Hannah McGill: Why do we get hot under the collar over love scenes?

In Tipping The Velvet, much hangs on a kiss performed as part of a stage act. Picture: Johan Persson
In Tipping The Velvet, much hangs on a kiss performed as part of a stage act. Picture: Johan Persson
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THERE are many fun, jolly and exciting things about the adaptation of Sarah Waters’ hit novel Tipping The Velvet currently playing at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, among them contemporary pop songs performed as turn-of-the-century music hall stompers, guidance on oyster-eating etiquette, and some very fine corsetry.

I was also struck by a detail of the experience, however, which has to do with live audiences and performed love. In Tipping The Velvet, much hangs on a kiss performed as part of a stage act by music hall artistes Kitty Butler and Nan King. It initiates both their onstage fame and their offstage relationship. It also creates a noticeable tension in the real-life audience.

The fact is, for all that human beings have throughout entertainment history sought out the spectacle of other people getting it on, we don’t know how to react when we’re in a crowded space and it’s happening in front of us. A particular sort of silence descends.

It’s not just theatre where this happens: I’ve witnessed the same phenomenon in the cinema. You might notice it if you attend (and you should) some of the romantic classics currently screening around Scotland as part of the BFI’s Love season. Sex that’s presented in a funny way is comfortable enough, because we can laugh; if it’s abusive or somehow morally questionable, we can tut or gasp. But sincere, romantic, happy, healthy sex? What’s the socially appropriate way to respond? No-one wants to seem either disapproving or ickily over-interested, so everyone pretty much holds their breath. It’s strange, really, that such awkwardness exists, given that theatre and cinema are so associated with our love lives – both as temples to the desirability of their stars, and as venues for the ritual of dating. I think the sight of strangers kissing transports every one of us back to the experience of watching TV with our parents and being rooted to the spot with self-consciousness if anything suggestive of what the swimming pool rules called “heavy petting” occurred onscreen.

Tipping The Velvet, incidentally, isn’t very visually explicit. Once that first kiss is out of the way, it evokes the characters’ lovemaking through some ingenious stagecraft which communicates the magic of the experience without objectifying the actresses or deploying peep-show clichés. It’s the kissing – because it’s realistic, intimate and quiet – that stirs that odd mood in the room.

Children recognise the awkwardness before they know what it’s about, and react, often with riotous disgust. My father grew up in the cinema-obsessed Glasgow of the 1940s and 1950s, and says that it was common for the kids in the audience to shout their disapproval at the screen whenever the boring business of love was deemed to be taking up time that would be better spent on fighting, cowboys, and other more important matters.

Are we ever going to relax about the spectacle of love onscreen? Don’t hold your breath.

Typography terrors haunt us all

TIMES are hard for pedants. Txt spk predominates; autocorrect wants to turn “its” into “it’s”; and if you make the point that “imply” and “infer” mean different things, you get some lecture on how “language is fluid” and “meanings evolve”.

It’s a small treat for accuracy fans, then, when a mistake is called out. Enter Scottish Labour and their conference video, in which “generation” was misspelled as “genertaion”. The red-faced soul responsible might want to comfort him – or herself by considering a few historical errors of typography.

In 1962, the Nasa rocket Mariner I exploded after take-off thanks to the omission of a hyphen from its coding. That cost the US $630m in today’s money.

Not calculable in currency is the impact of the so-called Wicked Bible, which in 1631 accidentally listed “Thou shalt commit adultery” among the Ten Commandments. And there’s always the argument that all publicity is good publicity, as we learned from that Ukip candidate who claimed he’d deliberately mis-spelled “Britain” on posters “to see how many people pay attention”.

On that basis, maybe Scottish Labour should keep mis-spelling things. It might even help with some sticky issues. A nuclear policy can so easily become an unclear policy…

Another you is out there

LAST week, photos circulated of Glaswegian Neil Thomas Douglas, and a stranger who appeared to share his face. An unrelated story also ran about a British woman and her unrelated but near-identical Irish lookalike. So, where’s your doppelganger? There are websites to help. Be prepared, though. I once saw a woman who I thought I knew, only to realise she just looked like me – except she was younger and hotter. I don’t think she noticed, which is logical, since while I knew younger, prettier me quite well, she has yet to be introduced to older, exhausted her.