Oct 11, 2010

Richard Armitage and the Character of Desire

It’s been a while since I’ve weighed in on the mad cap mayhem that is Richard Armitage fan fervor. As long-term readers of this blog will know, it’s somewhat of a fascination of mine. Why does this man attract such enthusiastic supporters? Is it the roles? The looks? The talent? RA is not the only handsome, talented actor out there to have scored a succession of wonderful roles – why all the fuss? In the past I’ve mused on the possible awakening of desire in RA’s female fans, lately it’s occurred to me that there is another aspect of the desire equation that needs pointing out. In fact it’s the precursor that makes the “awakening of desire” possible, and may go some way to answering the question that Servetus rightly pointed out was largely unanswered in my previous post: “Why does *Richard Armitage in particular* provoke this reaction of potentiating women’s acknowledgment of their inner passion?”

“God I’ve missed you..” Lucas North watches his ex-wife, Elisavieta Starkova, walk away in 7.4

When I began composing this piece it was not my initial intention to answer the “Why Richard?” question, but as it has transpired it seems that this is precisely what I’ve attempted to do, albeit in a half baked fashion! So here it goes. To my mind, there is clear common ground in three (possibly four) of RA’s most popular roles; John Thornton, Guy of Gisborne, and Lucas North (I note that John Porter is also popular, but as his appearance occurred well after the establishment of the fervorish RA fan base, he is excluded from the discussion for this reason). No, it’s not their broodiness (although one could argue it’s a recurring theme), it is their intense desire for one woman. Thornton for Margret, Guy for Marian, and Lucas for Elisavieta (I have not seen all of the productions that RA has appeared in, so I can’t address this subject in relation to some of his older roles). The deep longing that each character has, I suspect, is not only what poured fuel on the fan fervor flame to begin with (in North and South) but is also what has kept it burning. Desire has not only been a strong element in each of these characters, it has also been central to the stories in which they appear. Even Harry Kennedy, who RA played in the Vicar of Dibley, could be placed in this category as well. And needless to say, romantic desire is something that Richard Armitage portrays incredibly well. Is this what lies at the heart of RA fan fervor?

Why would this shared element among these roles be important? Well, some say (including sexologists and sex therapists), that what women want more than anything else in this world, is to be desired (incidentally I find the question of “what women want” somewhat absurd as we are not one homogeneous group who all want and think the same things.. but perhaps there are some things that rise above our diversity and are common between us in certain cultural contexts). I must clarify that being desired by a man is not necessarily the same as being loved by him. One can love another person without an intense desire for them, and conversely, one can desire someone without loving them (Did Guy really love Marian? I think that can be debated but his desire for her is indisputable). RA has embodied a number of characters who desire one woman in the way that many women would like to be desired themselves (OK, so perhaps that statement might be a bit dubious in relation to Guy of Gisborne, but taking into consideration the amount of Guy fan fic out there, perhaps it’s not!).

Before proceeding further I want to take a moment to define desire in the context of this discussion. Pi asked in response to the previous post on this subject – What kind of desire are we talking about here? While in that post I was addressing the ill-defined desire within a fan, here I am talking about the desire depicted on screen by the characters RA has played (which is connected to the fan’s desire by its resonance with her). Again, it is ill-defined, but a few adjectives will at least narrow the parameters a bit. Desire for another person is not the kind of narcissistic sexual desire of a character like Lee in Coldfeet. It’s a strong, deep and enduring longing. A craving, a yearning, a lust – that is singular, palpable, and earnest. The earnestness of the desire is probably what is most important here. If you’ve ever felt the desire of a man who is not earnest in his longing of you, you can dismiss him without a second thought. A man who is earnest in his desire of you on the other hand, if you don’t feel the same in return, it’s quite a tricky situation to contend with. Been there, done that? Then perhaps you can appreciate the fuzzy definition of desire that I’m working with here (which doesn’t particularly define what the desirer is desiring).

John Thornton is unable to hide his distress and face Mr. Bell upon mention of his unrequited love, Margret Hale.

