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Broadcasting: Masochists would love this show

On the wall of our loo hangs a newspaper advertisement dating, I would guess, from the late 1930s. "Television is here, you can't shut your eyes to it," it proclaims. "Television is here to widen your horizon, to give a new depth, a richer meaning to life. For three hours a day, every day of the week, you can watch things happening in the world outside from within the comfort of your own home. The pageantry of some historic ceremony, the tense drama of a great play, the laughter and song of the musical shows, championship fights, news, comment and discussion on current affairs, all these come within your view as soon as you get Television, the most entertaining and informative accompaniment to everyday life the world has ever known."

I pondered these words last week, shortly after watching How Was It For You?, part of BBC2's controversial Adult Lives series. In fact it was not altogether by chance that I found myself in the loo, for listening to three fat men in a pub comparing notes on orgasms was a decidedly stomach- churning experience. For good measure, a gay man then explained how it is possible to reach orgasm while being penetrated from behind. Three women swapped fellatio techniques. And a student confessed to his mates that he had once dipped his penis into a jar of mayonnaise. Nor, apparently, was it unacquainted with crunchy peanut butter. God, how I yearned for the pageantry of some historic ceremony, the tense drama of a great play, or the laughter and song of the musical shows.

I'm not a prude. I might not be looking forward to eating crunchy peanut butter again, and definitely not organic crunchy peanut butter, but I wouldn't dream of challenging television's right to embrace sex in all its glorious, and goriest, detail. On the other hand, there really ought to be limits. Last week, I watched people talking about, or engaging in, gay sex, teen sex, unprotected sex, over-60s sex, sado-masochistic sex, incestuous sex, inter- racial sex, monogamous sex, three-in-a-bed sex, even Nazi sex. Incredible. And that was just EastEnders.

Seriously, though. It is sometimes said that television reflects society, yet the reflection is almost comically distorted, like in those wavy fairground mirrors that give you an elongated torso and miniature legs. I don't know anyone who contemplates sex 20 times a night, like television does. Nor do I know anyone who visits a dominatrix for a weekly spanking. I have my suspicions about an accountant acquaintance, but that's another story. The point is that there is less sado-masochism in real life than there is on the box, where, with a bit of effort, you can find S&M or other unorthodox practices virtually every night of the week. One day, though, real life might catch up. I worry about folk who get their sex education from the telly.

Actually, in all fairness, the programme, Mistress Maria - about a prostitute and dominatrix - was probably the pick of Adult Lives. Largely because Maria herself was a hugely sympathetic character; brave, resourceful, intelligent, yet emotionally crippled by a childhood full of sexual abuse. And it was made sensitively. The other programmes had less of an impact on me. After all, there's only so much sex a man can take. Which may be why, come Thursday evening, I hated the strenuously smutty Let Them Eat Cake (BBC1). Either that, or it wasn't any good.

The BBC1 bosses must have sung hosannas when the synopsis arrived. French, Saunders and Alison Steadman. It was a bawdy 18th-century romp set at the court of Louis XV1. Big wigs and cleavages. Jokes about the guillotine and the pox. Oh, happy day. Yet in their euphoria, they failed to notice that Let Them Eat Cake - or, let's be generous, the first episode - was disastrously unfunny. The female leads, however, gurned and leered heroically. Since Les Dawson left us, nobody gurns better than Jennifer Saunders. In fact, I have long been of the provocative opinion that her high-class gurning, and that of Joanna Lumley, frequently made Absolutely Fabulous seem funnier than it was.

It would take a Woody Allen cameo as Robespierre, at the very least, to make Let Them Eat Cake seem funnier than it is. I've heard it being compared to Blackadder - in which case, unless it rapidly improves, Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson should seek legal advice. Still, at least the dear old studio audience had a good time, almost passing out with laughter at the phrases "multiple orgasm," "hung like a carthorse" and "elephant's scrotum". It was the elephant's scrotum that depressed me most. With apologies to discerning fourth-formers, it was a limp fourth-form gag. The BBC unleashes an expensive new sitcom in a blaze of publicity, featuring two of its most bankable stars, and it is quickly reduced to an elephant's scrotum. I say to the BBC, give Frank Skinner his pounds 20m. You can ill afford to lose him.

Shortly after the credits had mercifully rolled on Let Them Eat Cake, ITV took a rather different perspective on history, unveiling the first of its three-part series The Second World War In Colour. Apparently, film historians have unearthed hours and hours of previously unseen colour footage, and it was presented without frills, but just John Thaw's narration, interspersed with diary extracts and a blessed absence of pundits. It was odd seeing a Second World War with orange flames and blue skies. And it was disturbing seeing all the corpses, probably because they tended to look healthier in colour.

Not only does the Second World War seem more remote in black and white, it also looks unremittingly grim. Colour offers a reminder that the seasons passed as normal between 1939 and 1945. And that Hitler had a choirboy's complexion.

The best documentary of the week, even for those of us fed up with television's obsession with sex, was Secret History's Sex and the Swastika (C4). Actually it was two programmes masquerading as one. The bulk of it focused on Hitler's sexuality, the subject of detailed wartime study by an American psychologist, who hoped that it might shed significant light on his personality.

According to two of his former proteges, who scarpered to America when they fell out of favour, Hitler was heavily into sado-masochism. In the early 1930s he had an affair with his niece, Geli Raubal, whom he allegedly encouraged to squat over him, urinating. In 1931 she committed suicide, although he might have had her murdered. My wife said, I fancy with ironic under-state- ment, "Hitler doesn't get any nicer, does he?"

Of course, the notion that Hitler was a pervert is a convenient one, for none of us likes to think that a man so monstrous could have led a normal domestic life. Some historians insist that he did, and the debate goes on. More interesting was the first third of the programme, about the Political Warfare Executive, which disseminated so-called "black" propaganda from a country house in Hertfordshire. It could, should, have inspired a documentary all of its own.

One of the POE's stunts was to broadcast extraordinarily obscene material, purportedly from inside Germany. Its announcers won the trust of the audience by referring to Churchill as "a flat-footed old Jew", but then subtly undermined the Germans' confidence in their own leadership by detailing the sexual depravity of many of the leading Nazis. Even the Americans were fooled by the broadcasts. But when President Roosevelt found out, he was reportedly highly amused.

A British cabinet minister, regrettably unidentified, was less impressed. He would rather lose the war, he hurrumphed, than win it with such lewd methods. It's hard to imagine a similar burst of piety from those who fight today's television's ratings war. To the detriment of us all, anything goes.