Not even its most loyal habitués would claim that Southend-on-Sea is a cultural Mecca. If they were honest, they would admit that it is just another of those faded and depressing seaside resorts that ring our south-eastern shores, crumbling reminders of the British determination to enjoy oneself come hell or high water, both of which Southend delivers.
Admittedly, further around the coast to the south, Brighton has contrived a raffish, Bohemian reputation that attracts a certain kind of louche visitor, but Southend has no reply other than an earthy cheerful vulgarity that qualifies it as the de facto capital of Essex. All of this is well known, but not until The Graduate was about to open at Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion Theatre did it become clear that, such is the noise and clamour of the town’s debauchery, some of the leading inhabitants are deaf. That is the most likely explanation for the outcry and expressions of profound disgust at the news that the actress Glynis Barber is declining to appear naked in the role of Mrs Robinson. For this news was no news at all.
On August 26, as the West End production of The Graduate prepared to embark on a national tour, The Times reported that Ms Barber had refused to “go nude” because she felt uncomfortable with the scene. A few days later, when the show reached Newcastle, the actress confirmed that she would not be following the example of other middle-aged women to play Mrs Robinson on stage, namely Kathleen Turner, Linda Gray, Jerry Hall, Anne Archer and Amanda Donohoe, all of whom shed their clothes for the famous 20-second scene.
“There were photographers in the audience taking pictures of Kathleen Turner. How revolting is that?” she told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, such was the secrecy that she maintained in her determination to keep her kit on.
So how did the news of her non-nudity fail to reach the management of the Cliffs Pavilion Theatre until just a couple of weeks before the show was due to open? And why did they then take the extraordinary step of threatening to cancel the production unless she agreed to reveal her pudenda to the theatre-loving folk of Southend?
The answer is that it’s all to do with marketing. The faintly depressing fact is that when it became known that Kathleen Turner planned to reveal all in the West End production, interest in the show rocketed and the theatre took &£68,000 in advance ticket sales overnight. Provincial impresarios around the country looked on in envy. So it is understandable that in Southend the theatre managers rubbed their hands in glee (and perhaps salivated a little, too. Who knows?) when they heard the show was coming their way and that the lead was to be played by the glamorous Ms Barber, known to Essex lads the county over as Makepeace in the TV detective series Dempsey and Makepeace.
Without stopping to think, they printed the autumn season’s programme – and this is the best part – with warnings about nudity in The Graduate. This is modern marketing at its most disingenuous. For it is well known in artistic circles that nothing is better guaranteed to pull in the aesthetes than a caution such as, “Beware, this performance contains scenes of a violent and sexual nature and strong language.”
Long before The Graduate was due to reach Essex, there can scarcely have been a soul from Saffron Walden to Billericay who was unaware that the play involved a smidgeon of full-frontal wossname. So why the warning? It was, of course, a form of reassurance. “Yes, you are quite right,” says the subtext. “This is the one where the famous actress drops the towel and flashes her femininity.”
Had the warning been a genuine expression of caution, the theatre management would have mopped its brow in relief at the news that Ms Barber intended to keep the towel firmly around her waist. Thank heaven, they would have thought, no one is going to be scared away now. Instead, discovering that the play could proceed in safety, they threatened to cancel it.
There is another possibility. This is a litigious age and a theatre-goer attracted by the warning that Makepeace was scheduled to reveal her piece, and having paid for his ticket, discovered that she kept it hidden might feel cheated and aggrieved. There are precedents. When the producer of the TV drama about a lesbian love affair, Tipping the Velvet, declared that the production would be “absolutely filthy” the BBC switchboard received angry calls from viewers protesting that it was nothing like filthy enough.
Similarly, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint from a patron of the Phoenix Dance Theatre who was disappointed when the troupe performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London fully clothed. He said he had been deceived by a promotional leaflet showing two finely honed and naked performers leaping across the stage.
It can be only a matter of time before the ASA hears from its first fully authenticated dirty mac complainant.
In the meantime, those responsible for the lurid messages across cigarette packets should bear in mind the marketing axiom that when it comes to attracting business – nothing works quite like a warning. Or, as they say in Essex, it’s an especially attentive nudist who remembers a face.