TELEVISION / In the realm of the senses

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The Independent Culture
THE PANTING you may have heard during Forty Minutes (BBC2), a trawl through '100 years of sex advice', had nothing to do with the amorous contortions glimpsed on the rent-a- bonk videos. It was actually the sound of the programme makers catching up with a subject Channel 4 put to bed months ago. And while what matters is not who does it first but who does it best, 'The Agony of the Ecstasy' wore an unfortunate air of vieux chapeau in the midst of what now seems like open season on sex. Even nuns can't avoid it, as Kristin Scott Thomas discovered in this week's episode of Body and Soul (ITV). What's happened? After tiptoeing round the bedroom for years, television is falling over itself to clamber between the sheets and bring back proof that people have been doing it for, like, ages.

Doing it wrong, what's more, else why did we need all those awful sex manuals? As Forty Minutes pointed out, our grandparents had to make do with Marie Stopes, and a brief rifle through the pages of her Married Love should nowadays elicit a sympathetic shudder to go with the hoots of incredulous laughter. Yet what, I wonder, would our forebears have made of Dr Andrew Stanway, an excitable chap who has masterminded a video called Lovers' Guide? The Catholic Church, according to the good doctor, has hailed the video as 'profoundly religious', and one priest in Ireland even suggested keeping copies at the altar rail to hand out to newlyweds. Before you could say O tempora, O mores we were whisked to the set of Lovers' Guide 2, where the director was coaxing a couple through the next manoeuvre: 'You'll have to pull each other's whatsits down,' he told them, in a scene which might have given that priest pause for thought over his missionary position.

'The Agony of the Ecstasy' was straight from the Department of Cheap Laughs, and an exemplary instance of a programme having its cake and eating it. It was couched in the visual equivalent of quotation marks, a trick which allows you to wring maximum titillation even as it distances you from any hint of collusion. If it wasn't Anton Rodgers supplying a tiresome nudge-nudge commentary, then it was a bizarre tour round a south London garage where a Scandinavian couple offered 'an escape from the chains of our Victorian inheritance'. The programme snickered to the predictable conclusion that, even with the advent of DIY sex on page and screen, we remain, as it were, in the dark.

In the present climate, I think The Rough Guide to Sex would be a better title than The Complete Guide to Relationships (ITV), but otherwise this pilot comedy hit many of the right spots. The writer Kim Fuller has a fine ear for the chat-up and put-down lines of yuppie romance, and maintains an arm's length from characters that is both ironic and affectionate. Mike (Michael Maloney) and Julia (Anna Chancellor) have had it up to here with each other and mark the terminus of their relationship with The Crucial Question, namely who's chucking who.

Maloney finds hyperactive weasel mode perfectly. Petulantly claiming chucker's privilege as he slopes towards singledom, he decides to change tack: 'Besides, there was one thing I was good at . . . at least, you always said you enjoyed it. It was . . . pretty hot stuff, wasn't it?' 'Oh yes,' Julia concedes, 'You made a really good curry.' Meanwhile, Sarah (Maria Friedman) is looking for a way out of her relationship with DIY bore Tony (Michael Simkins), who can't quite grasp that retiling the bathroom doesn't guarantee her happiness. Maybe he ought to try Marie Stopes. Fingers crossed for a series to follow.

Just in case the middle-aged were feeling neglected amid this frenzy of sexual glasnost, Conjugal Rites (ITV) arrived to cater to those who still remember the rule about one foot on the floor. Barry (Michael Williams) and Gen (Gwen Taylor) are a suburban couple who have been married for 21 years, an achievement in itself.

Change is afoot: she's found independence in a new career as a solicitor, and decides it's high time hubby does the Saturday shopping and dinner two nights a week. Barry's not too chuffed, but Gen lays down the law in a terse quid pro quo: 'No cooking, no nooky.' And how is sex between them? 'Talk to me, Barry,' she coos from bed. 'I thought that's what women said afterwards.' Williams and Taylor play off each other winningly, though you worry about the interior-monologue device. Fair play to anyone trying to break the mould, in all senses, of Brit sitcom, but is it a good idea to let the family dog air his opinion too?

'We were two lonely, desperate people in a bad situation,' said an ex-lover of Aileen Wuornos, though his situation didn't end quite as badly as it did for the seven other men she shot dead. Wuornos claimed to have killed in self-defence, but juries were unmoved and, after an ill-advised 'no contest' plea, she lingers on Death Row in Florida. The American media has demonised her as the first woman serial killer, though True Stories (C4) had a different take on the matter. Nick Broomfield was in Daytona County, Wuornos's stamping ground, wading through the Stygian gloom of a biker bar in search of her acquaintances and catching up with her defence counsel. This latter was a bloated, bearded rocker-turned-lawyer named Steve Glazer, who also moonlighted as 'agent' for Arlene Pralle, Wuornos's adoptive mother. Between them they were haggling for dollars 25,000 per interview, money which Broomfield was understandably reluctant to part with.

After an engrossing sequence of setbacks, Broomfield at last coughed up some cash and secured an interview with Wuornos, who proved friendly, voluble and mightily pissed-off. No wonder: the money-grubbing machinations of Steve and Arlene were just the tip of a sinister iceberg involving contracts, rake-offs, movie rights and police corruption. Here was quick-buck opportunism run wild, and you felt for Wuornos as she explained how Arlene had urged suicide on her as a neat solution. 'That's not very motherly, is it?' she said wryly. The story exercised a ghoulish fascination, but it also benefited from Broomfield's style of deadpan truffling. Earphones worn like a neck-

brace, a boom-mike dancing in attendance, Broomfield compensates for the flatness of his delivery with the patience of his inquiry - he doesn't mind hanging around for the significant detail. As for Wuornos, the future looked less than hopeful: 'All I wanna do is go back to prison, wait for the chair and get the hell off this planet,' she said. With friends like Steve and Arlene, the film showed, her road to oblivion would be only too well greased.

Allison Pearson returns next week.