Thursday, 16 June 2011

When it comes to TV sex, I’m a prude - and proud of it!

I didn’t catch BBC 2’s recent historical drama series, The Crimson Petal and the White. I’m not partial to costume drama, the artful awkwardness of the title annoyed me, and the preview clips suggested it was all about Victorian prostitutes. And I’m tired of being asked to feel guilty about what horrid, hypocritical men in mutton-chop sideboards and top hats did to all those poor, innocent women well over a century ago. Thought I’d give it a miss. 

Good call, as it turned out. My wife caught some of it, and tells me it featured full frontal male nudity (as a possessor of a standard set of meat and two veg myself, I really don’t want a gander at anyone else’s). And female private parts and fellatio and a lot of other stuff you tend not to get on Midsomer Murders

I must have been twenty or so the last time nudity or simulated sex acts in a mainstream film enthralled me (I can’t remember ever being similarly affected by anything on TV – as a teenager I’d have been watching with my family, and my cheeks would have been aflame in any case). Let’s face it, when you’re a heterosexual male between the ages of thirteen and twenty, the sight of a double-decker bus can get your hormones in an uproar. For the last forty years, TV sex has represented nothing but a source of embarrassment, which occasionally tips over into genuine irritation and/or disgust.

For a start, I can’t help wondering whether the actors are as embarrassed as we all are. I hope they’ve brushed their teeth (especially if there’s prolonged face-chewing involved). Do his armpits pong? What’s he thinking of when he makes that weird face? Why is he wearing underpants in bed? Is that mole on his back cancerous? What a hairy bottom! If he keeps his stomach sucked in like that for much longer, he’ll do himself a mischief. What must their parents think? What – precisely – is this adding to the plot? Whatever happened to the concept of decorum? What do actors think when they read a script which means that their todger will be dangling in plain view in millions of sitting rooms around the country?  Are viewers in other European countries so relaxed about this sort of thing that they sit around saying things like, “Gosh! doesn’t he have a simply splendid penis, Granny!” or “I’m surprised she bothers wearing a bra, really” or “One day, my little angel, you’ll be able to do that with your private parts”?

But the overriding questions that keep going through my head are, “Is this actually meant to excite us?” and “Would this programme be better or worse if the sex acts were subtly suggested rather than, as it were, being rammed down our throats?” 

This sort of stuff’s been happening on our TV screens since the 1960s – and after the first flush of exuberance at being allowed to drag sex out of the cupboard (where, I suspect, it had really been quite happy until then), the mystery is why TV folk keep on doing it. For a start, the target audience – young men – won’t be watching an historical drama, that’s for sure. Besides, if they want titillation, they’ve always got the internet. Or real women. 

So, do programme-makers honestly believe that the largely married, middle-aged-to-elderly audience who actually watch this sort of stuff get a terrific thrill out of pseudo-pornography? Because we don’t – we really don’t. If anyone tells you otherwise, there’s either something wrong with them, or they’re trying to sound all relaxed and liberal and cool. If programme-makers think they’re treating us like adults, they’re not –they’re treating us as if we were all frustrated adolescents.

That leaves three possible motives. First, TV producers might get a personal thrill out of this stuff, but I doubt it – because, believe it or not, they aren’t that much different from the rest of us. They could, I suppose, believe it’s integral to the drama – but we all know that’s nonsense. They might, of course, still be fighting the battles of the 1960s and trying to get us all to be less buttoned-up about sex – but given the vast number of abortions carried out in this country every year and the steady rise in sexually-transmitted diseases, a more buttoned-up attitude towards the procreative act surely wouldn’t go amiss: whatever the problems currently afflicting our society, a surfeit of self-control isn’t amongst them. 

Or do they, in their silly, shallow, neurotic way, hope that it’ll create a marketing “buzz” around a programme that they don’t have that much faith in? Well, I’m sure if I stood in front of our house with my tackle on display that would also create a “buzz” (and, no doubt, some laughter), but that’s no excuse for doing it. Or, finally, could it be that it ensures that their peers in the creative community will think them “edgy”, “brave” and “subversive” – the three adjectives that sum up the tawdriness of our seedy, shameless culture?

And before anyone accuses me of being a prude and a hypocrite, don’t bother. Like the vast majority of people in Britain, I’ll happily own up to both. In fact, I’m dead relaxed about it - unless a stranger’s genitalia puts in a surprise appearance on my TV. I mean, for all they know, I could be eating.

