Television: I wish I'd been as gripped as Kinsey

Andrew Sachs is the narrator of The Sexual Century (ITV) and just about everything else. You name it, he's narrated it. I know because I find programme credits increasingly unmissable, and actual programmes more and more missable. In fact, through careful deployment of the remote control unit, it is just about possible to enjoy the credits without having to sit through the boring stuff that comes before. And as fellow credits enthusiasts will attest, Sachs is to the documentary voiceover what Ken Morse is to the rostrum camera. His perfectly modulated vowels have wrapped themselves around choking children and spawning salmon, around harassed hoteliers and cagey caribou. The man can even cope with those occasional scripts that are alliteration-free.

The Sexual Century, disappointingly, does not offer much on the alliteration front. On the other hand, it is full of magnificent platitudes. Whopping great duck-billed platitudes. For example, we were told that, in Victorian times, the British upper-classes screwed around constantly, while the middle- and lower-classes were sexually repressed. Cue the old one about shapely piano legs being covered up, lest they offend genteel middle-class sensibilities.

The Sachs voice operated effortlessly, but the words needed work. In the 1920s, Berlin "was the sexual engine of Europe". A nice image, but dangerously close to being completely meaningless. Then there was the sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who discovered in later life that he was homosexual. At Berkeley, Sachs solemnly added, "9,000 people were gripped by him". Either Kinsey had a startling sexual appetite, or more care should have been taken with the script. The clips, by contrast, were fabulous. We saw, for example, a turn-of-the-century anti-masturbation suit which one day, God willing, will turn up on The Antiques Roadshow. "It is something of a family heirloom," a sweet old lady will say, "and I rather hoped you could explain its original purpose."

So The Sexual Century had its moments. In fact I learnt something of considerable personal interest. Before we were blessed with the joyous encumbrance of children, my wife and I spent a romantic holiday driving through New England in the fall, and wound up at a backwoods kind of place called Rangeley, Maine. There we hired a tiny four-seater plane, with pilot, and rather alarmingly flew through a violent snowstorm, which was followed by an extraordinarily vivid rainbow. Anyway, I now find that a German immigrant called Reich set up a celebrated sex research institute in, of all places, Rangeley, Maine. And one of Reich's theories was that orgasmic energy could influence weather patterns. Poppycock? I think not. Not that I am under any illusions, of course, but I do recall two honeymooning couples staying in the same motel.

Sorry to be frivolous but The Sexual Century demands it. It has intellectual pretensions yet the stark fact is that sex sells, whether as one of those cheap ball-point pens which reveal a naked woman when turned upside-down, or as a lavish five-part documentary series. Consequently, there is as much titillation in The Sexual Century as in most post-watershed dramas. After all, what was the point of giving up News at Ten if not to replace Trevor McDonald with a nipple or two?

I hope the series improves. Part one rattled simplistically through the careers of various "sex pioneers" - how wonderful to be described as a sex pioneer, and what delusions of deity it must have conferred - lingering to detail their own sexual oddities. Havelock Ellis liked to watch women urinate. And I hardly dare tell you about Kinsey. The programme interviewed one of his researchers, incidentally, a respectable old man with the fine name of Clarence Tripp. "I had a little dab of animal intercourse in my history as a child," he said, in much the same casually boastful manner as one might mention that one used to do a spot of canoeing. Kinsey, he added, "was very interested in that". I'm not surprised. So was I. It was a showstopper. But, brutally, the show went on.

Having watched the credits with my usual zeal, I can tell you that The Sexual Century is a Canadian co-production and owes its existence, in part, to the Ontario Film and Television Fund Program. Or OFTFP, which sounds like a watchdog body for dyslexics. Now I am on dangerous ground because dyslexia is no laughing matter; indeed, the gravity of the condition has been underlined by a Channel 4 season. Just as you know a news story is big when Kate Adie pops up in her fatigues, so a Channel 4 season conveys the message that if you didn't take this particularly seriously before, you should now.

I watched only one programme, Dyslexic Criminals. It was poorly titled, for what I expected was the revelation that certain well-known criminals were dyslexic, perhaps that Al Capone could barely spell his name, or that "Mad" Frankie Fraser would never have got collared for such-and-such a robbery if he had not taken so long to read `Beware of the Dog'. In fact, the programme focused on an experiment, conducted at a Young Offenders' Institution near Edinburgh, which established that dyslexia was far more prevalent there than in society at large. So the message was clear. If dyslexia is not diagnosed, which in deprived areas it rarely is, then children are written off as plain thick and alienated at school. This leads to truancy, delinquency and, more often than not, jail sentences.

What the message failed to consider, of course, was the right-wing line that these teenagers were innately a bad lot, or at any rate that social conditioning would have guided them towards crime, whether or not they were dyslexic. Nevertheless, there was an irresistible optimism about the experiment's findings, reflected in the fixed grins of the two educational psychologists whose pet project it was. Let's hope that it leads somewhere. Since I first added potassium sulphide to hydrochloric acid on my unfaltering journey towards an E in O-level chemistry, I have been of the cynical conviction that experiments rarely do.

Still, optimism is a great thing, and Anna and Paul have it in spades. Literally so, for they invited their wedding guests to give them trees. "Planting a tree is about having faith in the future and that's what marriage is about," said Paul, which would have sounded pious in anyone else, but somehow went perfectly with his bicycle clips. This was Wedding Lists (BBC2), the first in a five-part series called Seeking Pleasure which, according to last week's Radio Times, is about taste, identity and anthropology. In fact, it is about class. Pure and simple. But class is a dread word in television these days, no matter that it is still the underlying theme in nine out of 10 documentaries.

Some people reject football because there is far too much of it, lumping together the tedious goalless draw with the 4-3 spectacular. There's a similar tendency to dismiss all "observational" documentary series, good and bad. Wedding Lists, in fact, was a gem, edited with style and wit. If only it had come clean - that it was actually an elegant disquisition on class division. Were we really expected to swallow some guff about taste and identity, with one couple compiling their list at Argos, another at Harrods?

But then television does make unreasonable demands of us. Channel 5, for example, expects us to sit through yet another series on police pursuits, this time called Chopper Coppers. I watched programme one and, frankly, when you've seen one helicopter chasing joyriders through a built-up area, you've seen them all. The alarming truth of the matter, though, is that this series might just as easily have wound up on BBC1, only with Andrew Sachs narrating, rather than Jamie Theakston.

PETER YORK ON ADS, PAGE 5

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing