Steam and Smoke on Love Island

There was recently on the ITV network in Britain a so-called reality show, ‘Love Island’, although it seemed rather a far cry from everyday reality to me. It featured a number of attractive young men and women who appeared to be on holiday in a villa in Majorca. The object of the series was to see who had sex with whom and how soon. There were certain rules that needed to be followed and the winning couple got £50,000 – with a lot more to follow in endorsements, etc.

The participants all had enviable good looks and beach-ready bodies, with several of the men sporting tattoos and fancy haircuts. The dialogue, carried on in Estuary accents, was notable for its emptiness and repetitive use of a certain vulgar word. Naturally, it was wildly popular.

But what was truly shocking about this boring series was not the vulgarity or the sex, but  that some of the participants were seen – dare I say it? – sm*k*ng! What a let-down! What a turn-off!

Apparently a daily supply of cigarettes was dished out with the condoms, but of course this activity – the one with the cigarettes, that is – should not be shown on television in case it encourages others.

But the point I want to make is this. Ms Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), when asked to comment on this aspect of the series, said:

I consider it reasonable to require programme-makers to have very strong justifications for showing smoking in a programme likely to be seen by young people, particularly if it depicts smoking by glamorous and attractive characters or people. I have seen no such justification in this case.

It seems to Ms Arnott, then, that there are some circumstances where it could be justified for smoking to be shown in programmes, whether or not the characters are glamorous and attractive. Perhaps she would tell us what these are. I have to say that, however much I wrack my brains, I cannot think of any such circumstances. Therefore, surely Ms Arnott – and especially Ms Arnott whose day job is discouraging smoking as much as possible – should say unequivocally that she considers there are no justifications for showing smoking in current TV shows likely to be seen by young people, or by old people for that matter, whether the characters depicted are glamorous and attractive or even if they are dowdy and ugly.

And how did an ITV spokesman respond?

The islanders are only shown smoking if this happens at the same time as they are having conversations we believe to be editorially important to the narrative of the show.

This is even more idiotic than Ms Arnott’s qualified criticism. What difference does it make whether smoking is shown at the same time that the participants are having conversations that are deemed editorially important, or even just ordinarily important, or indeed if they are entirely unimportant to the narrative of the show?

The inane conversations, important or not as they may have been, are one thing. The connection, let alone justification, however, between smoking and the narrative is non-existent. I cannot think of a single good reason for smoking to be shown in a modern play, film or TV show.

It’s an entirely different matter in a period piece such as Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), in which two hard-drinking couples set about having a furious row with each other. It was made into a film in 1966 starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In the film the protagonists are portrayed as smokers, but at that time smoking was regarded as normal and was an integral part of the characterization. Today, of course, knowledge about and societal attitudes towards smoking have been transformed.

Any depiction of smoking in a contemporary film, play or TV show should not be countenanced; it looks ridiculous and wrong.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

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