The inclusion of Lucas North in the company of Thornton and Gisborne might not be clear to some, so let me explain. Without giving away too much of what is transpiring in series nine of Spooks (please refrain from S9 spoilers in your comments!), taking into consideration the personal story lines related to Lucas North in series seven, eight and nine, what is emerging for me about this character is that he loves deeply. In season seven he longed for his ex-wife Elisavieta. Even though they were divorced before his capture by the FSB, he claims to have thought of nothing but her during his eight year long incarceration. In series eight with Sarah Caulfield (I realise she is enemy number one among many RA fans, but I won’t be joining the chorus of condemnation of her here), even after Lucas learns that she is part of Nightingale, his strong feelings for her remain. He is conflicted, obviously, but is also grief stricken when she dies. In season 9 we learn of a love that has endured over 15 years, a love that he “can’t stay away” from.

Lucas North gently caresses his laptop monitor upon seeing the MI-5 file on his long lost and enduring love, Maya Lahan.

It’s one thing for these characters to want, desire and love a woman on paper, but it’s how this important aspect of these characters is brought to life by Richard Armitage on screen that matters most here. I’m not about to mount an exposition of his performances to provide evidence of his talent in this area – I’ll leave that to others who are more skilled at that kind of analysis than I. In short, however, its the earnestness that RA illuminates in his performance of his characters’ love and desire that I think his fans, in particular, are responding to. If “what a woman most wants” is to be intensely desired (sexually, physically, and emotionally) by a man who feels a longing for her, and only her, it’s not such a stretch to suggest that what they also want, (apparently!), is to watch a man who portrays this exquisitely on screen.

Is this the essence of the Armitage Army’s unparalleled enthusiasm? Is their interest in him driven by his embodiment of the desirer and their desire to be desired? One can’t be 100% sure, and one can’t assume that all his fans/supporters enjoy his work for the same reason, but still, given the common characteristic of desire in all of RA’s most popular roles, I can’t help but suspect that my proposition is not too far from the mark.

Ponder, squee and discuss…

Screencaps from Richard Armitage Net and the Spooks Fan Blog Gallery.


  • I think you’re definitely on to something there, Skully. :) I, for one, do enjoy RA’s character’s intense longing for one woman. (In particular, the way he looks at her with the piercing stare that makes the viewer melt.)

  • This is so hard to answer – as you say he is a good actor and he is really handsome but so are other actors. Is he that much more handsome and that much more of a better actor than others? Probably not.

    Also I think that you don’t have to look further than Thornton for possible answers to your question. That role started the fan fervour and still tops most fans list of favourite roles.

    And are his fans more enthusiastic than fans of other actors – perhaps, but again I don’t know. Certainly the collective fan enthusiasm seems rather disproportionate to his fame. I am still seeking an answer on why I like him so much so it’s hard to generalise.

    • Yes I think Thornton does have a lot to do with it (obviously!) but we need to remember that not everyone’s “entry point” into RA fandom is with North and South. Some started with Robin Hood, others with VoD, and others with Spooks – it’s interesting to me that all these “entry points” into RA’s work feature the “character of desire” that I speak about in this post.

      It is, as you say, hard to generalise though. I don’t know why I like RA so much either, and I don’t think this post answers that question for me personally (still pondering that one!), but I don’t count myself as one of the “fevorish” types!

  • Skully, I love your post, and I would say I agree with you. Being a very long time fan of another actor who does have a large female following, I can say other actors have enthusiastic and supportive fans. (Maybe that’s why I don’t agonize as much about my enthusiasm for RA???). I would say that the difference with RA, and why he may inspire such passion and longing in women that are or have never been affected in this way before, is how perfectly he makes us believe his desire and love for this one woman. You can see the desire and love in those perfect blue eyes, and how he conveys this across a TV screen is a mystery to me. I haven’t seen any other actor do it so well, or do it quite in this way.(No, not even the actor I have followed for decades!). Even RA’s voice conveys his strong passion, sometimes very intense, sometimes gentle and loving. How does he do it? Yes, I do think it’s because we all want to be desired, by a man that we in turn also desire, in that intense way that we see in Thornton, Guy, and Lucas. Also, I think the fact that he is loyal and devoted to this ONE woman (or one woman at a time for Lucas) when clearly he is a man who could have many women if he so wished, adds to the appeal. We also long to find a man who despite all temptations will love and desire us only. How RA does this so well is the mystery of this talent as an actor.

