TELEVISION / Never had it so good? Pull the other one

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'SEXUAL attraction to a person of the enemy class is as perverted as sexual attraction to a crocodile or an orangutan,' declared Professor Salkind in 1925, laying down some new commandments for the revolutionary proletariat. For years the standard Western joke about Communist sexuality would have had you believe that the crocodile or the orangutan were marginally more desirable than Russian womanhood, conventionally represented as a boiler-plated shot-putter with a top lip like a Welcome Home mat. This was a libel, naturally, though as Andrzej Fidyk's film for Omnibus (BBC 1) revealed, putting the Union into the Soviet was never that much fun. 'When you're having sex you're free. You're not living for them,' said one contributor, putting his finger on the reason for the state's traditional hostility to sexual expression.

This wasn't exactly a revelation - Orwell spotted the essential priggishness of Communism years ago and incorporated it into 1984 - but then there weren't many revelations here. When decades of suppression are suddenly lifted you don't often get surprises, you get an accelerated tour of what has been commonplace elsewhere for years. What's really surprising is how surprising they find it all. (The point was nicely made in Donald Wood's report on South African television for Assignment on BBC 2 earlier. 'It's amazing what you get when you take the camera off the tripod,' said a documentary director, as though he'd only just discovered that you could film people moving about.)

In Moscow there's a similar sense of revelation about strippers. Fidyk turned up a former censor turned entrepreneur who had started a Centre for the Erotic Arts, the principal activity of which was a Foundation Course in Stripping. The academic body did its best to look businesslike, penning notes as shy Russian girls refused to answer questions about their sex lives, but they are clearly going to have to begin at the beginning. 'Can't I go outside?' said one girl when asked to strip to her swimming costume, an approach which, despite Russia's long sensual freeze, is unlikely to make pulses race in Le Hot Bar de Minsk.

We learnt too that sex is difficult in crowded flats (you sometimes have to wait for a tram to come before you can), that single-sex prisoners sometimes turn to homosexuality for comfort, that Kremlin officials took their pick from the canteen waitresses and that Russian Heavy Metal musicians share their Western colleagues' taste for naked dancers. What was distinctive about the film was not so much the subject matter, then, as Fidyk's rambling, humanly curious style. He took time off to travel beyond the city when one of the student strippers visited her grandfather's dacha in the country, an excursion that at first sight looked like a distraction, but soon made a case for itself by establishing a context for her decision. Her dreams of world travel and hard currency grew up in this frozen garden.

Fidyk had also included his own strip- tease - a long, endlessly deferred tale by a sombre drunk who insisted that he would be killed if he told his secret. Towards the end of the programme he came clean, revealing that Leonid Brezhnev had started the day in less than fraternal manner with one of the young girls who staffed the Central Committee. It didn't matter whether it was true or not - it had the furtive, sly feel of schoolboy gossip, of a country still working through its adolescence where sex is concerned.

The Talking Show (C 4), a new series about verbal communication presented by Sandi Toksvig, is very depressing. The set is a compendium of design cliches - not a right-angle in the house - and the general approach is that of silly chatter - just as you get interested in one thing they change the subject for a brisk and shallow exploration of another. This approach reduces even the most interesting experts, like Patsy Rodenburg, the National Theatre's resident voice coach, to the status of novelty acts. I found myself practising my enunciation on the phrase 'Make better programmes'.