Why good drama doesn’t need bad language

Considering its high levels of gore, mutilation, and general utter yuckiness, Fortitude doesn’t need the “effing”

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A reader recently wrote a letter accusing me of loving “filth and bad language”. I’ll happily admit to loving “filth”, but “bad language”? Hmm, I think the poisoned barb missed its target there.

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It’s anomalous, I know, given my abiding devotion to horror movies and blood-soaked crime dramas. I have a cast-iron stomach and can watch, without flinching, any amount of gore. Though there’s a scene in this week’s Fortitude that made me long for an antique fainting couch and a fan. But more of that later. 

Yet “bad language” still makes me shudder, in real life and on television. I’m sure it’s an indicator of middle-aged, middle-class-ness, a kind of Lady Bracknell prudery. 

Only this morning walking to work two men were loading a van and passing sentences containing many “effings” between them. I did one of those prissy silent tuts (I didn’t actually want them to hear me in case I got an earful, you learn this level of self-protection living in London) and marched on my way feeling morally and intellectually superior.

I have no right to feel either, of course, as I use “bad language” though never in the street, generally to myself, and never to anyone I don’t know really well. But hearing it on the telly? No, I don’t like it. It’s too direct, too out-there, too immediate and I have no control over it.

Besides I think over-use degrades to the point where it’s clearly become acceptable for everyone to bark abuse in shops, buses, on trains, everywhere. It’s become routine and perfectly fine, apparently, it’s conversation-punctuation.

I suspect my maidenly displeasure has something to do with when I grew up. There was no bad language on telly when I was a kid and a teen, and I’ve watched it creep in first slowly, then very, very quickly, throughout adulthood. Now even the loathsome, misogynistic “c-word” is comparatively common in dramas.

Clearly, though, I can’t be alone in being discomfited as warnings are announced on air before anything potentially offensive is broadcast. So it’s still a taboo that hasn’t, as yet, been entirely snapped in two. There’s obviously still a general dislike among the viewing public.

Of course there has to be some bad language sometimes, if only for emphasis, which is fine I suppose, but it’s spreading too thickly, like too much salty butter. It has to be used judiciously or it becomes, as it has in real life, anodyne. Most dramas don’t need it – have you ever heard a bad word in the saintly Death in Paradise, or Call the Midwife? But that’s because they are Death in Paradise and Call the Midwife.

Which brings us back to Fortitude (Sky Atlantic, Thursday). It’s probably unfair of me to single it out, but Fortitude happens to be on and it’s sweary. And I know, considering its high levels of gore, mutilation, and general utter yuckiness (there’s a murder in a shower in this week’s episode that turned even my concrete stomach) that objecting to the swearing seems fatuous at best.

But it’s a good example because, considering everything else that’s going on, Fortitude doesn’t need the “effing”. There’s enough high drama without the cheapening effect of too many “effs”.

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I must admit I feel uncomfortable reading this column back to myself because I despise the very notion of curbing language. But we sadly now live in a world where that language is mis-used every day, robbed of meaning, hijacked and twisted to mean something it was never meant to mean. So the fightback against such debasement has to start somewhere.