    • Come on, Musa, spill the beans! WHO IS THE OTHER ACTOR? ;)

      • LOL – OK,OK, you got me Skully! The other actor is Sean Bean :)

  • I really enjoyed this post, Skully. Perhaps because it relates exclusively to RA and tries to address the core of his appeal. I’ve never been a fangirl, not as a young girl or as an adult before now, but this fascination has had me in its grip for over 9 months and shows no signs of abating. I think the analysis you offer of these roles you mention is valid, but I enjoy him immensely as boy boys John Mulligan, Paul and Lee who certainly would never be constant in their affections and as the painfully shy and inept, but faithful John Standring, so it doesn’t completely cover it for me. I enjoy watching him in action, playing the whole register of emotions, from the sexually assured strutting their stuff to the one-woman types to the incompetent. When this range of talent is presented by a physically attractive actor who seems so genuine and humorous in RL, well I’m completely lost!

    • I agree, I don’t think what I’ve proposed completely covers all the bases here. But I do wonder if the collective interest in RA would have reached the heights that is has if all his roles had been like the bad boys John Mulligan, Paul and Lee? I’m sure they are enjoyable to watch and add to the admiration of RA, but I think his portrayal of desire *might* be crucial to intensity and breadth of that admiration and support. The nexus between having a bunch of keen fans vs having a whole bloody army! :)

  • I wish there was an edit function readily available for the typing disfunctional. I’m talking about bad boys above and not boy boys.

  • Well put, Milly Me. I’ve certainly enjoyed all of his roles even if they surprised me. I’m still astounded at his range even if it’s not used as it should be, and yes, he’s sexy. Big time sexy. :D

    Skully, I absolutely adore that RA can have such intensity for a woman. I think I’ve said as much in my diary entries. So you’re dead on about that having such an effect on some of us fans. LOL!

    But frankly, with Spooks, I was looking forward to the writers not making his love life a priority, and I really liked S7. With S8 I was disappointed that the writers did not use the groundwork they laid in S7. What happened to that? Where did it go? Apparently, it was, well, not important any longer. Frustrating. Instead we get this cheesy “it’s bigger than both of us” affair, and what’s left at the end did not advance the Lucas character very much. Not to mention that it was a bit of a retread from Tom/Christine.

    So given the writer’s lack, my expectations quite naturally have lowered. This season I’m ready to just settle for what I know RA does really well — intensity with a woman, since this appears to be what the writers are settling for. No problem enjoying that, but it could have been more, and maybe I’ll be surprised at the end, and it will be! :D

    • I’m disappointed that they didn’t build on the ground work of season seven with Lucas as well (nice to see him use that photographic memory in series 9). I should clarify (which I neglected to do in the post) that I was especially talking about Lucas in series 7, rather than 8. I referred to 8 and 9 to highlight that ‘desire’ was a facet of his character that had continuity throughout the seasons. But I’m glad you raised the disappointment with Lucas in 8 because in terms of the desire stuff it highlights something I meant to add in the post but forgot. So I’m just gonna whack it in here:

      “The desire thing is much less likely to resonate or appeal (with the fan audience) if its seen that the woman he desires is not worthy of his attention (Sarah Caufield being the obvious example, the jury is still out on Maya because we don’t know enough about her yet). The reason it won’t work in these circumstances is that if RA’s characters are perceived to desire indiscriminately or the viewer can not understand why he desires the person he does (which was the case with Sarah Caufield, who, in addition, many fans simply did not like. Some fans weren’t particularly fond of Marian either, but unlike with Sarah, Guy’s desire of Marian was more understandable) – this conflicts with her own fantasy to be desired by someone with good sense and good taste, and therefore the character is no longer the embodiment of the kind of desirer she desires.”

      Perhaps this is just one (of many) reasons why the Lucas/Sarah story was unsatisfactory?

      • Excellent point, Skully about why the romance thing between Lucas & Sarah didn’t work.

