The smoking ban 10 years on: what’s changed on page and screen?

Legislation that restricted smoking at work and in public in the UK now alters how readers and viewers perceive the fictional tobacco habit

In July 2007, it became illegal to smoke in enclosed public spaces and shared workplaces in the UK. That, as they say in Doctor Who, is a fixed point in time. You can now tell in an instant whether a book, film or a TV show made in this country is set before or after that date, simply by noticing whether the characters, if they smoke, go outside to do so.

Smoking used to be significant, especially on film and TV. It is now even more so. At first, it was a prop; famously, or so it was said, a way of giving actors something to do with their hands. I prefer to think that it is a way of expressing, or evading, some deep inner turbulence. It signifies nonchalance and its opposite, while providing for the camera and our gaze a curling backdrop of smoke with which the cinematographer can make play.

Consider the difference between a speech made without the exhalation of smoke, and one made with it: words are made visible, the mouth issuing smoke signals as the lips open and close. (The most extraordinary example of this that I can think of, incidentally, takes place in a film set before tobacco smoking became a global habit. In John Boorman’s Excalibur, Helen Mirren’s Morgana exhales what look like cubic kilometres of smoke as she summons the dragon’s breath for her witchcraft. I wonder how they did it.)

The effect can only be replicated by filming in the cold, and that can be tricky to arrange if your film is set in, say – to take a not entirely random example – Casablanca. That is the smoking film par excellence, and it has been argued by Richard Klein, in his excellent book Cigarettes Are Sublime, that the fug in which it is bathed adds greatly to its emotional clout, and prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s 1943 meeting with Churchill and De Gaulle – in that same city. (Not a notion that bears too much scrutiny, but it is pleasing to entertain.)

Nowadays, you can’t just smoke and get away with it, can you? Actually, you can, in a way. The opening episodes of Mad Men hinged on an ad campaign for Lucky Strikes, and people smoked in that series as if it was going out of fashion. This may have indicated inner moral corruption, but golly, didn’t it look good? Smoking now expresses defiance, a snook cocked at authority. The recent adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB had so much smoke in it that even I started coughing – and I’m a smoker. Shot as it was in half light, this made visual sense: smoke makes the murk in which the characters operate even murkier; and what better way to annoy a Nazi occupying your country – for Hitler hated cigarettes – than to smoke? As for the health risks of smoking (smoking being a lightning rod for righteous disdain), who’s going to care about living longer when you could be rounded up by the Gestapo?

Christina Hendricks in Mad Men.
Lucky strike? Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex

The most famous smoker in literature is Sherlock Holmes. (Although one would like to acknowledge PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, who appears to chain smoke his way through the Jeeves stories, often, if memory serves, starting even before breakfast; certainly, his post-breakfast cigarettes are an unbreakable ritual for him.) Holmes, in the books, would get through three pipefuls of cheap, nasty shag tobacco if he was wrestling with a particularly knotty case; but he also smoked cigarettes, a fact ignored by every portrayal of the detective until Jeremy Brett’s unimprovable rendition; I can still recall the weird, fastidious way in which he held his gaspers. (Compare the unusual way in which Austro-Germans would hold their cigarettes, whether you’re Erich von Stroheim in real life, or, on film, any of the non-British officers in the earlier scenes of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Nothing visually says “foreign” quite so much as a cigarette held between the middle and third fingers.)

Benedict Cumberbatch had fun with his nicotine patches – “this is a three-patch problem”, etc – but you can see how he could not quite be allowed to smoke an actual cigarette. His not-actually-smoking Holmes can, in the very exercise of withdrawal, be seen to be undergoing an extra torment, a further tension for an already tense persona. But there is an interesting point about the smoking ban in relation to films in which we do see real people smoking real cigarettes in banned spaces. The ability of actors to smoke in films and on TV is among a short list of exemptions under the 2006 Health Act that instituted the ban. Screen inhalation now gives the habit a charge it never had.

Contributor

Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Free love, flower power and fallouts: how kids cope with communes
Nostalgia for 1960s counterculture is everywhere – on Instagram, TV and in fashion. But what was life really like for the children of hippy parents?

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

22, Jun, 2018 @10:33 AM

Article image
Life on Earth by David Attenborough review – a reissued classic
David Attenborough influenced a generation with this fascinating survey, which is still inspiring 40 years after its first publication

Adam Rutherford

12, Oct, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
What’s in a name? Authors on choosing names for their characters
From Margaret Atwood’s Offred to Thomas Harris’s Hannibal the cannibal, names can end up shaping characters in ways even their creators never intended

Fiona Cummins

16, Apr, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
How Colin Dexter changed the face of crime fiction
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels began a boomtime in crime fiction on television and in bookshops – and we are still feeling its effects

John Dugdale

24, Mar, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Decline and Fall on TV – would Evelyn Waugh have approved?
The prospect of a new BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall, starring Jack Whitehall and Eva Longoria, is stirring mixed feelings – will Waugh’s wit be sold short once again?

DJ Taylor

28, Mar, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sarah Waters: ‘The Handmaiden turns pornography into a spectacle – but it's true to my novel'
Waters’ hit novel Fingersmith, about a lesbian love affair in Victorian England, has been transported to 1930s Korea for a new film. The author explains how it remains faithful to her original

Claire Armitstead

08, Apr, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Can Benedict Cumberbatch make Ian McEwan work on TV?
The Child in Time, starring Cumberbatch, kicks off a trio of adaptations that may make the author the most screen-friendly novelist of his generation

Mark Lawson

23, Sep, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Beyoncé to Black Mirror; the culture that defines 2016
How better to make sense of this turbulent year than through the art and literature it has produced? Our critics choose the works that sum up the last 12 months

Archie Bland, Michael Billington, Peter Bradshaw, Daphne A Brooks, Tom Holland, Jonathan Jones, Justine Jordan, Brian Logan, Sean O'Hagan and Simon Parkin

30, Dec, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
From Proust to Ellen DeGeneres, 10 gay works that changed the world
Philip Hensher picks 10 key moments that opened the door to homosexual culture

Philip Hensher

08, Apr, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Wildeblood scandal: the trial that rocked 1950s Britain – and changed gay rights
It was the trial that had everything: aristocrats, airmen, entrapment and immunity. But one gay man in the dock refused to go quietly. Adam Mars-Jones on how the courage of Peter Wildeblood paved the way to a more tolerant Britain

Adam Mars-Jones

14, Jul, 2017 @11:49 AM