Director: David Leland
Writer: David Leland
Starring: Emily Lloyd, Tom Bell, Geoffrey Hutchings
David Leland’s BAFTA-winning comedy tells the tale of Lynda Mansell, an unabashedly sexual girl coming of age in depressed and—more importantly for Lynda—repressed post-war Britain. Emily Lloyd, fabulous as the exuberant young Lynda, deservedly won the 1988 BAFTA for Best Actress while David Leland collected the Best Screenplay award. The script is loosely based on the memoirs of Cynthia Payne, a London madam who was famously put on trial in the 1970s for arranging sexual services for public figures.
Filmed in the nostalgic seaside towns of Worthing and Bognor Regis (Cynthia Payne’s actual birthplace), Wish You Were Here recreates 1950s Britain dragging itself out of the trauma of world war. Lynda begins the story as an apprentice at a hairdressing salon, but her real interest is the two mounds of flesh swelling beneath her gaudy pink smock: “Have I got great tits or have I got great tits?” she queries, disgusting a co-worker with what is by necessity a rhetorical question. For no one in this deeply conservative society will discuss the frightening subject of sex, certainly not Lynda’s father (a prim Geoffrey Hutchings). “There’s something wrong with you, my girl,” he rails at Lynda after her sacking from the hairdresser’s. Although mild compared to Albert Spica’s tirades in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover it still shows the formula boundary + violation = reaction at work. Crying in her bedroom, Lynda wonders whether her father is right. But as she ripens from awkward adolescent into cocksure young woman she can no longer suppress her true, joyfully foul-mouthed self: Linda cycles along the seaside promenade, her dress flapping provocatively, flashing her thighs at the town’s sex-starved young men.
Lynda’s father arranges a job at her Uncle Harry’s bus company but this merely serves to transport her from the women-only world of the hairdresser’s to the male-dominated environs of the bus depot. Here she meets Dave, a young stud hugely enamoured of his own prowess. Lynda, discovering a captive audience, stages an impromptu cabaret and shows off her underwear to the cheering workmen. Disgusted, Uncle Harry fires her on the spot. Here again, still in relatively mild form, is the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction. There’s something else, too: the female co-worker at the hairdresser’s, Lynda’s father, Uncle Harry: the entire community reacts negatively to what they perceive as sexual transgressions. Like Brandon in Boys Don’t Cry, Lynda is surrounded by sexual intolerance. And because it is the majority that determines what is morally acceptable the problem, as Lynda’s father observed, must lie with her.
So next up for Lynda is a psychiatrist. “I’m here to help you,” he states confidently; the assumption that the issue lies with Lynda, and not with a society that can’t bring itself to discuss the very process by which it reproduces, goes unquestioned. “Bloody bastard bugger bum,” Lynda gleefully chants when asked to name swear words beginning with ‘B’. When she gets to ‘C’ Lynda plays dumb. The psychiatrist eggs her on: “Something really filthy… very, very dirty.” We’re back with Steven Pinker again. The notion that sex is fundamentally unclean could not be more explicit; fifty years on from Wish You Were Here, ‘filthy’ and ‘dirty’ are still common sexual adjectives.
The notion that sex is fundamentally unclean could not be more explicit; fifty years on from Wish You Were Here, ‘filthy’ and ‘dirty’ are still common sexual adjectives
Unlike our sexual adjectives, Lynda moves on. She goes dancing with Dave (where other eyes than his enjoy Lynda’s obvious ripeness) and then back to his house, where she can’t wait for sex. Dave presents himself as an experienced and sophisticated master of the bedroom arts, lounging in the doorway in silk pyjamas, languidly smoking a cigarette in a holder. But the truth—which neither Dave nor Lynda realise—is otherwise. Dave enters Lynda but almost immediately climaxes. “You’ll get the hang of it,” he says proudly, manful duties done, his lexicon blissfully devoid of the term ‘premature ejaculation’. A hilarious incident follows as the arrival of Dave’s uncle forces Lynda to hide under the bed. The uncle’s dog threatens to root her out until it sniffs the used condom and makes off with it. It’s a typical Leland moment, leavening a heavy story with a moment of absurdity.
However, as mentioned, other eyes have been watching Lynda from a distance. They belong to Eric, a middle-aged bookie with a gammy leg whose marginal place in Britain’s rigid post-war society is hinted at by his lack of a surname in the film. Eric (excellently played by Tom Bell) understands Lynda’s real need—a good shag—and, gammy leg notwithstanding, is willing to put in the hard yards.
Eric invites himself into Lynda’s house, ostensibly to deliver some winnings to her father while the latter is absent. The relationship between the old and sexually capable Eric and the young and eager Lynda forms the spine of Wish You Were Here. To those unaware of the hidden workings of sexual shame, the sight of Eric groping Lynda—with only a token complaint from the latter—can make the film off-putting. But when the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction is understood it is clear that theirs is a natural alliance; they are both outsiders whose sexual interests transgress against their host society, and they each have what the other wants. The simple fact is that women like Lynda—i.e. Cynthia Payne—do exist and are often compelled to pursue a marginalised life in the sex industry. Lynda initially declines Eric’s offer and contents herself by taunting him with Wish You Were Here’s raffish refrain, “Up yer bum!”—an insult she joyfully demonstrates by baring her arse at a nosey-parker neighbour.
