Male flesh is the new staple of Sunday night drama
Do we really need this on TV, chaps? An eyeful of male flesh is the new staple of Sunday night drama, but is it cheeky fun or the only acceptable screen nudity in the #MeToo age?
Sanditon. Peaky Blinders. Victoria. Bodyguard. The Night Manager. War And Peace. What do they have in common?
No, it’s not just that they’re all Sunday night appointment television, with compelling storylines, ace actors and glossy production values.
One further feature links them all: naked bottoms. Specifically, naked male bottoms. And not a flabby, misshapen or ageing buttock among them.
Viewers were left gobsmacked after they were greeted with a full frontal of Russian soldiers bathing before a battle with Napolean in the fifth episode of War and Peace
The latest Sunday night show to bring male nudity into our sitting rooms is Sanditon, the ITV adaptation of Jane Austen’s last, unfinished, novel.
In the first three episodes, we’ve been treated to three naked male bottoms dashing into the sea, much to the surprise of a fully-dressed Regency lady walking along the beach. Yes, I think we know what Jane Austen would have thought.
It wasn’t so long ago, of course, that on-screen male nudity was a rarity. While it’s been a depressing rite of passage for almost all young actresses to have to strip off, however sexist or gratuitous it might have been, there can’t be many male actors who’ve agonised over exploitation when asked to do the same.
But ever since Tom Hiddlebum bared his behind in The Night Manager, it’s been trousers down and viewing figures up.
I blame Andrew Davies, who wrote the script for Sanditon and for whom sex, preferably with nudity, is pretty well obligatory in any of his productions.
BBC drama Sanditon, which is based on the unfinished manuscripts of Jane Austen’s play, places the naked male in the fore front
Theo James, 34, who plays the unpredictable Sidney Parker in the racy version of Austen’s final gave viewers an eyeful as he displayed his toned torso and bare bottom in a beach scene
He, of course, was responsible for the Pride And Prejudice series that made Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy plunge into a pool and emerge with his white shirt clinging to his chest (I know the woman who bought that shirt in an auction).
The scene had a devastating effect on women — and he was fully clothed. A wet shirt is way sexier than outright nakedness: look at the drapery on Ancient Greek statues. Not only did it make Firth the hottest actor of the day, it also created a template that other scriptwriters would follow.
Yet, as with all things, the law of diminishing returns means that the more flesh we see, the less we are excited by it. Where will it all end? If every male lead is expected to shed his clothes and inhibitions, what does that mean for the viewers?
Paul Anderson Joe Cole strip down in Peaky Blinders and it appears to be a roaring success- with the series attracting over 3.5 million viewers
Wild and Free David Burnett as Jordan the footman runs naked into the sea
You could say it’s feminism in practice — a turnaround whereby the only acceptable screen nudity in the #MeToo age is male.
The question is, do women actually like it? A friend of mine takes it all in her stride: ‘It’s for women like me,’ she says. ‘I watch anything in the way of costume drama. And if there is a bare bottom or two, it’s fine.’ In fact, her only objection to the whole thing is that it kills off period authenticity. She avidly watched the first two episodes of Sanditon and found its men in the buff to be weirdly well toned for the period.
‘It makes them look like gym bunnies,’ she says. ‘Not languid, Regency, young men-about-town.’
My friend is an interesting example of the female viewers being targeted by the producers of series that profess to be literary/intelligent/historical/thrillers. She’d never watch straightforward pornography; she’d find it either silly or horrid. But if the sex is part of the dynamic of a thriller, or dressed up in period costume, or given some spurious rationale, she’ll watch with pleasure.
Richard Madden displayed his muscular physique in the Bodyguard series where he played the Principal Protection Officer alongside Keeley Hawes as Home Secretary. The series which has become known for its racy scenes drew more than ten million viewers
Women, arguably, need their sexual objectification to have a purpose, or an emotional underpinning, not just a way to see an attractive man naked. Men may still be more straightforward about these things.
Mind you, it’s hard to think of a rationale for the naked soldier scenes in Victoria and, a while back, in War And Peace, which showed full-frontal nudity as well as buttocks.
Whatever the justification, it’s a dispiriting reflection on human nature, yet it seems to work. Sanditon drew a respectable 3.3 million viewers; Peaky Blinders had over 3.5 million; and Bodyguard peaked at more than ten million viewers.
But I’d counsel scriptwriters to remember the author who nailed female sexuality most effectively of all: Jane Austen.
She wrote one of the most highly charged scenes in literature — when Mr Knightley kisses Emma’s hand. Not a hint of flesh, just suppressed passion. There’s a lesson there. Sometimes, less is more.
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