Tuning in and turning off sex on the television
There's too much sex on TV, finds Pat Stacey, as he wields the remote control against the tide of sleaze There is a scene in Neil Jordan's film Mona Lisa where Bob Hoskins, playing an ex-con who has been assigned to act as chauffeur for high-class prostitute Cathy Tyson, is hunched over a TV set watching a porn video in which she appears. His best friend, played by Robbie Coltrane, walks in. Coltrane considers the on-screen action (accompanied by the usual exaggerated moaning and grunting) for a moment, then dryly asks: ``Channel 4, is it?'' Back in 1987, when the film was released, the line drew a big laugh. Channel 4 had been on air for just five years, but had long since justified its label as Britain's alternative television station, dedicated in part to providing discerning viewers with original, provocative and often controversial adult programmes ... or, if your name happened to be Mary Whitehouse, depraved filth. Channel 4 showed that it could still ruffle a few tea cosies in Middle England last year when it screened Queer As Folk, a graphically groundbreaking drama series about a group of homosexual men, but by and large, its output doesn't have the same shockability it once had. There is a popular theory that this is because viewers are now all but shock-proof; we have become so mature and sophisticated (or so thoroughly desensitised) that the sex, violence and bad language that the box in the corner brings into our living rooms has become almost routine. This, of course, is nonsense. There will always be people and probably more than you would imagine who are appalled by the sight of sex on television, whether it's Patrick Malahide in The Singing Detective, or Miley Byrne in the hay with Fidelma in Glenroe. It's not the viewers who have changed, it's the landscape of television. There was always sex on TV (who can forget the glory, glory days of the BBC, when every second Play For Today seemed to include a scene involving a velour-covered headboard banging vigorously against some hideous 1970s wallpaper), but never this much. Once, you might have expected to find envelope-pushing material on Channel 4 or BBC2; now, as a little channel-hopping in the post-post-watershed hours on most nights will reveal, you're likely to find it across the spectrum of British TV. Take this brief selection of programmes, all screened in the same week recently and all featuring sex in some shape or form: Exploitica Rides Again (C4, Saturday), American Sex (Sky 1, Saturday), Pleasure Island (UTV, Tuesday), Eurotrash (C4, Wednesday), Dr Chen's Sex Revolution (BBC2, Thursday), Yanky Panky (Sky 1, most weeknights). Admittedly, Dr Chen's Sex Revolution was a serious documentary looking at the effects on the Chinese people of sexual repression and self-denial during Mao's Cultural Revolution, but it doesn't alter the fact that British television is now awash with bodily fluids. Wading around in the middle of this deluge legs apart, arms akimbo and proudly wearing its underpants on its head is Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television. With programmes such as Ibiza Uncovered (likely lads and game girls go mad in Spain), Greece Uncovered (likely lads and game girls go mad in Greece) and British Sex (wife-swappers and fetishists go mad in suburbia), has rapidly elevated itself to the position of prime purveyor of all that is cheap and tacky on British TV. What sets Sky's output apart from the rest is not so much the content, but the way it's framed. The material is presented with a nudge and a wink, a giggle and a snigger.
It's a very British sort of sex naughty but nice, saucy but safe and reflects an attitude that harks back to the Carry On films, only with more naked flesh.
In fact, the makers of programmes such as Ibiza Uncovered would like you to think that they're not really about sex at all; that those blonde-bleached Essex girls bouncing energetically up and down in a perpetual wet T-shirt competition are not really there for the purposes of titillation or sexual arousal.
This rank hypocrisy manifested itself most recently with Sky's Naked in Westminster, an ambitious (by Sky's standards), six-part series purportedly examining the attempts of a sleazy, pony-tailed entrepreneur who called himself The Catman to open a lap-dancing club in the face of objections from local residents.
Needless to say, as the elderly matrons of Westminster don't usually deliver their petitions while writhing semi-naked around chrome-plated firemen's poles, the camera crew spent most of their time recording for posterity the auditions of the would-be performers, a motley collection of strippers, failed ballet dancers and cash-strapped students, with the occasional ex-prostitute thrown in for the sake of social realism.
Later in the year, Channel 4 intends screening Lars Von Trier's controversial arthouse favourite The Idiots. The film's scenes of penetrative sex (one of the few remaining mainstream movie and TV taboos) will be excised, but it's still certain to cause apoplexy.
Even if you believe The Idiots is pretentious, over-valued codology, at least Channel 4 has that old standby, artistic integrity in its corner. You can't really say the same for six hours of lap-dancing.
THE SLEAZE LEAGUE
Naked in Westminster (Sky 1): Sky's crowning achievement in the genre: a six-parter following the attempts of oily nightclub boss The Catman to get a lap-dancing club up and writhing in London. Dirty Mac TV supreme. Rating: 10 . . . and that's just The Catman.
Naked Elvis (C4): No-budget late-late quiz show, hosted by a gorgeous blonde woman in a mini. Teams of Elvis fans answer questions about their idol, while a bloke dressed as The King does a full-frontal strip. Rating: 9.
Ibiza Uncovered (Sky 1): The original of the species, recently bought by TV3. Young English men and women behave badly in the sun. Lots of Tequila Slammers, boobs, Mexican beer, boobs, Union Jack vests, boobs, wet T-shirts, boobs, bare bottoms (mostly male) and more boobs. See also Greece Uncovered, Miami Uncovered and Caribbean Uncovered. Rating: 8.
British Sex (Sky 1): What suburban swingers get up to when the blinds are closed. Lots of talk about sex, but televisual coitus interruptus intervenes before they actually do anything. Regularly features very large, middle-aged women covered with tattoos, married to very small, middle-aged husbands who aren't. See also American Sex. Rating: 7.
Pleasure Island (UTV): Basically an `If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' response to the Uncovered series. For television landmarks such as this was News at Ten ditched. Rating: 6.
Eurotrash (C4): Long-running series featuring a variety of freaks, weirdos, fetishists and women with breasts the size of beachballs. Big on transsexuals. Content in the gutter, tongue in the cheek, but cheerfully upfront about its lack of taste. Rating: 6.
Yanky Panky (Sky 1): Eurotrash American-style. Rating: 5.
Exploitica rides again (C4): Jokey, late-night clips of 50s and 60s soft porn and exploitation flicks. Rating: 2.