Television: Hot sex in the animal kingdom

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The Independent Culture
Daringly, The Bill (ITV) ventured into the shower at a women's prison, where an inmate made a pass at an undercover police officer. There was quite a bit of advance publicity about this, yet lesbianism is not exactly new to pre-watershed drama. Emmerdale and Brookside paved the way, while EastEnders has always had its share of gay men. Even Coronation Street has a transsexual, and there are signs that, with barely 11 months to spare, the venerable soap is finally moving into the late 20th century. An Asian family is at long last taking root in Weatherfield, and mark my words, lesbians won't be far behind.

If they can just forget about ratings for a second - a forlorn hope, admittedly - drama producers might now think about embracing reality along with lesbianism. For just as not all lesbians are butch with crew-cuts, not all aren't. Yet in swerving hard to avoid one stereotype, television has crashed headlong into another. The TV lesbian has a fabulous figure and flowing locks. She is a modern Siren, her haunting voice floating across the airwaves. "Tune in, tune in," she cries, and we are easily lured.

Contrary to the hype, the shower scene in The Bill was not a momentous TV event, like the Beth Jordache kiss in Brookside, and the television watchdogs would not have snarled had it been a teeny bit racier, but let's not quibble. The story was sound, the acting decent, and at least the prison had slightly more in common with Holloway than with Betty's Tea Room in Harrogate, unlike the chintzy place that dear old Googie Withers ran in Within These Walls of blessed memory.

Still, there are prisons and prisons. A palatial mansion beside a Swiss lake is not what you'd call a prison, unless you are 13-year-old Athina Onassis. The granddaughter of Aristotle Onassis has seven SAS-trained bodyguards, and goes to school in an armour-plated car. The wealthy mums of north London, as Victoria Wood likes to point out, habitually take their children to the local Fluffy Bunny Montessori school in enormous four-wheel drives with bumpers designed to repel marauding rhino. But not even in Highgate is the school run armour-plated. Against a relentless background of violins and Zorba music, The Richest Little Girl in the World (ITV) explained why Athina needs such protection.

Last year, Swiss police warned her father, Thierry Roussel, that the house was being watched, allegedly by ex-Mossad agents whose paymasters, it turned out, were the trustees of the Onassis Foundation in Athens. Curious and curiouser. It seems that the Greek trustees wanted to keep their eyes on Roussel, probably with good reason, for his relationship with the late Christina Onassis, Athina's mother, has turned into an endless game of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, with Roussel as the contestant who never loses. During his three-year marriage to Christina, he became richer by some $58m. Later, after her death, he undertook to have Athina taught Greek and be raised as a Greek Orthodox. For this, the programme claimed, the Onassis Foundation grudgingly pays him a further $2m a year. Nice work if you can get it.

As for Athina, she is a fan of the Spice Girls and doesn't like to wear her Rolex to school. In other words, she is about as normal as she can be, and a sight more normal than her mother was at the same age. Or at any age. Christina's psychiatrist, who looked so much like Mel Brooks that I fleetingly wondered whether the whole thing was a colossal spoof, testified that she was, in psychiatric jargon, more than a little nuts. And it's not surprising; when Athina was two and her favourite nursery rhyme was "Baa Baa Black Sheep", Christina bought her an entire flock.

Sheep cropped up again in Animal Minds (BBC2), and proved to be more like us than you might like to think. At a kind of sheep dating agency, ewes were shown photos of potential companions - an exercise in anthropomorphism which, in this day and age, just might inspire a new ITV light entertainment programme for Saturday nights. Anyway, the ewes not in season always chose another female from their own flock, but the ewes in season always selected a ram. Evidently, looks matter to sheep. Moreover, prairie voles are romantic, parrots get jealous, fish enjoy being tickled, and baboons can get chronically depressed at times of hormonal upheaval, doubtless from thinking "Does my bum look red in this?".

By the end of Animal Minds, I was all anthropomorphed out. Do animals fall in love? Do animals feel shame? Do animals support European monetary union? Do we really care? But it could just be that my ennui was brought on by watching Battle of the Sexes (BBC2), another documentary from the BBC's hallowed Natural History Unit in Bristol, which covered similar ground and used suspiciously similar pictures. In Sam West and Rupert Graves, the two programmes even had interchangeable narrators.

It is almost blasphemous to say so, but I wonder whether nature programmes, like grey squirrels, are now breeding a little too furiously for the common good? Like docusoaps, they are all over the schedules and, as with docusoaps, there is an economic explanation. They are not cheap to make, but they are quick to sell. Butterflies mate as readily in Icelandic or Arabic as they do in English.

After mating, incidentally, certain species of male butterfly "plant an anti-aphrodisiac stink-bomb in the female so that nobody else will want her". I am quoting from a Clive James review of The World About Us, written in January 1981, and the fact that Battle of the Sexes featured exactly the same butterfly behaviour shows that nothing is new in nature programmes. On the other hand, there are some sights that bear repeating and repeating, like the Australian redback spider which impregnates the much larger female and then vaults into her open jaws in a deliberate act of suicide, so that she will be too busy eating him to mess with anyone else. I have a friend whose love life has followed a strangely similar pattern. He was obviously an Australian redback in a previous existence.

It could be worse, though: he could have have been a slug. Rupert Graves - or was it Sam West? - must surely have suppressed a titter while commentating on an embrace in which two slugs tried to bite off each other's penises. Never mind The Bill. For gay sex before the watershed, this was definitely the place to be.

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