11 August 2005 | heathblair
A vortex of middle-class sexual anxiety... and kipper ties.
I first saw this as a small child (progressive parents or irresponsible ones? You be the judge) and have revisited it recently on DVD. Well...! What a carry on! What a palaver! What an outrage! What a great, glorious, steaming pile of melodramatic bilge.
I dare say that its upmarket target audience were flattered to see "their lives" being portrayed with such candour. Maybe so, but what they were actually getting was little more than a dramatised Woman's Own article produced, perhaps inevitably, in the style of Crossroads. Oh alright, not Woman's Own. Observer Sunday supplement to be fair.
Bouquet of Barbed Wire is a soap. Make no mistake. I expected something a little more philosophically lethal, perhaps along the lines of Potter or Pinter in "Betrayal" mode. Alas no. This was LWT mainstream peak-time television viewing, not a night at the Royal Court. Does that make it rubbish? No, not completely. I rather enjoyed it for it's slow, single-minded approach. I like verbose scripts and this had dialogue by the ton... hours and hours of it. And more hours.
Writer Andrea Newman displays a gift for reproducing the broken speech rhythms of people under intense emotional pressure. Other times she stubs her toe on the dramatic conventions of soap opera ie. spelling out EXACTLY what the characters are thinking and feeling at all times so as to not confuse an ITV audience. This is a prime example of over-writing, typified not only by the characters' continuous declarations of their states of minds, but also by the occasional "thought voice-over" - a device as blatantly literal-minded as it was crudely achieved. These are emotional shades of grey painted in very gaudy colours.
Such lapses of taste were, doubtless, symptoms of insecurity on the part of the producers - a lack of faith in their audience. Elsewhere, the dialogue is quite entertaining although perhaps not for the intended reason, and every character seems to be a tad more eloquent than is credible. These people should write novels!
Bouquet of Barbed Wire was a huge hit in 1976. White middle-aged, middle-class swingers and bed-hoppers had rarely been brought under such close scrutiny on UK TV. Yet, for all its supposed sexual candour (hints of incest and the endless confessions of sado-masochism) it's a deeply conservative piece at heart. The naughty girls and naughty boys get what they deserve in the end - misery and death. That'll teach 'em. It pretends not to pass judgement on the characters, but, really, their comeuppance is judgement enough.
The serial's sexual politics would rightly enrage even a mild feminist then and now. For example, a major character (pregnant) is beaten half to death by her violent husband and the police are NEVER mentioned, not even by the doctors who treat her! The assault is put down to everyday domestic strife. And besides, the couple have a sado-masochistic relationship, so that's OK then. Sorry but this degree of complacency is inexcusable, even by Seventies standards.
Elsewhere, Newman has her leading lady proclaim as fact that what all women secretly want is to be slapped around by their men. Not badly enough to end up in hospital, mind you, but enough to make it exciting. Uh-huh. I wonder if "Andrea Newman" isn't a pseudonym. Could there be an "Andrew Newman" who's fooled us all? Abysmal.
So, what's good about it? It's ludicrousness. Viewed by contemporary audiences, a lot of it is enjoyable on a trash basis. There are moments of unintended hilarity only appreciable thirty years hence eg. The leading lady's off-screen lover (a very lusty chap) is called Sven Erickson. I kid you not. Plus, our dysfunctional TV family's name is Manson. Geddit? And of course there's Frank Finley's wardrobe - a nightmare torrent of Burtons menswear. Frank's ties are... well, Bouquet Of Barbed Wire features the first known instance of a tie wearing a man (old joke but never more applicable).
The performers are actually damn good. Finley plays it for real, and Susan Penhaligon is authentically unsettling as his neurotic daughter. Everyone else is up to scratch.
Finally and sadly, I'm beginning to wonder if the golden age of television was all that golden. I've revisited quite a few of these old 70s shows on DVD lately, and a lot of them are actually quite bland, or, as in Bouquet, ridiculous. Incisiveness and credible emotional depth were not necessarily the norm. Perhaps writers like Dennis Potter really were one-offs after all.