  • I think you’ve broken down some elements of “charisma” extremely well, Skully! Especially the “one woman” aspect (Right, even if “at a time”). Has any actor managed that LOOK? Not even my own decades’s long infatuation the other tall actor, with a very deep voice – the one with the Scottish accent…

    • As you know I’ve wondered this, too, and I’m honored that you backtracked to think about my question. This is the most convincing answer I’ve read so far. I share with you the perception of the “need to love and be loved” as the primary motor in Lucas’s character. For me (as always) there’s also something about the “how.” How Armitage portrays that intense desire seems to be relatively unique in my experience. (Guess it’s up to me now to document that on my blog sometime.) For instance, Guy’s desire is indisputable, but it’s also an unhealthy desire — Guy is the kind of Guy who’d stalk Marian, who’s just a little creepy, who’s just a bit over the edge. How Armitage manages to give that impression but all the time make us quiver in our boots as we wished we were being stalked, too: it’s a marvelous talent.

      • I’m glad you picked up on the “how”, because without naming you, I was subtly suggesting that Ms Servetus might want to examine this! (although I’m sure you would have touched on it many times already).

        Yes I think Guy’s “unhealthy” desire is probably the most complex of all in terms of the fans response to him. I wonder if this could have only worked in a fantasy world – if Guy had been a contemporary character in a real life 2010 setting, would he have succeeded in seducing the audience to the same extent?

    • Yes, I agree, RA is definitely a cut above the rest (even the biggest names!) in how he portrays various aspects of a character.

  • The tats.
    I’m mesmerized by the tats.

    Loved the post Skully.

    • Thanks, MysteriousTraveller!

      Are you mesmerised by the tatts, or where the tatts are located? ;)

  • I’ve been trying to work out the “Why RA?” question for ages and I’m still not sure but yes, the portrayal of characters with such intense “romantic desire” is an excellent point. I first saw RA as Harry Kennedy. I was a big fan of Dawn French’s Geraldine Grainger. RA portrayed Harry beautifully and I believe, succeeded in making the relationship believable even though some viewers thought it nonsensical. I won’t bore you with those comments but in essence critics felt it was unrealistic for such a good looking fellow to fall for a woman who was overweight. (Horrendous comments). I thought it worked thanks to RA’s charm and genuine warmth onscreen. Next was N&S for me – I actually only warmed to JT in Episode 4 when his benevolent side appeared along with vulnerability and of course his love for Margaret. One of my favourite scenes however was with little Thomas Boucher … nothing romantic about that but such a simple and lovely scene. I think there is an ability to convey warmth and caring in characters who much of the time are portrayed as cool, distant, strong personalities (and in Guy’s case cruel). He is good at playing multidimensional characters who tantalise us and keep us interested and guessing. I find that very appealing and I think that’s why I keep returning to watch more of his work.

    • It took me a while to warm to Thornton too, not until ep 4, like yourself. It really wasn’t until the third viewing of North & South in its entirety that I was fully sympathetic to him (my union roots where getting in the way!). So as much as I adore the production of N&S (and RA’s performance) I never developed “Thornton Syndrome”.

      I think you’re very right to point out his ability to convey warmth and caring, one imagines that’s crucial to his appeal as well (especially in terms of the qualities we value in other people, they would be near if not at the top).

      • I feel similar. I came to RA via N&S but never fell as hard for Thornton as others did, it took me until episode four to get his more human side and I really fell more in love with N&S as a piece of art (the atmosphere, the music etc.) than the character of Thornton.

        • Funny, it was my third watching that put me over the edge too. Before that I simply loved the whole production. I knew JT was special, but until I saw it repeatedly, I didn’t fully appreciate how perfect a performance it actually was. The second character that put me over the edge was John Standring in Sparkhouse. That shy, sweet man and how well he cleans up! Wowza! The loving way he treated Carol was heartbreakingly patient and tender.

    • I think mulubinba’s reference to Thomas Boucher is very important and Richard has had several other non-romantic scenes which also illustrate the point that it does not really have to be a woman to whom he is relating to in an intensely emotional way. For example the final scene with Andrew Lincoln in Strike Back or the scene with Higgins near the end of N&S perhaps. But mostly these scenes have been with women. But my point is that he is really good at acting with emotion – even his voice seems to effortlessly change to do this.

