RADIO / Endowment policies: Nick Curtis on frantic sex and calm revelations

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The Independent Culture
Sex, Armando Iannucci announced in the second programme of In Excess (Saturday, Radio 4), sells newspapers, magazines, even radio programmes. 'Homo Freneticus', the lacklustre debut, examined the frantically busy. This week's 'Homo Erectus' got down to the nitty gritty of the frantically sexy.

Iannucci's introduction told us that sex would be mentioned a lot and that there would be 'frank descriptions of up to five orifices'. Immediate stock-taking of one's own body was delayed, however, by the realisation that Iannucci wasn't taking his nominal theme - are we getting too much? - completely seriously. Iannucci admitted he was cashing in on the eternal popularity of his subject. There was an honesty to this approach unusual in programmes about sex. Or in sex itself, come to that.

First, Iannucci eavesdropped on an editorial meeting at For Women magazine, where seven vibrators had already been farmed out to willing test-drivers. The editor, Helen Williams, brandished the eighth at her staff, looking for volunteers before its randy buzzing ended with a clunk. 'Oh dear, it's fallen apart,' she remarked brightly, probably proving to many women listeners that vibrators are a perfect substitute for a man.

In For Women they're essential, since stiff penalties prohibit the exposure of stiff penises on their pages. Some limp organs had been rejected, said Williams, because their size implied tumescence, leading her to speculate on the endowments of the adjudicators. 'Bang goes our next issue,' said her deputy guilelessly. Although the programme tried for wry wit over schoolboy smut, such whoops-vicar ejaculations proved difficult to avoid.

Another came from Stefano Tiratelli of the ad-agency Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty, the man responsible for the Haagen Dazs ice-cream-as-lubricant campaign. As an advertiser, said Tiratelli, you had to 'stand out' if you wanted the maximum 'bang for your buck'. Ooh-er. Iannucci's question as to whether Maastricht could be flogged to the public with sex was lost among the titters.

From then on, the formula was established. Iannucci would interview someone connected with sex until they said something funny. Then he'd make it funnier. Here was Wendy Perriam, 'writer of novels with sex scenes in them', claiming that describing the act was 'very hard work. You have to wrestle with the language'. Here was David Snowdin, producer of BBC 2's The Men's Room, describing a scene that had to be pruned at the behest of the Broadcasting Standards Council, with Iannucci going 'blallallallallallah' over the rude bits. And here was the wonderful Sheldon Greenburgh, director of the sex videos The Kama Sutra in 3D and Better Sex 2, who spooled through his tapes looking for an erect member with all the bubbly enthusiasm of a wildlife expert on Badger Watch.

Of course, sex is far easier to talk about than to do, but Iannucci made the most of his material. After the misfires of the first programme, his fastidiously deadpan Scottish accent came into its own, particularly when describing sex-populiser Madonna as 'the small American bad actress'. In Excess may not be the most fun you can have with your radio on, but as aural sex this wasn't half bad.

Esther Rantzen was In the Psychiatrist's Chair (Sunday, Radio 4) this week. As Clare observed in his introduction, dear Esther occupies that unique public position of being loved and loathed in roughly equal measure. Listening to Clare's interview with her had an element of ghoulishness about it, like hoping a skilled tightrope-walker will stumble, maybe fall.

Esther didn't fall. Not only did she exhibit great honesty, she also negotiated the programme with rather more skill than Clare. She talked about being Jewish, feeling fat and unattractive when young, the horror of living out her post-natal depression in the media glare, and the death of her father, in a manner so frank it was hard to dislike or doubt her. Clare, on the other hand, seemed nervous, his conciliatory tone consistent with Esther's iconic status. His occasional lunges at revealing slips in her replies seemed unnecessarily combative.

Of course, Esther is a performer, and there was always a sneaking suspicion that she might not be revealing all. But she emerged as a well-balanced professional and a tough but tender woman. At one point she expressed hurt at the media pillorying she's regularly subjected to, then paused. You could almost hear the unspoken, pragmatic corollary; ' . . . but that's life'.

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