Should The Bryant & May Novels Contain Swearing?

The Arts

A blog comment from SteveB a while ago about him not liking clever movies is a good place to start a post. I love clever. It’s what I do and how I have the most fun. Sitting through the painfully flat and dull ‘Murder On The Orient Express’, which brings nothing to the remake other than playing it straight again, I longed for the wit and meta-smartness of ‘The Last of Sheila’. From ‘Memento’ to ‘The Usual Suspects’, from Noel Coward to Ben Hecht, from Ned Beauman to Charlie Brooker I want wit, speed, cynicism and daring, not the prosaic, bland or life-affirming.

But – clever gets hijacked into new meanings. One of the most tiresome is ‘ironic post-modern’, which usually means ‘a cynical reference to something I’ve heard of that makes me feel clever.’ It was largely created by US sitcoms from Seinfeld to The Simpsons, and is a kind of clever-without-being-intellectual.

The plays of James Graham, who manages to be a seasoned old pro at a relatively tender age because he started young and knew exactly what he wanted to do (write for the theatre) are both clever and intellectual, which makes him a very rare creature – something acknowledged by the number of plays he has running at any one time.

Speaking of playwrights, Alan Ayckbourn is a different kind of clever. His characters are always rather suburban and plain spoken but they develop in interesting ways. Tom Stoppard, on the other hand, dazzles with erudition, exploring grand themes with surprising and sometimes surreal twists, and his ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead’ was a bravura explanation of what it means to find that you don’t play a central role in life (there was a film too, rather good).

What James Graham does on top of all this is capture the way people really speak. He’s been listening carefully to cadences, rhythms, pauses and overlaps, and instinctively knows how efforts to communicate sound out loud. But, as I think Kenneth Tynan said, ‘Dialogue is not conversation’. It’s richer, faster, sharper, more eloquent and elegant, and it has a point to make. Most of us are not eloquent and often fail to complete spoken thoughts.

When you write a dialogue-heavy novel you need to make sure all the voices are distinct, but in crime novels that’s very hard indeed because the police are always exchanging information, and it’s difficult inserting personality into data dumps. I saw a TV show the other night in which a character came into a room and said, ‘Hitler’s pilots have just bombed a small town in the North of Spain, Mr Picasso, it’s called Guernica and we think you should respond to it by making a large painting that says we protest against the Nazi invasion’. You won’t get much character from that kind of dialogue.

I loved the TV series ‘Taboo’ because it was shamelessly lurid and made no attempt to reproduce period language, but simply injected earth and salt into modern sentences, with impressive results. I was shocked when the chairman of the East India Company kept telling his staff to fuck off.

All of which brings me to this point. I don’t make any attempt to replicate naturalistic dialogue in the Bryant & May novels, but as I start to explore new ground in the later books it’s getting harder and harder not to have street characters swear. Londoners are astoundingly sweary folk and creative with it, so sometimes it does seem a shame not to have the peripheral characters letting loose with a burst of sparkling invective – although I don’t suppose anyone will top Peter Capaldi’s character from ‘The Thick Of It’.

But, I set out my stall for Bryant & May a long time ago and will probably end up staying with this handicap in place. I certainly have no problem with ripe language but when I started the series it felt inappropriate to bring the real language of the street into these strange, baroque tales. There is a line to be trodden between the real and the fanciful, and B&M are immune to the realities of police procedurals – although thematically they tackle very real subjects. But adding swearwords for veracity feels redundant. I’ll keep the saltier terminology for my other books!


21 comments on “Should The Bryant & May Novels Contain Swearing?”

  1. Graham says:

    I think people were always profane. I recently read an account of the Battle of the River Plate, where the gunnery office expected the captain to say something along the lines of, “Target sighted, distance, elevation” etc. Instead the captain swung round and shouted, “There’s the fucking Scheer! Shoot at her!”

    (Of course it was actually the Graf Spee.)

  2. Chris Lancaster says:

    It would be strange and quite jarring to suddenly have swearing in the B&M books, so I think not introducing it is perhaps the right decision.

    For me, it always seems rather odd when characters in books or visual media don’t swear when angry or stressed. It’s akin to all those times that couples on TV wake up in bed after a night of passion, but are mysteriously still wearing their underwear. It does require one to suspend disbelief to an enormous extent.

  3. Jan says:

    No they effing shouldn’t

  4. John Griffin says:

    And no characters in mainstream films or TV have to shit, piss or fart..,or in some cases,eat!

