their dramas, a dash of enthusiastic pretend sex never did anyone any harm. It’s 2013 after all, surely no one is going to adjust their bonnet and run screaming into the street to hurl themselves under a passing landau in shock and disgust at the first glimpse of a TV drama duvet cover.
Actors sweatily bobbing and shrieking is so commonplace in television fiction that for most of us it’s the signal to go and put some washing on, secure in the knowledge that when we return we’ll have missed nothing of the actual plot. Everyone, dear reader, is At It.
But even I, a famously liberal, you-can’t-shock-me-because-I’ve-seen-it-all, happy-go-lucky TV critic of two decades winced out loud at an early scene in episode two of Paula Milne’s drama, The Politician’s Husband. Now brace yourselves, because this isn’t pleasant, but embittered MP Aiden Hoynes anally rapes his flourishing MP wife Freya Gardner. The scene starts out as a bit of marital rumpy pumpy – and we saw in the first episode that Aiden and Freya have a refreshingly normal and happy sex life, they find one another attractive and desirable – but turns into something horrible.
I can see that it’s about power, Aiden’s assertion of dominion over the wife whose career is about to eclipse his. But still, I am old-fashioned enough not to want to witness something so unsparingly brutal on BBC2. Yes, BBC2. Nice, civilised BBC2, home of The Great British Bake Off. The very idea! I don’t want my eyes sullied barely six minutes into a 9pm mainstream drama. It’s too shocking.
I asked the BBC about it and was told: “This scene goes to the heart of the emotional story for the characters… while some viewers may find these scenes strong, they reflect the central themes of power and betrayal.”
That is all entirely true, but there’s a bigger point here, too. Fictionalised rape in television dramas is, more often than not, used as a kind of shorthand for the subjugation of a powerful woman. In The Politician’s Husband, Freya (Emily Watson) starts out as her husband’s puppet but her confidence grows and she becomes a force to be reckoned with. Thus her husband (David Tennant) asserts himself in the most male, most deplorable way imaginable. But rape is much too serious to be used as a mere dramatic ploy and anal rape is a step too far, a refinement, if you like, of an already appalling act.
In fairness to The Politician’s Husband both Tennant and Watson are excellent, they make the scene revolting and not remotely titillating. There is no doubt that this is an attack, Freya is clearly in agony. But I say again, this is BBC2, not some pay-per-view/subscription-only piece of lurid pap like The Borgias.
I know there are no taboos left on television, but maybe there should be, because I think The Politician’s Husband has over-stepped the mark and if we watch that scene without comment we collude in our own acceptance of brutality. The Politician’s Husband is only a piece of TV drama, and not a particularly thoughtful one at that. It has no licence to depict the unspeakable.