STRIDENT voices that command a surprising amount of attention in these distracted times suggest that you and I, dear reader, are engaged in a project whose aim is insidiously to spread into the lives of our neighbours and the counsels of our nation an ancient, beguiling fantasy.
It was, therefore, as a fellow-practitioner that I tuned in on Sunday to Consuming Passion: 100 years of Mills & Boon (BBC4), eager to pick up hints from these experts in the field of peddling a fantasy that, with sales of 200 million copies a year worldwide, might be considered an even more successful brand than the Anglican Communion.
It was not at all the documentary I might have expected. This film chose to explore the Mills & Boon story by interweaving several plots, all self-referential: one was the personal lives of the firm’s founders; another was the 1970s tale of a secretary, who, thwarted in her love for a handsome doctor and finding out that real life is not at all like her favourite fiction, discovers that she has a real talent for writing the stuff herself.
A third plot was a contemporary tale about a university lecturer teaching a course of Mills & Boon, who found herself inexorably drawn into an affair with a student. Passion was mainly expressed in terms of torrid sex among the stacks of the university library (so unlike my experience of the Bodleian — but then I have missed out on so much in life), drawing her away from the dull relationship that was stifling her.
We were left wondering whether real life bore any relationship at all to the fantasy peddled by Mills & Boon’s egregious novellas. Even more significantly, we ponder the question: does all fiction and drama, however intellectually dressed up and packaged, offer us plotlines no more exalted than theirs?
This programme provided an unexpected illumination of the BBC’s classic drama of the winter, Little Dorrit. In a revolution epochal enough to deserve questions in the House, the Beeb has determined that such important stuff no longer deserves by right that honourable slot on a Sunday evening which it has previously accorded its classic series.
That particular slot had a respected place among loyal churchgoers, acting as a kind of reward for going to church twice on a Sunday, and just giving us time, after evensong, to prepare the mushrooms on toast and make the cocoa before settling down and immersing ourselves in the glories of realised English literature.
The first episode of Little Dorrit was, indeed, broadcast in this hallowed spot, lulling us into false security; subsequent slices, however, are doled out in midweek half-hour gobbets. Mark my words: no good will come of this.
Where Mills & Boon come in is to cast light on the main difference between the TV adaptation and Dickens’s original. Whereas in the novel the love interest is merely one strand among the multitude of themes, and must fight for its place against the author’s philippic against British snobbery and corruption, on TV the romantic interest is brought to the fore and thrust in our faces, proclaiming that, for all its period complexity, this is at heart another boy-meets-girl romance.