Red hot and British

Channel 4's `Red Light Zone' has run into a predictable moral `frontlash' orchestrated by the tabloids. Now, says Jasper Rees, the station is bracing itself for a backlash from the disappointed dirty-mac brigade
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There's a garden to the west of the centre of Florence called the Cascine. The arty guidebooks will tell you that this was where Shelley wrote "Ode to the West Wind"; the racy ones that the long, tree-lined avenue bisecting the gardens is where the city's transvestite prostitutes line the tarmac, baring their implants and waiting for custom. Back in town, tourists can gawp at nudes - Michelangelo's Slaves, Botticelli's Venus and Masaccio's Adam and Eve. Here, tourists can touch as well as look.

But most just come to look. This, presumably, is the kind of sexual tourism Channel 4 had in mind when it came up with "Red Light Zone", an "exciting new area of late-night programming focusing on sex, the sex industries and sexual tourism". The channel only needed to add "and the dialectics of pornography" to this description and they would have had a presentable title for a dissertation.

By billing the season of telesexual globetrotting as discerning enquiry - High Interest meets Travelog in the small hours - Channel 4 seems to have absolved its audience from the guilt of voyeurism, while still promising enough flesh to put bums on seats at an hour when they're normally in pyjamas. So the question needs asking: like the journalist who goes to a peepshow to research an article, is Channel 4 having its cake, smearing it over the taut nubile form of a limbo dancer and licking it up, cream, crumbs and all in a transport of delirium?

"Possibly yes," says Stuart Cosgrove, the channel's commissioning editor for independent film and video, and the man behind the "Zone". "We're always trying to create TV programmes that are interesting and challenging but we also have a parasitic relationship with other branches of the media: we hope that they'll write about it and put the boot in or promote it.

"On another level the answer is no. The "Red Light Zone" is really more about late-night TV than sexual TV. Given that it's going out at the time when the least people watch television, it would be a pretty inept attempt to boost ratings."

When the season was announced last month, it duly attracted the standard clutch of tabloid headlines: "Telly Porn Shocker" (The Star); "More Filth on Four" (Daily Mail) etc. Of course, it's no such thing, though it will doubtless have been calculated that any shock professed by hypocritically prim newspapers will be grist to the promotional mill. Channel 4 can safely stake its annual budget on the certainty that a healthy proportion of Mail readers warned of Filth on Four will be tuning in. And having performed this service, the tabloids can start sharpening their knives for another "Zone" coming this summer. It's called Dyke TV.

If the Mail's warning holds a grain of truth, it is that Channel 4 has been here before. Of the 41 programmes scheduled over the eight Saturday nights that make up "Red Light Zone", a quarter have already been shown much closer to the watershed, including Mick Broonfield's The Chicken Ranch and Beeban Kidron's Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns. Only the fact that they have recently been screened would have kept "Beyond Love", the Equinox report on paraphilia, and Sex in a Cold Climate, which peered into the Ann Summers empire, from surgically injecting a bit more silicone into the season.

It was in order not to overegg the omelette that the channel postponed Erotic Tales, a series of films made by distinguished directors about their own fantasies. This purchase, already moved more than once, was most recently scheduled for January. Throw in the examples of Eurotrash, which frequently reports on the porn industry, the breast-obsessed Passengers and the forthcoming Baadaass TV, all late-Friday-night lad's fare, and doesn't Channel 4 begin to resemble the industry it purports to be investigating?

"I don't think so," says John Willis, the director of programming. "They're all quite late night, they're all anarchic. Eurotrash has a bit of bare flesh in it but I don't think it's anything to get terribly excited about. It is true that Channel 4 sees itself as a minority channel serving with a particular remit. It's always been a little bit wilder round the edges and that's one of the things that has given it some of its identity."

In fact, if any minority is served by the Red Light Zone, it isn't the one in dirty macs. Cosgrove's worry is that after what he calls "the frontlash" of moral outrage, "the backlash will be that it was too cerebral in places and that we didn't put in enough flesh".

Indeed, there are several documentaries and dramas that are far too accomplished to be locked away in the late-night ghetto. Manningham Diaries, about the prostitutes on the Yorkshire Ripper's old beat in Bradford, ought to have gone out in the Short Stories slot. Scarborough Ahoy?, a short film about a straight woman and a gay man in search of rapid sex, is both too tame and too burdened with awards to merit an 11.35pm start. And the ladies in The Finishing School, in which transvestites and transsexuals are trained to be feminine, can be righteously indignant at the company they're being asked to keep.

The show opens with NYPD Nude, the story of a New York policewoman who posed for Playboy in bits of her uniform. Aside from a few stills taken from the shoot, it is an earnest debate about the effect her actions have had on her sister officers. Carol Shaya's defence rests on the question of taste: she appeared in Playboy, while a colleague who was previously suspended for the same reason posed nude in a magazine called Beaver. "It's not distasteful," she says. "I mean it's Playboy, it's not something else." It is easy to read these comments as a banner defence of the whole season, as an announcement that we shouldn't still be having these debates about what you can and can't do with nudity.

The "Red Light Zone" walks the tightrope that confronts all artistic output: it has to find the right balance between entertaining and educating, the same one walked by Playboy (but not Beaver). Because the topic is sex, the tightrope has been lubricated in a slippery substance that makes the journey even trickier. The rope is nowhere less navigable than in the two programmes about strippers. The Go-Go Archipelago about Russian girls baring all to New Yorkers is shot like a rock video and slips right off. Strippers shows frank footage of three Italian women, one of them nine months pregnant, going about their work; only after you've seen them undress do they reveal that they all entered the business on the back of a bereavement. Let's overlook the fact that they're probably the only three strippers in Italy who fit that profile; the point is that you can almost see the screen flashing a signal, "No, but seriously...". "That is the one where we definitely wanted to have our Garibaldi and eat it," admits Cosgrove.

The analogy with Italy is instructive. Its television culture was (unfairly) stigmatised, at the time of impending deregulation in this country, as an orgy of stripping housewives. But Italian television has one thing over its superior British counterpart. Cosgrove says: "The debate here has not actually focused on whether the material is good enough or not, but on the viability of doing it. That's characteristically British. We're still judging what can and can't go on TV."

This is not so in Italy, where Shelley composed in a garden that's now full of TVs.

n `Red Light Zone' begins on Channel 4 tonight at 11.05pm and runs weekly for eight weeks

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