  5. Jo W says:

    Thank you for your decision on not bringing swearing into the PCU. I think Arthur already has a plentiful supply of beautiful archaic adjectives which he uses, without having to resort to common anglo saxon expletives. 😉

  6. SteveB says:

    Hi Chris
    It wasnt that I dont like clever. I felt The Boy Friend and The Last of Sheila were / are clever and nothing else. I mean you could accuse The Cook The Thief … of being clever but it has for me another dimension or depth which means I love it and for those two films are missing. Maybe there’s clever and there’s clever-clever!! I’m a huge fan of Ben Hecht eg Nothing Sacred, and also just for example films like Trouble in Paradise, these films first hit the heart and the cleverness is then icing not the core. Same as Bryant and May!!!! Cheers Steve

  7. SteveB says:

    PS too late to add swearing now

  8. admin says:

    ‘Too old to swear’. I like that.

  9. Denise Treadwell says:

    Please don’t, I hate it. It means you have no other way to express yourself!

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    Maybe you could start a new set of novels with sweary characters; ‘Tourettes and Ffoulmouth’, or just spicy dialogue;’Vesta and Curry’. Possibly a late Tudor pair; ‘Merkin and Codpiece’.

  11. Ken Mann says:

    Having worked alongside police for many years I have to say that they don’t actually strike me as particularly sweary. Of course their knowledge of profanity is extensive. I once worked on an e-mail filter for a policing organisation and noticed that as its list of profane words to look out for was developed by Americans it did not necessarily reflect the full palette of British swearing. I asked colleagues to suggest words to add to the list and after an hour had to beg them to stop as my ears were bleeding.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    We know what to expect with B&M and already are suspending disbelief about a great deal so your decision is probably good.
    What is considered swearing varies with culture. English language swearing seems to centre on toilets and sex (examples provided in plain brown wrapper upon request) but in Quebec French swearing centres on the church and the elements of the mass (examples as above). I wonder about other languages/cultures.

  13. Jan says:

    That’s interesting H I had never thought about swearing like that. Lots of our swearing and words for basic bodily functions are from the Anglo Saxon tongue and from the Vikings. When
    the Normans conquered Britain (Norseman via Northern France mind) their language was adopted by the aristos most of whom were imported at the same time. The masses used basic short older words still in circulation!

    Presently reading / researching a theign from Somerset who seems to have collaborated with the Normans and kept his lands.
    Yes very interesting thought now that would be a good read Comparative Curses from round the world. Be a bloody bestseller that would.

  14. davem says:

    As you point out, Londoners swear a lot .. I have no problem with it … and yet, it would seem strange to now read Bryant or May swearing.

    Arthur has an acceptable substitute with his Victorianisms, and I somehow cannot imagine John swearing, far too polite.

  15. Debra Matheney says:

    No swearing, please. The characters have developed without the habit of cursing, so why add it now? Just finished the latest delight in the series and can’t see how cursing would have added a thing. It was wonderful.

    That said, Malcolm Tucker is such a delight.(“Don’t ever fucking call me English again.”) And Pryce’s cursing was so in keeping with the whole ‘Taboo ‘ atmosphere.

  16. Salle Certo says:

    I love them just as they are! Don’t stop writing their series, please!!! I do have a question? Why don’t you list “Rune” in the Bryant and May series? Isn’t that where they first appear? I hope the more current books can be found outside the Kindle world.

    Bestest and THANKS ever so!

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Release of repressed desires, I’ve always thought. They say that the politest people are the ones who swear the most when they’re coming out of anaesthesis. An opportunity to really let loose. We use things that are sacrosanct or secret as swear words. Private parts, “filth”, or whatever is separate from regular polite society.
    I don’t know if France uses the same swear word basis as Quebec or whether they go the body parts/filth route. I can see the PhD applications being written as we speak.

  18. Mike says:

    I never noticed there was no swearing in the books.
    If it started now I’d find it very strange.

  19. admin says:

    The matter of swearing has appeared again in today’s papers, for the amount of offing and blinding in Agatha Christie’s ‘Ordeal By Innocence’ here.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    I agree with a lot of people here that swearing would be out of place in a Bryant and May story. Saying that, I did very much enjoy Arthur insulting Raymond in an arcane tongue, and out of all of the P.C.U. team, it is Raymond who I think would snap, and turn the air blue. His utter frustration at, well, everything, must be bottling up into either (a) A cerebral haemhorrage, or (b) A ‘Chevy Chase Christmas Vacation’ type explosion, aimed squarely at Arthur, who stands his ground, and then, when Raymond has finished, turns on his heel, and leaves, saying as he does so, something like: “Good rant, Raymondo – but I think you left out ‘bollocks’.”

  21. Lauren says:

    Agree that Arthur is more effective with his archaisms and odd familiarities (I’ve had to restrain myself from addressing anyone as “old sausage” – not at all the currency here in Arizona). And agree that John’s good manners would preclude casual profanity. If, however, there were a villain or some such street scum who were to use foul language, it wouldn’t cause irreparable harm. Having grown up near Boston MA, where many find it difficult to form sentences without an f-bomb, I am not going to clutch my pearls and swoon over a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Has to be character-driven and not overdone. (For classic Bostonian use of profanity and general crude humor, Mark Wahlberg’s movie “Ted” is pitch-perfect.)

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