Lynda nonetheless soon finds herself drawn to the alley behind her house that Eric ghosts down at night, collecting illegal bets. They soon have a regular thing happening in, aptly enough, the tool shed. Such trysts don’t pass unnoticed in tightly knit Bognor and Lynda is confronted by her angry father. Here there are two impulses at work. The first is his disgust at Lynda’s behaviour, stemming from the violation of his own sexual boundaries. This is equivalent to John Lotter discovering the dildo in Boys Don’t Cry. The second is his sense of shame at being exposed before the community for failing to mould his daughter’s sexual behaviour to acceptable social standards. Throughout Wish You Were Here he shows no concern for Lynda. He never asks how she feels or how he might help; his only concern is his own respectability and social standing. Even the visit to the psychiatrist, outwardly a caring gesture, is fundamentally driven by the desire to curb Lynda’s wayward behaviour. Her relationship with her father at an impasse, Lynda grabs some of her long-dead mother’s clothes and moves in with Eric.
Standing by the window in Eric’s cheap room above the cinema, with the English Channel glittering behind her, the pain of Lynda’s lifelong rejection finally gets the better of her boisterous exterior. For all her self-sufficiency and smart-arse rejoinders she craves only to be accepted. Eric, his own emotions long withered, sees Lynda’s needs purely in sexual terms: “I can just fit you in before the Novices’ Handicap.” Lynda’s stay with Eric is as brief as her stint with Uncle Harry’s bus company. She moves on and finds employment at the Paris Café. Eric comes after her, missing his daily meat; during a row on the windswept pier it emerges that Lynda is pregnant. “How d’you know it’s mine,” Eric queries. “If it walks with a limp and thinks with its prick then it’s yours.”
The news of Lynda’s pregnancy shames her father into a highly public demonstration of his disapproval; once again he prizes his own social standing above his daughter’s wellbeing. The highlight of Wish You Were Here, their climactic argument takes place in the Paris Café, underscored by a delightful old lady playing Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ on the piano. Lynda’s father claims to seek a sensible conversation but instantly dashes any chance of one by labelling her a slut. She asks him to leave but he prefers to bandy insults; his objective is not to reconcile with Lynda but to publicly reject her. While John Lotter, Tom Nissen and Albert Spica react to shame with violence, Lynda’s father demonstrates the opposite response: rejection. The argument widens to include some customers and the café’s goose-stepping yet supercilious manager. Leland’s masterstroke is to have the old lady play not just ‘Für Elise’ but also judge and jury; at first she is decidedly neutral, but as the argument builds she sides with Lynda, who climbs onto a table top and bellows “I love willies!” before being rugby-tackled by the pastry chef. Lynda dusts herself off and strides out, her dignity intact, to scattered applause from various onlookers. It’s a fabulous scene.
The swanky surrounds of the Paris Café give way to a greasy-windowed cafeteria where Lynda meets up with a family friend, an older woman who advises Lynda to “get rid of it” and slips her the necessaries. Lynda stares at the crumpled notes in her hand before making her way to the house of a back-street abortionist.
The film cuts to a shiny green bus pulling into Uncle Harry’s garage. He rises with a shocked look on his florid face as Lynda steps off the bus, radiant in a daffodil yellow dress, complete with baby and perambulator. In her glowing dress she is posited as what screenwriting guru Robert McKee calls the ‘centre of good’; a shining light compared with the drab, discontented world around her. Lynda has become her own woman but only at the cost of being despised, marginalised and rejected by the majority of her community, including her family, which ultimately drives her alter ego Cynthia Payne into prostitution.
The films examined in this chapter show how the trinity of boundary, violation and reaction operates in any case of transgressive sexual behaviour, no matter how slight or severe. Even this brief foray into films about sex overwhelmingly supports Steven Pinker’s assertion that sex is “conducted in private, pondered obsessively, regulated by custom and taboo, the subject of gossip and teasing, and a trigger for jealous rage.” Why this particular constellation of behaviours?
Because this is how people respond to that which they are ashamed of.
The central idea of Sexcatraz is that all of our skittish, secretive, spiteful, physically, mentally and emotionally unbalanced behaviour around sex springs from an underlying well of sexual shame that is institutionalised throughout society. While the films reviewed in this chapter focused largely on individual experiences of sexual transgression, the next chapter examines how these individual experiences collate at a communal level.
 The word ‘moral’ derives from ‘mores’, customs. In other words, the behaviour of the many is ethical because many behave that way—a dangerously self-supporting construct, alluded to by Sigmund Freud in his observation that repression creates morality, not vice-versa.