Aidan Smith: Cheap thrills aren’t what they used to be

Before Helen Mirren became our pre-eminent actress, she fuelled teenage fantasies in films such as the X-rated Caligula. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Before Helen Mirren became our pre-eminent actress, she fuelled teenage fantasies in films such as the X-rated Caligula. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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In TV dramas like Versailles, it’s easy to find actresses baring all. When Aidan Smith was young, it was a lot more of a challenge

It’s official. Versailles, the BBC drama about the court of Louis XIV, is “the sauciest telly programme ever”. The rude bits have been tallied – it was a grim job but somebody had to do it – and with 23 scenes of the Sun King and his decadent followers not wearing their brocade finery or very much in the way of clothing at all, nothing else comes close.

Have you seen it yet? I watched the first episode, purely in the interests of research, and thought it complete codswallop. Not erotic, not scandalous, not daring. A drama cannot hope to be any of these things if the acting is this jambony – the French for hammy, I’m guessing – and the dialogue as ripe as Camembert neglected by an alfresco orgy and labelled: “Best before 1667.”

Before you ask, there are no alfresco orgies in Versailles – I needed the reference for my joke. There could be one in later instalments, of course, but I won’t be watching. I’m highly amused, though, by the noises-off concerning the show, with the Beeb’s apparent disquiet at its porn rating being just the latest of them.

In all the hype beforehand, Versailles was billed as a BBC production. We were led to believe it would be a big, intelligent, and seriously sexy, show from the state broadcaster, following on from War and Peace and The Night Manager. Then the lousy reviews appeared and suddenly the Beeb were saying no, no, it’s not actually one of ours: the French made it and we bought it from them.

Is the BBC really hacked off that clips from Versailles - along with some from The Night Manager and War and Peace – have started turning up on the site PornHub.com? Or is all news good news, even when it can be construed as embarrassing news, regarding a programme that almost everyone agrees is rubbish but still has seven weeks to run? If I was cynical I might wonder if the “sauciest-ever” story, revealing there’s much more disrobing to come, wasn’t a PR plant, in an attempt to stop waning audience-figures going totally flaccid.

The BBC getting its knickers in a twist like this reminds me of when John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and other high-grade board-treaders from the National Theatre disowned the movie Caligula. These fine and sonorous-voiced thespians seemed to have had no idea they were going to appear next to so many bare breasts and bahookies, when surely the film’s subject – the biggest perv in Ancient Rome – would have told them that. Another clue was that Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione was the producer.

Helen Mirren was in Caligula, too, but did much less post-production harrumphing than the others. Last year, announcing her retirement from screen nudity as she turned 70, she said Caligula was the only film in which she didn’t mind baring all. “Everyone else was naked in that,” she said, only half-jokingly. “It was like being in a nudist camp. You felt embarrassed if you were the one left clothed.”

Ah, Helen. I remember her before she became our pre-eminent actress, impersonating the Queen. She used to turn up in racy flicks at Edinburgh’s Classic, and fooling the staff of this gloriously skanky X-rated cinema into believing you were old enough for its sensational fayre was a vital rite of passage for all boys not yet 18.

My trick was to come on like Louis XIV. That is, present myself at the ticket-kiosk with a ridiculous moustache. The thin, droopy mouser worn by George Blagden in Versailles isn’t meant to be funny but is. I was determinedly serious, too, when I darkened the hairs starting to form on my upper lip with shoe polish.

Still in fifth-year at school, I had to take such action, being a lot more boyishly handsome than my friends Keith, Dave and Bob who, although the same age, looked haggard enough to have completed a couple of years worth of pen-pushing in a bank or the civil service. We split up at the flea-pit door so as not to look like four panting berks who’d come straight from double Physics on a Tuesday afternoon, having changed out of our uniform, of course.

Here was cunning, here was boldness. You also had to be crafty if you wanted to sneak a peek at the Play for Today on TV, perhaps feigning illness or an inability to get to sleep, in the hope that the storyline would concern, say, the challenges of integrating an attractive au pair into the household. There was a big, tantalising grown-up world out there and like any lad I was keen to find out about it. But enlightenment arrived incrementally. Play for Today wasn’t that explicit and neither were the Classic’s movies. I didn’t mind this; it maintained the intrigue and excitement.

Nowadays you can see it all; nothing is left to the feverishly overactive imagination. The BBC shows it all because Sky with Game of Thrones has been doing this for a while. The broadcasters are engaged in a game of strip poker with each other to see who’s going to be the most ratings-grabbingly risqué. And of course, if your parents aren’t careful about what’s being viewed, you can watch it all on a tablet under the duvet when even younger than that Classic quartet, led by the one with the terrible tache. Which reminds me: I must series-unlink Versailles right away.

All we sought on those quests was knowledge. OK, cheap thrills, too, but crucially a greater understanding. And we almost found it. Our final excursion was to see the latest Susan George feature. It was just getting interesting when the cinema went on fire. Now, we always chose a performance-time enabling us to leave under the cloak of darkness, but forced to exit in broad daylight an entire bus queue was soon pointing and laughing at us.

Even now, passing our old pleasure dome, I invariably break into a jog.