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‘The audience just looks at what your genitals are like’: why Joanna Lumley thinks we should axe sex scenes

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A few weeks ago, Henry Cavill made headlines by declaring that he didn’t particularly like filming sex scenes. Given the glut of nudity-filled film and television recently, Cavill seemed a lone voice, a solitary moral crusader holding his head high above the muck.

But now another figure has come to his side. A veteran performer, who has lived through several cycles of onscreen permissiveness, and holds a greater understanding than most of the cynical impulses that call for an actor to disrobe in the name of art. I’m sorry to break this to you, but you probably shouldn’t expect to see Joanna Lumley in a future episode of Euphoria.

In fact, Lumley told Radio Times that she would like to axe sex scenes altogether. “The second you take your clothes off, the audience looks at you, the actor, and your attributes – what your breasts and genitals are like,” she said. “You’ve immediately lost the character you’ve built. There’s a playground element to it – pull your pants down and let’s see what you’ve got. I’d cut them altogether. They slow things down. They’re rude and horrible.”

It’s interesting to hear this from Lumley, who must have spent a swathe of her career being asked to disrobe by a succession of dubious producers. Indeed, she also told Radio Times that nudity was seen as something that all female actors had to endure. “Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Christie – we all had to take our top off. It was part of the titillation of the time,” she said.

Logic previously dictated that onscreen nudity was on the way out, anyway. A recent study found that movies made in the 2010s contained less nudity than in any decade since the 1960s. This is likely to be because the context in which the scenes were experienced had changed. Where once directors would think nothing of making a star whip her top off for nothing more than a gratuitous moment of titillation, performers now have to contend with the fact that all their nude scenes will live for ever on the internet.

Lumley seems to have hit the prevailing mood of the moment. In October, a survey of 1,500 adolescents by UCLA’s Center for Scholars and Storytellers seemed to hint at a waning appetite for watching sex on screen. A near majority of respondents said that sex was not needed in film and television to move the plot along, while even more wanted to see a greater focus on platonic friendships.

And yet it doesn’t seem as though the message has quite got through yet. We’re going through a surge of screen nudity at the moment, and not all of it can be entirely justified. Despite the long and arduous debate about how misogynistic it is/isn’t, Poor Things is a story about a woman who used sex to build an entire personality, so removing its nudity would strip the heart from the film. But remove the scene in Oppenheimer in which Florence Pugh takes her top off, and you’re left with an identical but slightly shorter version of Oppenheimer.

It’s true of television, too. HBO’s disastrous series The Idol felt as though it had been designed to be nothing but a vehicle for nudity, in the hope that it would grab an audience’s attention like little else before it. But it was terrible, because a series of naked scenes is all it was. The focus of the entire production was on the unclothed bodies of the performers, at the expense of character, plot or the slightest hint of technical competence. It failed for the exact reason Lumley gave for not liking sex scenes. Its entire reason to be was “pull your pants down and let’s see what you’ve got”. And if that’s what people want, they have the internet. Why sign up to an expensive streaming service to watch something as old-fashioned as narrative drama when you have a mobile phone in your pocket?

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So perhaps Lumley is right. Unless it is completely integral to the plot – unless the entire structure of the thing falls to ashes without it – then maybe it is time to ditch sex scenes after all.

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