The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Theme From Casanova

Just watched Dennis Potter’s Casanova series. Obvious thing to do is to compare it with Russell T Davies’ more recent series; how they approached the same subject matter. There are similarities; both writers tell the stories in flashbacks, both Casanovas are haunted by having lost their one true love, and both dramas pretty much avoid going down the historically-accurate costume-drama path, instead using the character as a hook upon which to hang various themes and ideas. Neither of them bothered with Casanova’s autobiography, preferring instead to simply elaborate on just the essentials.

The difference is in the authors, and the Casanovas. Russell T Davies’ series, and David Tennant’s Casanova, is flamboyant, cheeky, romantic, in-jokey, dashing, funny and adventurous. Dennis Potter’s series, and Frank Finlay’s character, is brooding, self-doubting, driven, philosophical, but ultimately quite cold and detached. The play depicts him as a man who seduces women quite dispassionately, calculatingly, as a game to relieve the boredom of life. He’s a womanizer, but a curiously joyless one; for a man whose philosophy is pure hedonism, he derives little pleasure from it. His laughter, when it comes, is uproarious, but always mocking and harsh.

In a religiously and moral corrupt society, Dennis Potter’s Casanova is driven by a desire for personal freedom; to do whatever is taboo, to be amoral in all things, to flout convention. To not be a hypocrite like his fellow ‘gentlemen’. The irony is that he is mechanically dishonest in everything he does; he finds he says the words ‘I love you’ so often he is incapable of meaning them honestly. He yearns for beauty, and yet spends much of his life in squalor.

Which makes it a very clear commentary on the time it was written; after the sexual and artistic liberation of the sixties, there was the hangover the next morning in the seventies, as liberation turned into exploitation; sex, drugs and DH Lawrence seeming a little sordid in the cold light of day. Casanova is all about the sixties; the character is an archetypical sixties swinger, only a brief visit to costume away from being Jason King, and the play is effectively about a late-sixties lothario finding himself in the 18th century with a powdered wig and a bottle of champagne. “Me, Giacoma Casanova, here, in a French maids' finishing school? With my reputation? Haven’t they considered the consequences? Oh well...”

This was Dennis Potter’s first drama series, and what’s interesting is that it’s pretty radical in terms of structure. The opening episodes are set with Casanova in prison, having flashbacks to his past adventures. This then shifts to Casanova’s life post-prison, having flashbacks to being in prison. And then finally we get Casanova in old age, having flashbacks to both earlier times.

It’s more complicated than that, though. The series makes use of flashbacks as dramatic motifs; a Venetian skull mask, or his one true love running towards him, or all the girls in a montage... there are lots of these. Scenes cut abruptly in order to create juxtapositions or show parallels. Whole scenes – several minutes long – are repeated in different contexts. Episode four contains barely half an hour of new material in a hour’s running time.

It’s the first attempt at the structure that would work so brilliantly in The Singing Detective. Each episode is self-contained, effectively its own story, not progressing the plot linearly but shading in more details. As though each episode is a re-mix, a re-edit, of the story, filling in more information but changing the emphasis. The Singing Detective is the ultimate Dennis Potter series; it shamelessly revisits ideas from most of his earlier works, from Casanova it takes the structure; an unreliable narrator trapped with nothing but his memories to keep him company.

That said, for a first attempt, the flashback gimmick is over-used. Sometimes there seem to be flashback montages just for the sake of it, rather than for any dramatic point; watching all six episodes, it becomes repetitive, as certain scenes, lines and shots are replayed two or three times per episode. I mean, I enjoy seeing naked women, but you can have too much of the same thing.

And speaking of repetition, if I ever hear the 3rd movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’ again I may kill someone with a brick.