The thrill is in the chase

So, you could dine a deux on Veal's Brains in a Walnut, Asparagus and Passion-fruit Coulis at that chi-chi new cafe everyone'…

So, you could dine a deux on Veal's Brains in a Walnut, Asparagus and Passion-fruit Coulis at that chi-chi new cafe everyone's been talking about, drink too much, flirt with the wait-persons and have a screaming row on the Quays at three in the morning after breaking a heel, losing a lens and not finding a taxi. This is the "Valentine's Day as New Year's Eve" option.

Or you could collect about you some like-minded singletons and, united in your justified disdain for Hallmark Holidays, fling drink upon drink down your fixedly-grinning maws until your tear ducts finally cut loose and set you adrift on a pool of maudlin self-pity. This is the "Valentine's Day as Sad and Bitter Table at Wedding Reception" option. Or you could stay home, pour two dry martinis, watch an old screwball comedy and laugh until you pass out. This, as far as I'm concerned, is the most favoured option. Because what is Valentine's Day for if not to pose the age-old question: why don't they make them like that any more? The tale of the Hollywood producer who, when faced with a romantic comedy script, barks: "When do they f***?" may provide one answer. The contemporary insistence on inserting scenes of simulated sex into films betrays a complete ignorance of how romantic comedy works. The thrill is in the chase, after all. Sex is the destination of a comedy. It should only ever happen offscreen, as the end credits roll.

The great screwball comedies that flourished in Hollywood's golden age - films like Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story - had little choice in the matter. They laboured under the notorious 1934 Production Code Of Ethics, (The Hays Code), forbidding explicit, or even implicit treatment of matters sexual. Thus, the makers of what Andrew Sarris called "sex comedies without the sex" were obliged to slip it in surreptitiously, so to speak: through witty, bickering banter, or out-and-out violence. The one sure way to measure a screwball couple's affection is to gauge the intensity of their fights: if it's all-out war, it must be love.

As an opponent of all forms of censorship I find myself uncomfortable with the notion that repression can bring artistic benefits; as a writer, however, it makes perfect sense. After all, how do you write a sex scene in a drama? What instructions could a writer give actors about pretending to have sex with each other? And why should we bother, when you look at the end result and think: they know they're not, and we know they're not, so could they just not?


When the trick is to convey sexual attraction through dialogue, on the other hand, particularly dialogue between two people who appear to loathe each other, then the writing has to be good. And when it's as good as Robert Riskin's for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, or Dudley Nichols's for Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Preston Sturges's for Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, you have the basis for some of the funniest, sexiest, most romantic comedies of the century.

And if I could have a Valentine, it would be Claudette Colbert in Midnight, which I've never seen, and which is unavailable on tape, and which was written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Just don't forget the martinis.

Declan Hughes's new play, Twenty Grand, opens at the Peacock on Wednesday, February 25th

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic