A LOVER’S GUIDE

It’s oddly disorientating, this new-improved isolation; it possesses all the components of the self-imposed isolation I’m more than familiar with, yet because it’s been enforced by a higher power, the options ordinarily available when the compulsion to break free overcomes me have been taken away. Ah, yes, but as long as you look like you’ve just stepped out of an operating theatre, you can still go shopping and the experience will be even more fun-packed than it used to be! And if you’re unable to do that, you can engage in faux-socialising via the Zoom ‘community’ from your very own front room; alas, this innovation overlooks the fact that what made socialising a refreshing alternative to the norm was that it forced you out of your very own front room. I engage with people online every day, but I don’t mistake that for socialising any more than I mistake masturbation for sexual intercourse.

Okay, so having the choice to venture beyond the four walls might not always have been fully capitalised upon by yours truly, but it was nice to have that choice, all the same. So what if I didn’t make the most of it? It was a curious comfort to know those myriad options were there should I ever need them; and now they’re not. Anyway, as someone whose home-space has doubled-up as workplace for years, it’s no surprise that work has constituted the majority of my time since the outside world lost its (admittedly limited) attractions; but even the workaholic needs rehab every few hours, and mine has provided this here blog with numerous intervals from the madness. And I return to one of those intervals today.

I thought I’d exhausted every viewing experience available on the shelf as a means of escaping the solitary confinement of these happy days, yet lo and behold, I last week unearthed a series I’d only watched the once, and that was the best part of five or six years ago. As a long-time lover of the works of Dennis Potter, the hours of off-air VHS recordings of his finest moments I used to own haven’t been properly replaced on DVD yet. I have the original 1976 BBC production of ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ (the one that went unseen for a decade), but that is one of his numerous one-off plays; Potter gradually enhanced his reputation as television’s most gifted dramatist via the episodic series he produced in the second half of his career, reaching a peak of both popularity and artistic excellence with the likes of ‘Pennies from Heaven’ and ‘The Singing Detective’. But these later examples of his uniquely imaginative and innovative storytelling techniques were possible because he’d proven himself capable of the serial format several years before.

In 1971, after contributing some of the finest and most original one-off plays to the ‘Wednesday Play’ and ‘Play for Today’ strands, Dennis Potter wrote his first series for the BBC, the six-part ‘Casanova’. The name of the infamous 18th century Venetian libertine has subsequently become a noun describing a certain type of man whose fondness for the fairer sex takes that other name-cum-noun that denotes the passionate lover – Romeo – to a somewhat more salacious level. Casanova would have ravished and robbed Juliet of her virtue in the same time it took Romeo to recite his speech to her when she was up on that balcony; and that’s the difference. The actual genuine historical figure who bestowed his name upon future men seeking to emulate his specialised skill lived to the ripe old age of 73, spending his autumn years in retirement from the ladies and penning his memoirs. This book, ‘Story of My Life’, salvaged Giacomo Casanova from the posthumous obscurity awaiting all those who were neither highborn nor artistic during his lifetime; published in the 1820s, a good couple of decades after Casanova’s death, the book serves as an authentic historical snapshot of the times in which Casanova’s life was lived, though most English language versions of the memoirs were bowdlerised and poorly-translated.

The first truly faithful English edition of the text appeared as late as 1966 and found its way onto Dennis Potter’s desk when he was a book reviewer for the Times. Intrigued by the potential of dramatising the exploits of such a fascinating, unconventional character, Potter decided to adapt Casanova’s adventures for television, though it took a good five years after the book’s publication before television censorship had relaxed enough for him to get away with it. Rather than writing a straightforward TV ‘biopic’, Potter instead took the bare bones and key events of Casanova’s life and created his own unique take on the man, giving himself considerable artistic licence as he made Casanova the personification of Potter’s own struggle with the conflict between the sacred and the profane. Themes that went on to become familiar Potter tropes are explored in greater depth here for the first time; in this respect, it doesn’t really matter that the author plays fast and loose with the truth; in the ambiguous character of Casanova, he has the perfect vehicle for his recurring concerns.

It was a brave choice to cast the 45-year-old Frank Finlay as the lead character in the series, though as Potter’s adaptation avoids portraying Casanova in his formative fornicating years and instead focuses on the events that led to his imprisonment on charges of affront and common decency at the age of 30, the casting is revealed as quite inspired. The narrative also carries us through to Casanova’s old age and a 45-year-old can better portray an elderly man than, say, a 25-year-old; Finlay convinces as the old, ailing Casanova as much as the arrogant, younger Casanova in the prime of his time as Europe’s master seducer – and his obsessive craving for seduction is clearly painted as something of an illness, a realisation that dawns upon him when his wrecked body can no longer serve its motivating force.

Bar a shot of Finlay’s bare bottom in the first episode, what flesh we glimpse in this series is generally restricted to naked breasts – and lots of them. But there are just as many heaving bosoms constrained within tight bodices as there are fully exposed boobs; and the former is a far more tantalisingly erotic sight than the latter. We tend to get the build-up to sex, but stop short of excessive ‘sex scenes’ as such. If anything, the clever way that Casanova’s bedchamber activities are presented conveys their hedonistic joy far more effectively by being sparing; yes, there’s the opportunity to be more explicit than had previously been the case on TV, but the editing is first-rate as it cuts from flashback to present day and back again. There’s nothing as remotely exploitative of the looser moral climate in ‘Casanova’ as there tended to be in some of the Hollywood movies of the period.

Naturally, Mary Whitehouse got a tad hot under the collar, but the fact the character was gaoled courtesy of accusations that she in turn then levelled against the BBC was an irony no doubt not lost on Potter. Indeed, watching the series fifty years on, the double standards of morality that governed the Church of Rome in the 18th century aren’t a million miles away from those that govern our very own century’s Church of Woke – and a figure like Giacomo Casanova would probably meet the same fate today as he met then. Dennis Potter’s ‘Casanova’ may not be spoken of in the same breath as some of his later, more celebrated works, but it was an important step towards them; and it holds up as an enjoyable and occasionally moving portrait of a debauched life in which any form of deeper, long-term meaning is sacrificed for momentary gratification. It is pointless to use the law to punish a man such as Casanova, for the only real victim when the serial seducing ends is Casanova himself.

© The Editor

2 thoughts on “A LOVER’S GUIDE

  1. Fond memories of that Casanova series, a veritable 1970s tit-fest, I recall.

    Potter was indeed a creative chap, I too enjoyed ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘The Singing Detective’, the latter much enhanced by the delicious Joanna Whalley as the nurse: with her traditional nurse’s outfit and an upside-down watch, she could cream all my skin any time.

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    1. I once saw a doc about BBC TV Centre around the time it closed down, one in which various people who had worked behind the scenes were interviewed and delivered many an interesting anecdote in the process. A young cameraman who had his first big break on ‘Casanova’ recalled invoking the disgust of a topless actress when his evident excitement at what he’d just witnessed was noticed by her. Having just watched it anew, however, can’t say I blame him…

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