      • Sorry didn’t mean to comment as The Gruffalo. I take this opportunity to try to summarise what I am trying to say here.
        I would add as a precursor that I think that Richard’s extreme good looks (!) and amazing body are a necessary but not sufficient part of his attraction to fans, speaking generally. But his ability to convey emotional intensity so apparently effortlessly – for us to see a window on a character – to witness the inner thoughts in his face and in his voice, so forcefully yet subtly – this is why we love him so. I hope he gets more chances to show what he can do – hopefully Captain America will lead to some interesting roles in future – this is my hope anyway. I’d hate to see him fade into TV obscurity.

  • I think you are absolutely spot on! We would never have fallen for JT without his longing for Margaret or for Guy without his longing for Marian (that had a strong sexual undercurrent)and those two characters are really the ones that inspired people to join the fandom (something many never have done before), write fanfic, create fanart and so on.

    Lucas North is a bit tricky. The theme was there with Elizabeta, they had some heartbreaking scenes, but it let to nothing, was not properly developed. IMO it was not enough to inspire the same reaction JT and GoG did. The SC story arc could have been wonderful and tragic, two mortal enemies in love with each other and not able to kill each other. Only it went horribly wrong because fans hated her (I never fully understood the hatred either) and had the opposite effect. Lucas appeared weak instead of touching us deeply.

    • Lucas is a bit tricky, I agree, and he can’t really be compared to Thornton and Guy. But he was my “entry point” into his work, so perhaps my inclusion of him here is revealing my personal bias ;) Perhaps Thornton, Guy and Harry are the big three!?

      Maybe it’s because the actress who played Sarah is Australian (like me) I’m a bit defensive about her. I haven’t written about this on the blog yet but I intend to soon.

      • I’m looking forward to your take on Sarah! I’m not saying I liked her or found her terribly convincing but she didn’t inspire that visceral hate many viewers seem to feel.

  • I just skimmed for the moment, but what attracted me to The Armitage was firstly his radiant smile in VoD.

    And then…as John Thornton, he yelled. I love that yell and every yell that he’s done since then. That is what hooked me.

    • You loved Thornton’s yell? Wow, I haven’t heard that one before!

  • I think I’d have to second a lot of what’s been already written in your post and the comments above. A man who can convey such focused desire is almost always going to have an effect on women. An inate reaction that is mostly unexplainable and probably going to vary for each person.

    For me, the RA thing is also about the eyes, smile and voice (which strangely enough is part of why I’ve also got a thing for PF). I first saw RA in Cold Feet, and even though he played a right bastard in that, there was something about him as an actor. Was really pleased to see him in the Thornton role, and it just continued from there.

  • Mr. Richard Armitage, International Man of Mystery

    I think for me, what got me first was his voice (in North & South first) followed by the blue eyes and the smile. I find his voice seductive, soothing, gives me tingles. I also like that I don’t know that much about him (although I was thrilled to learn recently that he “can chop” and make his way around in a kitchen).

    I am enthralled by the whole package and yet, interestingly, I don’t have sexual fantasies about or things like that, although I did have a dream where we were in a pub (can I raise my Guinness and say “Up the Republic” in an English pub?) and another where I made dinner for him and a close few. Strange, huh?

    I also know that I will watch anything he’s in that I can (and I am proving to be very resourceful in that area) and I hope he keeps doing audio books (documented decrease in road rage in New Jersey results) and that someone comes to their senses and pays him to read North and South and casts him in a lovely modern day romantic comedy. Is it too early to start, “Dear Santa…”

    Interesting post Skully, thanks!

  • It’s like trying to quanitfy the “X” factor. It doesn’t hurt that the man is tall dark and handsome, but as you said doesn’t have your typical looks, but that is what I find so attractive. Men who are too beautiful sort of bug me. I want a face with character.

    Dam, you’ve made me want to watch N&S for the millionth time!

