There are straightforward arts documentaries and then there’s DH Lawrence: Sex, Exile and Greatness (Sky Arts), a resolutely fibrous plod through the life and works of the author, which made me feel like I was at school again, desperately taking notes.
Born in 1885. Right. Dad was a drunk collier. Got it. Became a teacher. Ok. Stopped being a teacher. Ok... Every now and then a Methodist-looking professor in a shirt would pop up to quietly talk about sexual anguish or Freudian psychological despair, but, as if afraid of its own racy subject matter, the film took on the air of a Victorian schoolmaster daring his class to snigger at the rude bits in The Bible. Never has passion been rendered so passionless.
As Lawrence wrote: “We’ve denied the life of our bodies, so they, our bodies, deny life to us.” My, if ever a documentary needed to borrow a bit of oomph from its subject, it was this one.
It focused mainly on Lawrence’s relationships and how they fed into his works – a failed early romance became Miriam and Paul in Sons and Lovers, the sexual liberation Lawrence found with his wife, Frieda, was channelled into Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
He had stolen Frieda from his old modern languages professor, when he chanced upon her at home alone one day and she smothered him in Freud. He wrote Chatterley while Frieda was having an affair with their dashing Italian landlord. The academics popped up to remind us not to get hot under the collar, this was a serious literary exercise.
There were nuggets of interest – how could their not be, given Lawrence’s tumultuous life? – but it was all presented with no gravy or butter. I was mainly tickled by two things: one, Lawrence describing how he “hated humanity” and wanted to shoot people with “invisible arrows of death”, like a moody teenager. And, two, the woman caught by a reporter in 1967, coming out a bookshop with a copy of Chatterley in her hand. “I’m buying it for someone else,” she said, hurriedly. She would have appreciated the strenuous tact of this documentary.