'It's not a generic, air-brushed version of sex' - Wanderlust star Steve Mackintosh
A provocative new drama follows a married couple as they test the boundaries of monogamy. Guy Kelly chats to lead actor Steven Mackintosh
Every once in a while, a television programme comes along that manages to become a water-cooler topic long before it's even begun. Sometimes it's gratuitous violence that starts tongues wagging. Sometimes - all right, one time - it's a publicity photo of some shirtless scything. But in this country, there is one subject guaranteed to get people going like none other: sex, and exactly how much of it others are having.
Steven Mackintosh has noticed. The 51-year-old actor stars in Wanderlust, a new six-part BBC drama that one tabloid has already branded the corporation's "filthiest to date".
In the programme, a co-production with Netflix, the Australian Oscar winner Toni Collette plays Joy, a middle-aged relationship counsellor who desperately tries to revive her sex life with her husband, Alan (played by Mackintosh), after recovering from a life-changing accident. The couple, who have two teenage sons, try everything from lacy lingerie to role play, but nothing reignites the spark. Soon, they're faced with temptation away from home, prompting the series' central question: is monogamy really compatible with the modern world?
It's true, there are a lot of sex scenes. There's also some masturbation. And yes - brace yourself - there's even an orgasm. (This week Collette claimed she is the first woman to have one on BBC One, which isn't strictly true, as viewers of 1993's Lady Chatterley's Lover or even last year's Apple Tree Yard have pointed out.) But Mackintosh hopes we can all get past that.
"Sex, I know," he sighs, when we meet for a quite unsexy afternoon tea in a central London hotel. "It's easy for people to focus on that word and think that's what it's all about, but really the programme is about relationships, love, family and our perceptions of what's to come. But obviously sex is important because sex is a big part of their marriage."
Filming the intimate scenes wasn't uncomfortable in the slightest, he says. Not like they can be. In fact, the sex shown in Wanderlust isn't of the kind we're generally treated to on television - either two young stars in an overly choreographed, long night of passion or two young stars in an uncomfortable power imbalance. It's awkward and error-strewn, all fumbled clasps and miscommunications. It's real, and it's between people over the age of 40.
"That's what I loved about it. It's not a generic, air-brushed version of sex, it's not tied up in a box and presented to people because that doesn't appeal to me. That would push me away. There's an awkwardness, and often it's the moments in between, the pauses, the physical struggling - that's what makes it so lovely," he says. "It's always in character too. Sometimes intimate scenes take you out of it and you realise you're now just watching the actors, but this really is Alan and Joy."
The questions that Wanderlust raises haven't often been explored in such a frank way on television before. Most notably, it touches on the idea that it's perfectly possible to be in a happy, stable marriage and simultaneously wish for more: that even with the best will in the world, the flame in the bedroom can dwindle.
"Joy loves Alan, and is committed to a fantastic life together, with a great home and great children, but it's about whether we can feel more alive. The day-to-day stuff is all well and good, but she's searching to feel passionate again," Mackintosh says. "Alan is invested in the marriage too, but while he doesn't want to break things up, he's feeling the same things. Intimacy has never been more difficult for them. It's about the journey of rediscovering each other."
Mackintosh knows it may prompt some awkward glances across sofas, but he doesn't necessarily see that as a bad thing. "It could start some conversations, and that will be interesting…" he says, arching an eyebrow.
"We're talking about regular people with regular lives, and that question [about monogamy] is brave to be challenged.
"There's much food for thought, and potential for people to be sitting on the sofa having a conversation in their heads that they can't quite bring themselves to have out loud."
For Mackintosh's part, he "knows where he stands" on the question, and has been happily married for 29 years to the actress Lisa Jacobs, with whom he has two daughters (Martha, 26, and Blythe, 22).
"My wife has seen it all and loved it. Fortunately, she's incredibly insightful, so she was able to see it for what it is, but she said herself that it might create some honest chats," he says. How about the girls? "Oh, my daughters haven't seen it yet, so I don't know how they'll deal with it. I would imagine they'll find certain scenes... challenging to watch, but they'll appreciate the humour."
To some, the issues Wanderlust puts forward can be bracketed under the term 'midlife crisis', but Mackintosh believes they could affect anyone.
"I think that's just a general term for existential angst that can happen to people at different times in life, but midlife is chosen because people might be juggling a lot - dealing with children and older parents with health issues, and reflecting on where they are in all this, and whether they've achieved what they want. And, in reality, that could be any age."
Wanderlust is on BBC One Tuesdays at 9pm.