Jill the beauty salon owner from the West Country rides into her husband’s funeral on a black stallion with a black lace veil over her face to the tune of ‘I’ll Stand By You’. She tells the congregation that her husband was an ‘evil man’, before performing a choreographed dance routine to express her grief.
The scene comes from the end of series one of Nighty Night, a black comedy written by and starring Julia Davis. It was broadcast on the BBC in 2004–05. Davis is an under-celebrated and exceptional talent. From her early work on Chris Morris’ Jam (2000), to her brilliant series Human Remains (2000) with Rob Brydon, to her biopic of Fanny Craddock, Fear of Fanny (2006), her courage in exploring the darker aspects of the female psyche through humour is matched only, in my view, by the novels of Muriel Spark. At the heart of her comedy is always the question of power – who has it; who doesn’t.
Jill describes herself as ‘a widow in her late-20s with a zest for life and a yearning to sing’. In fact, her husband is not dead at all. She has locked him in the upstairs room of their house. He is not an ‘evil man’, but an ordinary man who responds passively to his wife’s tyranny. Jill is a fascist dictator in spirit: she dominates all those around her, exploits the weak, and aims above all for sexual power. She pursues the object of her affection, Don, a married doctor, with the tenacity of Glenn Close’s character Alex Forrest in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. The term ‘bunny-boiler’ entered common parlance in the wake of that film. It confirmed the spectre of the sexually assertive career woman as an aberration, who deserves to be punished. Jill is a grotesque rendition of the femme fatale, but Davis does not punish her. It is Jill’s victims who suffer.
Nighty Night is a garish burlesque; a horror show of fraudulent tarot readings, tantric sex, sadistic beauty treatments and suburban fetishists. But the themes that it explores are more radical and more feminist, albeit covertly so, than almost anything I have seen on TV. Why? Because Davis reveals as absurd our conventional ideas of what a woman should be. And she does it with flawless comic timing.
In one memorable scene, Jill’s dog jumps on Don’s wife Cathy, who is cringingly submissive. She is a wheelchair user. ‘Oh,’ says Cathy, terrified. ‘Sorry Jill, I’m a bit uncomfortable around dogs.’
‘Were you savaged, Cathy?’ says Jill. ‘That would explain a lot.’
‘No, no. I just had a rather uncomfortable experience with a German Shepherd when I was nine. He was very persistent.’
‘Were you wearing a skirt?’
‘Well, yes, a party dress.’
‘See, you can’t lead them on and then cry rape, Cath,’ says Jill.
In another scene, Jill goes on a date with Glen, a mentally disturbed man who she meets online. She turns up to the pub wearing seatless chaps and a red halter-neck. ‘What do you recommend, Glen?’ asks Jill, opening the menu.
‘I can recommend the risotto vegetariana.’
‘How much is it, that risotto vegiana?’
‘Quite pricey, isn’t it,’ says Jill. ‘Are you paying for this?’
‘Oh, yes. I’m quite prepared to climb the tree.’
‘OK, I’ll have the…’ She scans the menu, searching for the most expensive item. ‘Fillet steak and a bowl of chips to myself.’
In both these scenes, Davis skewers the idea that issues of gender equality should be handled with political correctness. In the first, the historic tendency of the police to blame victims of rape for ‘asking for it’; in the second, the transformation of love into a transaction, subject to market laws. Jill knows her dating value exceeds that of Glen; she exploits it. Davis is not reinforcing these stereotypes, but encouraging us to laugh at them. The laughter is often painful.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story about a megalomaniacal American artist called Scarlett who was married to an art critic, Bill. They were locked in a co-dependent relationship of emotional sadomasochism. The model for Scarlett was very much Davis’ various personae; her brittle barbarism, her shamelessness.
Scarlett morphed at some point into the character of Stephanie Haight in my novel, Eat My Heart Out. Stephanie is a sadistic feminist writer who takes on Ann-Marie, my 23-year-old protagonist, as her prodigy. Stephanie is determined to expunge Ann-Marie’s consciousness of her love for Beyoncé, who Stephanie sees as a regressive, hyper-sexual figurehead of post-feminist culture. She forces Ann-Marie to sing Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’ until she goes hoarse.
