Thursday, August 23, 2007

Causing Offence

Ah, the wonders of digital television! Thanks to this modern miracle of telecommunications I sometimes find myself able to catch up with films which are never likely to be released on DVD and, to be honest, really shouldn't be allowed to see the light of day anywhere. The other night I was amazed to see Twisted Nerve in ITV 4's schedules. Surely it couldn't be that Twisted Nerve, I thought? But it was indeed the notorious 1968 attempt by the Boulting brothers to get in on the Peeping Tom/Psycho inspired craze for psychological shockers. To say that it was poorly received back in 1968 would be an understatement, and it still has the power to offend today. Obviously, bearing in mind its vintage, it isn't violence and gore which offends. Nor is it the casual racism exhibited by various characters - an Indian trainee doctor is referred to, even by his consultant, as the 'Maharajah' - this simply reflected attitudes of the time, and the Indian doctor ultimately turns out to be the only sensible character in the film. What still shocks and offends is the attitude exhibited toward the mentally handicapped.

When Hywel Bennett (playing the first in his long-line of disturbed young men) pretends to be mentally handicapped in order to get close to young Hayley Mills, with whom he is (quite understandably) obsessed, it's bad enough. But this can simply be written off as bad taste. The offence comes when his aberrant behaviour (he murders his father and Mills' mother) is put down to the fact that he is a sibling of a 'mongoloid' (as Down's syndrome sufferers were referred to in those days). It stated as fact that having a Down's syndrome sufferer in your immediate family makes you genetically more likely to be a homicidal maniac. To add insult to injury, Bennett's character is then referred to as being 'autistic'! Interestingly, even in 1968 these references were considered offensive, so this isn't a case of retrospective 'political correctness'. The film deservedly failed at the box office and has rarely been shown since. Having seen it, I can assure you that it is no lost classic. Even when the offensive attitudes are set aside, the film is still a dreadfully slow-paced and trite tale of how beastly life can be for nice middle class people in 1960s Britain. I must admit that I've never been a fan of the Boulting brothers - their much vaunted 'satires' of the 1950s and 1960s always came over as too smug and self-satisfied, presenting stereotyped middle class views of the working class, for my liking. This one simple substitutes the mentally ill and handicapped for the working classes.



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