  • […] in the background. This is a bit of a riff, or an attempt to distill a particular feature of what Skully was saying about the way you create desire. But the general mood goes beyond desire, as […]

  • […] he’s certainly not over the boundary to victimhood in this scene. If Skully is right about the reasons for Mr. Armitage’s peculiar appeal, this is the kind of moment she’s talking about. It’s a nice compromise between a […]

  • […] about appreciation of artistry, about the perception and critique of identity, about fantasy, about desire, about thinking about partners, and certainly *also* about sexual attraction — I am starting […]

  • […] North fans. Among other things, John Bateman put a big ole spanner in Lucas’ embodiment of the character of desire. Curiously, in contrast to Guy of Gisborne, John’s flexible, self-serving morality made him a […]

  • […] This fits in to some extent with Skully‘s theory about one reason for our love of Armitage, his ability to portray desire. I want to add to that slightly, with respect to the vampire theme, because it seems to me that one […]

  • […] ability to engage the audience. If I were to receive the theory posited by Skully, this fervor is mostly compelled by his very effective display of adoration for an object of affection. There is something to that thinking, but I’m hard pressed to think I would be enthralled by […]

  • […] it is always due to a combination of factors: acting, looks, charisma, voice, and script (Skully’s piece about “the character of desire” is very interesting in this light), never superior acting alone. So I understand why an actor who owes his success at least partly to […]

  • […] the capacity to want — independent of whatever the target is. To modify slightly, perhaps, on Skully’s thesis — at this point, I don’t want to be desired, and so Richard Armitage’s desire is […]

  • Skully I find your observations about RA really enjoyable and, most of all, very astute (from my humble perspective). Your insights into the nature of the extra-special energy projected by RA in his performances have resonated so completely with my intuition and given me bountiful insight into my own particular hypnotism by this man. I do have, though, some insights via Astrology (of which I have been a student for about 15 years) that might be helpful for those of us bitten by the RA bug. When I found myself (a sensible, practical, just plain down-to-earth woman) knocked sideways by images of RA I just HAD to do an astrological investigation into this man…

    Now, there’s no birthtime available for RA so that’s a bit disappointing, but there’s still a lot to be learnt about him without this data. Most notably, the position of the asteroid Eros in his astrological natal chart, is conjunct (i.e. right next to) the position of his Sun. That says a lot, astrologically, about what ‘turns him on’ but it also says volumes about what kind of energy he radiates via his persona, into the world (in the same way that the Sun is central to, and radiates light to, our solar system). In other words, he radiates, or at least has the capacity to radiate, erotic energy –> passionate desire / masculine sexual force. This well explains his fan following, given that Richard’s Sun is in Leo, which usually requires an audience so that others can bask in and benefit from the nourishment of its light. Eroticism, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes (author of Women Who Run With the Wolves) has said, is pivotal to soul enrichment (I’ll find the reference some day!). As I see it, eroticism is also something that is sadly missing in many contemporary women’s lives (at least those of us who reside in the ‘developed’ countries), being the component of sexuality that is sensual, passionate and arousing whilst also being a path to spiritual illumination. Eros, according to Demetra George (author of Asteroid Goddesses, 1986 ed.) ‘was able to refine and transform his unconscious, instinctual sexual drive into erotic love as a path to spiritual illumination through his romance with Psyche’, (Psyche is’the principle of being psychically attuned and bonded to another human being’). Further, ‘The Eros personality is marked by the need to continuously recreate the excitement of falling in and being in love’. To make a long story short, Richard Armitage embodies erotic energy in the way he projects himself into the world and could be said to be a physical incarnation of Eros. [All direct quotes in this para, aside of ‘developed’ are from Demetra George’s Asteroid Goddesses, 1986.]

    As a further insight, RA’s Sun is also conjunct Venus; as such, he is very charming… and though this conjunction is quite common (due to Venus’s distance from the earth, her revolutions around the Sun closely resemble Earth’s) it has the effect, I believe, of tempering the rawness of desire that RA so exquisitely embodies. A kind of ‘gentling’ effect. Compare images of/the character of Sir Guy to those of John Thornton. Sir Guy encapsulates the rawness of naked desire whilst John Thornton captures this desire behind a wall of manners, respect and social & political caste.

    There’s lots more I could say about the position of Eros in RA’s chart; for the time being I’ll confine it to the above and hope that my contribution adds to your perception, Skully, as well as to those who have commented upon “Richard Armitage and the Character of Desire” :)

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Minuit :)

  • […] that a trap. He’s too capable to be left to roles as a mere love interest, only useful for awakening desire. Granted, he does love interest so well, but how long can we dwell there? Doesn’t it get […]

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