One of the ideas that I wanted to explore in the novel, and in all my fiction, was that ‘the personal is political.’ This second-wave feminist slogan has huge resonance for me. It suggests that our most intimate relationships are informed by broader power structures. In other words, inequality is expressed in the smallest gestures of sex and love.
In each episode of Human Remains, Davis and Brydon play a dysfunctional couple. In each, there is a dominant and submissive partner. They are never equal. Hierarchy is most often sublimated, rather than expressed through whips and chains. But the effect is no less violent. As the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin wrote in a brilliant article, ‘The Bonds of Love: Erotic Domination and Rational Violence’, ‘Like the couple in the cuckoo clock, one must always be out when the other is in; they never meet.’
In the first episode, ‘An English Squeak’, Davis plays Flick, a middle-aged aristocrat with a black patch over her eye, who has suffered years of seizures since her one true love Geoffrey was killed in a punting accident while they were students at Cambridge. Flick is married to Peter, whom she despises. While Geoffrey was a ‘huge, bright, spectacular man,’ Peter suffers from arrested development. ‘Before I met Peter, I was actually very, very well,’ says Flick.
The emphasis in much of Davis’ comedy lies on an ideal that is irrevocably lost – in this case, the dead Geoffrey. This loss serves as a means to punish another – Peter – who is present, and will never be good enough. Love emerges as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Sitting on a swing in the garden, Peter reasons: ‘If a life of turmoil, anguish, sorrow, doubt, fear, regret, and longing is a bad hand, then yes, I’ve been dealt a bad hand. But is it?’
The power dynamic is reversed in another episode, ‘All Over My Glasses’, in which Davis plays Michelle, a young blonde woman wearing myopic glasses who is obsessed with Princess Di and lives in South Wales. She is engaged to Stephen, who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, Debbie. Stephen psychologically tortures Michelle, who seems incapable of defending herself.
In one scene, he grabs her wrists from behind and makes her hit herself, shouting, ‘I’m arresting you on a charge of self-abuse.’ On his stag night, Stephen and his friend watch faux-lesbian porn while Michelle dreams about Lady Di in the next room. Finally Stephen tries to force Michelle to act out the porn on the screen. ‘Get down! Get down!’ he shouts.
Davis’ humour often metamorphoses into horror that echoes the works of the Marquis de Sade or the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek. She portrays a world in which there is only the predator and the preyed upon. The need to confirm one’s own existence by dominating or humiliating others seems borne out of a powerful sense of the void. There is a nothingness that underlies the scenes of Human Remains. Many of the characters seem catatonically incapable of speech, paralysed by some profound depression.
In one of her earlier sketches for Jam, Davis plays a chronically lonely woman, Lucy Tiseman. She decides to make friends by hurting people. Her logic is that she must create a need in others in order to fulfil that need. She strings a wire across a street at night and waits until a cyclist trips over it and falls. He is injured; she introduces herself.
Davis often explores the plight of the solitary woman who will do violence in order to find a way out of her alienation. This too is the crux of Spark’s 1970 novel, The Driver’s Seat, later turned into a film, Identikit, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. The protagonist of the novel is Lise, a 30-something ‘spinster’, who goes on her first holiday for years to an unnamed European country.
Ostensibly, she is looking for The One. This dark parody of a romantic quest is rendered in Spark’s wonderful, sparse style and caustic humour. Lise repeats throughout the novel that she is looking for ‘her type’, but in fact she is looking for a man who will bind, gag, and murder her. It is not love that she craves, but self-annihilation.
The novel was written at a time when the second-wave women’s movement was gaining momentum; soon a woman would not be so brutally condemned for remaining single into her 30s. But for now, Lise is excluded from the categories that make her a ‘woman’. Without a husband and children to ‘tie her down’, she is an aberration. As Angela Carter wrote in The Sadeian Woman (1979), ‘a free woman in an unfree society will be a monster’.
The loneliness of Lise’s condition as a free woman is overwhelming; Spark’s novel appears to be romantic, but it is existential. It is about a radical abdication from freedom, and a search for God when belief in Him seems impossible. ‘Myself, I think he’s around the corner somewhere, now, any time,’ Lise tells an elderly woman who she meets on the plane.
‘Any corner. Any old corner.’
‘Will you feel a presence?’ says the woman. ‘Is that how you’ll know?’
‘Not really a presence,’ says Lise. ‘The lack of an absence, that’s what it is.’