Television: I wish I'd been as gripped as Kinsey
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 01 August 1999
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.
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