I mentioned Midsomer Murders as an example of a programme where nothing overly mucky ever appears on screen. But, watching a few minutes of the last episode, we were treated to a prolonged rear-view of Barnaby’s assistant, DS Jones, taking a shower. When the producers of Midsomer Murders try to get edgy, you know things have gone too far.


  1. I feel your pain, Scotty. I have a vivid memory of my brother trilling "Oh no, here it comes, the obligatory sex scene' as our family watched Carol White snogging the plumber in Poor Cow or some other gritty 60s Sarf London expose of the unfairness of life. There was a lot in the BBC Wednesday Playhouse or Play for Today about how every thing our parents had struggled to achieve for us was pointless and discriminatory. And sex. My father, embarrassed, leaves the room.

    Cue 30 years on and my children, slightly older, are watching something far more explicit, fall about laughing and offer comments on the shape of the wobbling buttocks, mimic the false groans of passion and offer inappropriate dialogue during the meaningful moments of silence. Their father leaves the room, having failed to maintain decorum.

    It's not all decline, you know. Do I recall your saying once that your grandma, confronted by a flasher, had said "Is that the best you can do? That is the true Gronners spirit. The odd TV todger or two shall not dim it.
    Sunday, June 5, 2011 - 12:16 AM

  2. Some comments about British television drama and your post:

    1. In 1990 the Australians produced a film called "The Meatman" [a sort of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" without the jokes]. The advertising slogan was "The Meatman has arrived. Hold the bleedin' veggies!" Would that the UK TV companies had listened.

    2. During the production of the "The Third Man" the Great Man turned to the director and said " Carol,dear, I'm a Californian. I don't do sewers." Massive re-build at Pinewood. Again, would...

    3. When the Lord Chamberlain lost his powers in 1968 the British Theatre entered a period of darkness [Edward Bond's "Saved ", "The Roman in Britain", "Hair", Hochhut's "Soldiers" and God know what else. Modern theatre started to expire [enter the musical]. Most of these bods transferred to TV with their concepts of "edginess" and "breaking the mould" [ie pornography]. The British living room was not the ideal battlground - hence decades of acute embarrasment.

    4. Enter American cable TV. After decades of anodyne pap from NBC and ABC the wonderful HBO set the standard. After a false start with OZ [unbridled homosexual rape] they produced a series of masterpieces and then decided to up the ante on gratuitous sex to show how incredibly "avant garde" [old expression, I know} they were. "Boardwalk Empire" has pornographic scenes. Why? The C-word is now part of common parlance in a family context?

    5. I live on my own. I get embarrased when I watch television. If there were children or grand-parents around [or my mother, strike me down] I would be in agony watching this filth. Yes, I am a prude too. Is there a T-shirt [ 3XXL]?
    Monday, June 6, 2011 - 01:55 PM

  3. Ex-KCS, my father’s standard line when 1960s drama producers were showing their contempt for our bourgeois notions of decency was “Isn’t it time you were in bed, son?” I used to order my own son to close his eyes whenever the beast with two backs was about to appear, which he found very amusing. As for my grandmother (my God what a memory you have!), her immortal response was, “No thanks, I don’t smoke Woodbines.” Given the Glaswegian penchant for wounding put-downs (not to mention the propensity for violence, often involving cut-throat razors and broken bottles) I’m surprised anyone would have considered it an ideal place to hone their flashing skills.

    Impecunious OAP, the edgy drama pornographers probably moved from theatre to TV after Peter Cook’s famous comment: “You know, I go to the theatre to be entertained. I don’t want to see plays about rape, sodomy and drug addiction...I can get all that at home.” I see that ghastly woman Sandy Toksvig has been in trouble for making a joke about the “c” word on the Radio 4 topical “comedy” programme (i.e. left-wing propaganda vehicle) “The News Quiz”. Cristina Odone had a real go at her in the Telegraph, saying that foul-mouthed jokes, along with despicable attacks on the Pope, the Royal family and Tory MPs were a standard feature of the few dinner parties she’d attended with BBC comedy and drama producers. (I’m happy to report that news folk were about as strait-laced a bunch as I’ve ever some across – left wing and occasionally foul-mouthed, but just as prudish as myself.)

    Maybe, in honour of the BBC’s absolute nadir, we should get T-shirts reading “F*ck off, I’m a Hairy Prude”?
    Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 09:58 PM