RADIO / Called to the bar: Robert Hanks on moral laxity and sexual liberation

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Among the present slew of billboards promoting Radio 4 - 'Go away, working-class thickies' and so forth - one of the less offensive carries the claim that 'There's a theatre in your car'. This is rubbish, of course: what Radio 4 puts in your car isn't a theatre, it's a pub. There may be the odd production going on in a grotty room upstairs, played out by actors filling in until that next big part on television or the legitimate stage, but the main business is bar-room gossip. Like any bar, it's full of strangers, in an artificially intimate and relaxed atmosphere, testing their opinions against one another and passing casual comment on the great events of the day.

The topics under consideration are likely to be substantially the same, too. For the last week, it's been the nation's moral crisis. Call Nick Ross (Tuesday) invited the public's opinions on law and order (you would have thought this might be a slightly uncomfortable subject for somebody who, like Ross, spends the rest of his time describing real-life crimes for our entertainment, in Crimewatch on BBC1 and Murder Most Foul on Radio 4). Meanwhile The Moral Maze (Thursday) inquired, more specifically, whether the blame should fall on the Sixties.

That programme has always been notable for its ability to attract the big guns - including, in the last series, a memorable contribution on the 'arms to Iraq' scandal from Alan Clark, who in that context probably counts as the big gun's big gun. The trouble with this high celebrity count is that things sometimes fall out rather too obviously. So, here we got Rhodes Boyson putting the case against liberal education, while A H Halsey spoke up for liberal attitudes, but put in a good word for the family. A sense of greater daring in the guest-list would be nice, if only to provide a contrast to the joyous predictability of the resident panel (Roger Scruton in 'Schools must emphasise discipline' shock).

But if the saloon-bar philosophers of The Moral Maze only wandered next door, they'd realise that they were asking the wrong question by 40 years. As a complement to this year's segment of Simon Rattle's decade-long 'Towards the Millennium' festival, surveying the century's culture decade by decade, Radio 3 is running a season of programmes on the culture of the 1920s - short stories by Aldous Huxley, a repeated talk by W H Auden on Ronald Firbank, features on Cocteau and Bartok, as well as programmes on more general themes, such as Body Politics: Sex in the 1920s (Radio 3, Saturday), which made it clear that the rot set in a good deal earlier than the Sixties.

During the Twenties, there had been what Roy Porter called a 'democratisation' of sex: roughly speaking, the working classes had always been comparatively relaxed about sexual morals; but in the Twenties, the middle classes caught up - or, as Porter added, charitably allowing that there might be another perspective, slid down to the same level. He attributed this largely to the influence of the Great War which, he said, had created a poignant sense that women had to give up virginity because young men were giving up their lives. At this point, you wonder what kind of evidence he's got: is he really postulating that the entire sexual culture of this nation was turned upside down by a single, rather blatant chat-up line?

But, further into the programme, sex didn't change that much in the Twenties. Diaries and letters suggest that an enormous proportion of sex was performed in the missionary position and was over in about three minutes, which makes it sound rather like 'Thought for the Day'. And the consequences for unmarried mothers were as dreadful as in the High Victorian era - social isolation, even confinement in a mental hospital.

But you wonder if that sort of repression was much more damaging than the kind of romantic twaddle talked by Marie Stopes, in her writings on married love and contraception. 'When two who are naked in every respect burn with the fire of the innumerable forces within them which set their bodies longing towards each other with the desire to interpenetrate and to encompass one another, the fusion of joy and rapture is not purely physical,' she wrote. 'The half-swooning of flux which overtakes the spirit in that eternal moment at the apex of rapture sweeps into its flaming tides the whole essence of the man and woman and as it were the heat of the contact vaporises their consciousness, so that it fills the whole of cosmic space.' It's only surprising most of her readers didn't succumb to terminal disappointment. Stick to listening to the radio; it's duller, but safer.