I’ve had it in my mind to write about “Between the Sheets,” (2003) and Richard Armitage’s performance as Paul Andrews since before I started this blog. BTS is one of his earliest major roles, chronologically lodged after “Sparkhouse” (2002) and “Cold Feet” (2002) and before “North and South,” so, it is an early work, but not so early that it doesn’t warrant
examination for anyone interested in Richard Armitage’s development as an actor. What connection his Paul Andrews had to their decision to cast him as John Thornton may remain a mystery, but one would also think that the producers of “North and South” at least looked at BTS when they considered Mr. Armitage for the role.
Therefore, it baffles me that BTS is the least written about major role that Mr. Armitage has played. I have to wonder, what gives?
Very little has been written about the mini-series at all, despite its highly credentialed creator, Kay Mellor, directors, Jane Prowse, Robin Shepperd and cast, including Brenda Blethyn, Alun Armstrong and Julie Graham. I could find no contemporary reviews of the work as a whole and only two blog articles.
Ms. Mellor’s production company Rollem, bills BTS as an exploration of “the seldom talked-of topic of what makes us function sexually. Why are we attracted to people we shouldn’t be and what makes one person turn us on when another can leave us cold?“ and “Are we obsessed with Sex? It might seem that way . . . . Between the Sheets takes us under the covers and explores what is really going on in the bedroom.”
Well, maybe, if frigidity and impotence are what’s really going on in the bedroom.
Familiarity with the story is presumed, but briefly, BTS follows two couples who are sexually dysfunctional with each other, four couples who aren’t and two couples whose sexual encounters occurred in the past. In some cases, there’s an overlap in partners. Alona (Julie Graham), a healthily sexed sex therapist is struggling with the impotence of her live-in partner Paul ( Richard Armitage), who, when the story opens, has been accused by an under-aged girl of acting sexually inappropriately to her in his capacity as her juvenile probation officer. Hazel is a wealthy 60 something middle-aged wife who hasn’t had sex with her philandering husband, Peter, in 7 years. Hazel and Peter seek therapy from Alona who tries to awaken Hazel’s sexual desire through talk and exercise.
Alona and Paul also seek sexual counseling. In addition, Alona’s 18 year old son is having sex with the 20- something au pair, Peter and Hazel’s grown son is having sex with Peter’s former mistress, (after Peter throws over his long-time girlfriend -but not until they’ve had some standing up sex) Hazel is having sex with herself and with the the council wildlife officer (think, Mellors, Lady Chatterly’s gamekeeper) and Peter’s octogenarian mother is having sex with a new partner. Characters are talking frankly about sex and engaging in it as well.
There are numerous scenes depicting relatively graphic sex including intercourse in a variety of positions, unmistakable allusions and reactions to oral sex, masturbation, foreplay and nudity. As in real life, not all of this occurs between the sheets or even near a bed.
So I wonder whether his nudity and sex acting is the reason for the paucity of analysis and discussion among writers who usually dig deep and thoroughly into Mr. Armitage’s work? Is too much shown? Is too much said? Is the actor not believable? Is it the lack of chemistry between the partners? The missing romance? And is this too painful to watch multiple times in order to write about it with a close eye?
Sex may not be the reason at all why Between the Sheets has been ignored. Maybe it’s that Richard Armitage is playing such an unlikable and unsympathetic character. Paul Andrews, who is accused of using his position of trust as a juvenile probation officer to have sex with one of his 15 years old clients, at least in the first part, is written and portrayed as a weak, whining and immature man – like an adolescent caught by Mom trying to sneak out the window, in counterpoint to the strong, controlling Alona. Early on, he seems to be almost crying when confronted by Alona as he first denies then tries to explain away what he says happened between Tracy and him.
At timea, Paul acts younger and more immature than Alona’s 18 year old son. Even if he is innocent of the charges, (and it is the writer’s intent to keep us guessing for most of the series) Paul’s not dealing with the situation in an adult fashion. This underscores the role-reversal of Alona and Paul’s relationship, in which she is the dominant, more experienced take-charge partner and he, passive, goes along. Starting at disk 2, Paul’s entire demeanor and attitude changes and he shows us more of the fellow we get a glimpse of in a flashback from 8 years earlier when the pair first met.
But, characters we abhor have as much to add to a full understanding of an actor’s growth as do performances of characters we admire.
On its own, Between the Sheets, though probably over-ambitious, is pithy, both for themes and topics it addresses, and those it skirts. On the one hand, it’s primarily a chic flic, on the other hand, there are some disturbing anti-feminist aspects to the work, for example the secondary theme of sexual harassment that is given lip service, but mostly is utilized as a source of humor. There is the orchestrated parallel between Hazel’s experience and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” which raises the question whether there is also a “Lolita” parallel. There are many juicy nuggets, literary devices, that add interest to the piece: recurring metaphors, such as the herons Peter desperately longs to see return and Alona’s incessant application of lip balm. There are the reverse image relationships Peter/Hazel and Alona/Paul. And there is the mystery running through the plot, complete with red herrings: is Tracy falsely accusing Paul? Are they both liars? Does it make a difference? How do the writers play with the viewer in how they reveal the facts? There’s a lot here- perhaps too much.
There are some high points in Richard Armitage’s Between the Sheets performance, though there are certainly instances of overacting, over emotionalism, lack of polish, but even if true, the work warrants a closer critical look to appreciate how far he has come, to detail the modifications in his style, to identify tools and mannerisms he has retained or discarded. This is even more pertinent now that “Staged” has been released, because Darryl and Paul have much in common as characters and there’s a progression to be examined. So, get out the DVDs or log on to You Tube for the PG version. A look between the sheets is next.
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