Sharp Tongued English
Sir John Gielgud made so many horrendous gaffes that there’s a book about them called ‘Gielgoodies’ – the Shakespearian actor was forever insulting friends by mistake. He was blunt and thoughtless, but it must have been difficult to take offence when he’d say, ‘I don’t think Pemberton’s a good designer. You want someone who will just come in and do something in red.’
Honesty can only be pulled off by someone with charisma. From anyone else it simply looks rude. I like the line from the widow to the commiserating divorcee in TV’s ‘Grace & Frankie’; ‘At least my husband’s dead. You have twenty years of being alone ahead of you.’ Oscar Wilde as approached by someone who said, ‘I feel there is a conspiracy of silence against me these days. What do you think I ought to do?’ ‘Join it,’ said Oscar. And from Gielgud again, spoken to Maggie Smith during rehearsal; ‘Don’t screw your face up like that, Maggie. You look like that terrible old woman you played in that dreadful film.’
I’m fairly high up there with him on the gaffe level. I was once at a film premiere party with a client who was bored and being rude about the other guests, complaining that ‘they let anyone in these days’. Going along with the fun I pointed to a scruffily dressed senior loading up at the buffet and replied, ‘Yes, look, there’s Old Man Steptoe.’ To which the client replied, ‘That’s my husband.’
A New Statesman competition ran a ‘What I Should Have Said/ What I Said’ competition, one entry of which was, ‘The traffic’s probably really heavy tonight’/ ‘Maybe he’s dead.’ Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived.’ He was referring to Balwin’s place in history, of course, but it still doesn’t take out the sting.
Sometimes you don’t even have to speak to cause offence. I was working with a producer who, during a casting session for a lady of certain years, slipped me a note intercepted by the actress herself when it fell on the floor. She read what it said; ‘Too Old!!’
They say the perfect English insult is one where you walk away thinking you’ve been complimented, like something said to a friend of mine; ‘You’re so obviously brilliant at saving money.’ The actor Charles Grodin was waiting to be seen by a casting agent when his PA, a tough old Englishwoman, spotted him and said, ‘It would be so much nicer if you weren’t here.’ The English can wring a withering insult out of the words ‘rather difficult’ – it’s all part of an arsenal of understatement that allowed my PA to write off a bomb blast that might have killed her as ‘tiresome’.
W H Auden’s line, ‘I have no gun but I can spit’ gave rise to the title for the much-missed satirical TV series ‘Spitting Image’, which followed a long line through history of the English biting back at their leaders. Scatology and sex were woven in with political invective for maximum effect, but the language used to express harsh criticism is eloquent and softens the blow even as it lands.
Which is a long way round of explaining why there is no single instance of the word ‘fuck’ in any Bryant & May novel. Sweariness is limited in power, especially if overused. Recently the big business dynasty series ‘Succession’ was so overloaded with repetitive expletives that it became impossible to imagine that these were brilliant captains of industry. Real power can lie in the facility of language, but few bother to access it.