Zoe Williams: Once, everyone smoked on screen. Now, you have to be evil or working class

The following apology was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Friday May 18 2007

In the article below, we claimed that the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, had said it had been "deplorable" that Faye Turney, one of the navy hostages held in Iran, had been shown on television smoking a cigarette because "This sends out completely the wrong message to our young people." In fact the quote was a fabrication published in the Sunday Telegraph on April Fools' day. That paper subsequently apologised for the unintended publication of the statement in other papers as being genuine, as did the Times, and so do we.

Cast your mind back to Friends, the episode entitled The One Where Rachel Smokes. It was 1999. Rachel has started at Ralph Lauren, and her boss, along with a colleague, both smoke. On their fag break, they make decisions about headscarves or whatever without her, so she decides to pretend to be a smoker. With hilarious consequences! Which I can't remember.

The point is: at the very end of last century, it was still possible, at a stretch, in America (and more so here) that smoking could be a background plot device. Which is to say, a person could smoke, and still be a normal person. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the 1990s were the 1930s: then, if a person wasn't smoking on screen, it was because they had their hands full with a gun, or a leopard. Nor am I saying it was the 1950s or 60s, when some smoked and some didn't, but smoking could appear naturally. By the 1990s, it was always a plot catalyst in mainstream television to trigger some other action. But it was not, even by this stage, a personality indicator in its own right.

If you took a friendly-minded British sitcom now, and you made the boss smoke, that would leave unanswered questions. Why's that person a boss? Clearly, it is a feckless, irresponsible person. Is it a buffoon, or corrupt? A smoker must fall on a spectrum of delinquency. In the best-case scenario, it'll be a useless flake, and in the worst, it'll be a dangerous psychopath - but there is no way in small-screen narrative that it's just a regular person with a bad habit. The dyed-in-the-wool smokers of the small screen can only just scrape together the money to smoke: they are the hard-bitten Fag Ash Lils of EastEnders and Corrie, the cross-generational losers of Shameless and the Royle Family. It is not unthinkable for a person to have money and smoke - the Wags smoked on Footballers' Wives - but they have come by that money dodgily; they are not born classy. Having acceded into a cash-rich world, if they cling on to their trashy ways, it's because they're evil.

Smoking has never been a no-strings-attached activity on screen. It has always conveyed something about character, but once upon a time that something was not necessarily a bad thing. If it were class-related, it might have meant maverick or refusenik. If it were intelligence- or morality-related, a snout could mean "outsider" and thereby offer the character an IQ hike. In broad comedies (Ealings, for instance), it was just a function of approachability - "you can trust us because we have no airs and graces. We love to smoke!" In gritty (ie working-class) dramas - Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - it signified a non-conformist, which in turn meant "hero".

As the decades went on, and the notion receded that smoking was just something the working classes did because they'd been weak-minded enough to join the army, you'd find plenty of middle-class smokers on telly, but they would be of a certain stamp. The female ones would be rebels - not necessarily bad girls, but not totally at ease with their place in the world. I think of your classic 80s screen smoking as Educating Marmalade and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but of course I also mean the real-life Charlotte Coleman (who was expelled from school for smoking) - subversive but in a charming, unthreatening way.

Now, the change has crept up on us; I mean, we've known smoking was bad for us since, what, the 1970s? And yet, there has been a sea change. One minute, a pub on the telly looked like a pub in real life. The next, it was a totally smoke-free environment, unless it was Phoenix Nights, and they were all smoking to underline how stupid they were. Apart from the much-discussed working-class flakiness, the only other narrative use for smoking was in the conveyance of idiocy. For instance, take The Smoking Room, from 2004. It was about a load of office workers who meet in the smoking room. The point of the location was to answer this question: we'd like to create a sitcom in which everyone is incredibly stupid, so what location could unite a group in stupidity? Not a psychiatric hospital (too inflammatory); not a McDonald's (too libellous); not a hardware shop (tried that. It sucked); a smoking room. Who would smoke, nowadays? Total idiots! They can all be idiots in subtly different ways! What a wheeze!

I would resist the suggestion that any of this was started by politicians. If anything, the barroom smoking ban is a reaction to the change in cultural landscape rather than vice versa. But Patricia Hewitt distilled a certain mood when she complained about Faye Turney, one of the sailors captured by Iran, shown smoking on the television following her return to the UK. Hewitt was dismayed that Turney, as a "role model" for young women, should have a bad habit. It's such politician-tripe, isn't it? Young women can never just involve themselves in someone else's story. They always have to be thinking, "There's another woman. I wonder if I can be like her? Oh, she smokes. Does that mean I have to smoke, too?"

It's true, though, that we're not used to seeing a person smoking on screen without making a certain set of assumptions. We can't file Turney under "feckless working-class person" because, in combat scenarios, the media likes to pretend that class doesn't exist. Besides, she was fighting on behalf of the rest of us, risking her life at the behest of authority, which is about as unfeckless as you get. But if not irresponsible, then what? She's not a rebel. She's not evil or conniving. Her smoking says absolutely nothing about her, apart from the fact that she smokes. And that's why she makes no on-screen sense. The more aberrant this habit becomes, the more screen symbolism it has. On screen, nobody, ever, just fancies a fag.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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