Broadcasting: When Victor kept them on the hop

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The Independent Culture
According to my regular tennis opponent, Peter - who sometimes beats me despite being a grandfather with only one eye in full working order - folk in the 1960s who considered themselves remotely swinging did not go anywhere near the Playboy Club. Peter's daughter watched Secret History: Bunny Girls (C4) and was disappointed to learn that he had never set foot in the place, let alone patted a Bunny's bottom. Which, from the way he tells it, is like my daughter growing up and wondering why I never embraced the 1980s zeitgeist by joining the Young Conservatives. The Saddle Room and Sibyllas were the places to go, says Peter. The Playboy Club was for ersatz swingers only, people with more money than style.

Still, viewed from the provinces in the 1960s, and viewed from anywhere in 1999, the Playboy Club was an integral part of Swinging London. Clips of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Lionel Blair proved that its celebrated address, 45 Park Lane, was known to lots of 1960s icons, as well as to Lionel Blair. And the Bunnies had their pick of the clientele. Those unearthed by Secret History recalled snogging Dustin Hoffman but rejecting Omar Sharif and Sean Connery, which to the untrained eye seems like curious behaviour. Apparently, however, none of them ever dreamt of rejecting Victor Lownes, Hugh Hefner's charismatic lieutenant, who set up the Playboy Club in 1964. Victor was not only their boss. He was also, according to the Bunnies, sex on legs.

"Let's face it, we all went to bed with Victor," said a middle-aged matron with an auburn bob. Then she said it again, with extra emphasis, suggesting that maybe she was the only one who didn't. Whatever, none of them had a bad word for Victor, not even the girlfriend to whom he was routinely unfaithful. His housekeeper chirpily recalled a lively menage-a-quatre, comprising herself, Victor and his two secretaries. And the Bunnies rabbited on and on about how dishy he was. One of them held up a photo. "There, wasn't he gorgeous?" she said. And so he was, in an early Jean-Paul Belmondo sort of way. Which made it all the more shocking to find that gorgeous Victor has metamorphosed into Barry Took. He is jowly and grey now, and monogamous too. Even the legendary charisma appears to have evaporated, but then, after all that sex, something had to give.

Philippa Walker's film was affectionate, upbeat and funny. Secret, it wasn't. And yet, a week earlier, the same documentary strand had revealed some incredibly salacious details about Adolf Hitler's private life. Possibly untrue, but definitely secret. That's the trouble with saddling series with titles such as Secret History and Secret Lives. More often than not you wind up either with amazing disclosures for which there is negligible evidence, or with humdrum gossip tarted up as revelation. I treasure the memory of a Secret Lives' hatchet job on Enid Blyton, which, having completely failed to establish whether or not she once had a lesbian fling, was forced to scowl at the fact that she liked to play tennis in the nude. I don't know about you, but Blyton whizzed up in my estimation when I discovered that.

Another accusation levelled at Blyton was that she was a remote mother whose two daughters spent most of their childhoods in the care of nannies. Yet it is singularly unfair to judge somebody's lifestyle in the 1940s by the standards of today. As LP - or was it JP? - Hartley wrote, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. Lucy Gannon knows that, which is why, in Pure Wickedness (BBC1), she has helpfully translated the 1940s into the language of the 1990s, with her thoroughly modern take on Brief Encounter.

This is perhaps stretching a point. But Pure Wickedness (a lousy title, by the way, it sounds like a new Nestle dessert) is about an adulterous relationship between a man (played by David Morrissey) and a woman (Orla Brady) happily married to other people. More pertinently, they met when Brady, an optician, helped Morrissey, a window-cleaner, to remove some grit from his eye. Trevor Howard did the same for Celia Johnson, you'll recall, not that they wound up having aggressive stand-up sex next to the Sugar Puffs, as Brady and Morrissey did in her kitchen. But then where would a contemporary drama be without some frenzied stand-up rogering? Not on BBC1, anyway.

Despite that, and despite the fact that the denouement to episode one was obvious within a nanosecond of the opening titles, I rather enjoyed Pure Wickedness. I wasn't sure about the randy window-cleaner. No self- respecting writer, you would think, would want to visit territory already explored by George Formby, not to mention Robin Askwith. Also, Brady's character, Jenny, does not seem like the sort of woman who would ever fall for her window-cleaner's rough charm. Anyone can see that she is just another notch on his bucket. That he is the man who put the sham in chamois. Still. Gannon knows how to pace a story, she writes great dialogue, and she is helped here by first-class acting. Which, judging by the quality of some recent telly drama, is more than we have any right to expect.

It was a mixed week for the BBC. Scheduling the feebly derivative Hancock's World of Sport (BBC1) against the end of ITV's coverage of Chelsea v Milan in the European Champions' League, presented by a certain Desmond Lynam, seemed almost like an act of masochism. The French and Saunders comedy Let Them Eat Cake (BBC1) got no better. But there was some good, meaty drama, notably Eureka Street (BBC2), a darkly comic four-parter set in down-at-heel north Belfast, superbly written by Donna Franceschild and imaginatively, if sometimes bewilderingly, directed by Adrian Shergold.

Shergold - who also directed the acclaimed Holding On and the quirkily excellent Births, Marriages and Deaths - does not appear to have much time for the conventions of TV drama. His characters lurch up against the camera. Dingy backstreet pubs are ethereally lit. Indeed, if it wasn't for Eureka Street's shots of men conventionally sitting round a table supping pints of Guinness, you'd swear you were watching a Guinness commercial. Fortunately, the style is never allowed to triumph over the content. And Franceschild is, above all, a witty writer. I loved fat Chucky's money- making scam - selling phantom dildos by mail order, cashing the pounds 9.99 cheques, then refunding them with cheques boldly stamped `Giant Dildo Refund' on the basis that customers would be too embarrassed to present them.

By comparison with the sexual activities admitted in Hidden Love: Animal Passions (C4), giant dildos are nothing to be embarrassed about. Mark's girlfriend is a pony. Sarah's boyfriend a labrador. They are zoo-philes - in other words they enjoy long-term sexual and emotional relationships with animals. Bestiality, by contrast, is sex without commitment. A different beast entirely.

Hidden Love managed to be comic, depressing and sanctimonious. "This film sets out to explore the reasons we ridicule and condemn (zoophiles)," said the voiceover, solemnly, as if we should all feel slightly ashamed of ourselves. Sexologists attempted to rationalise zoophilia; one even suggested that slaying animals for food and taking them to bed are morally indivisible. I tried to ponder that, I really did, but in the end I couldn't take seriously a programme with lines such as "Sarah was 36 when her husband began to suspect her relationship with Miles, the family dog." Hidden Love, incidentally, followed Secret History. Thankfully, it was the latter programme that dealt with voracious Victor's appetite for Bunnies.

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