Television review

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I was once accused of attending an orgy, though unfortunately the accusation was a little wide of the mark. It consisted of some 10 schoolboys gathered round a single joss-stick, a quarter bottle of Bell's and a couple of Rothmans. The housemaster who discovered this disruptive Bacchic celebration couldn't even pronounce the word correctly - he said orgy with a hard "g", which made it very difficult for some of us to maintain a politic solemnity during the subsequent rant about moral standards.

He wasn't a classics master, so perhaps he can be forgiven for his rather meagre notion of what an extravaganza of consumption really looked like. Had he read Petronius, as Without Walls (C4) pointed out, in the first of a series about mythic meals, he might have had higher standards for what constituted an orgy - roast peacocks served in their skins, oxen stuffed with sausages and cooked offal, dormice cooked with pine-nuts and raisins and glazed in honey. All quite difficult to obtain in the local Mace corner shop, as it happens, but nobody ever said hedonism was an easy option.

As Without Walls also pointed out, the conventional picture of the Roman orgy is almost certainly exaggerated. After all, Trimalchio's feast, the Petronian episode which provides the foundation for the popular view of Roman orgies - the Frankie Howerd view you might say - was a satire on the excesses of the Roman nouveau-riche. So all those fantasies of a sexual smorgasbord - togas, turkey legs and titillation - were brushed away by scholarship. The Romans, we were told, didn't even drink their wine straight, always lacing it with water (and sometimes with seawater). Garum, the fermented anchovy sauce which they sprinkled liberally on all their food and which has delivered a delicious frisson of disgust to generations of schoolboys, was little more than a rough prototype of Lea & Perrins. The fabled sexual free-for-all, which has given generations of schoolboys a different sort of delicious frisson, may have been little more than the sort of grumpy suspicions which secretive rites always generate amongst the excluded.

There were some consoling curiosities - you learnt that seafood was so highly prized that a fish could cost more than a cow (which seemed odd for a Mediterranean country) and you were given a neat Roman trick for finding honeycombs (you pour some honey into a hollow reed, wait until it is full of bees and then release them one by one, following each one for as long as you can - not as easy as going to Sainsbury's, but the sense of satisfaction is much greater).

Even so, this seemed poor compensation for the killjoy element of the programme, the bit which poured cold water on the party, more so as it had recognised, a little belatedly, that the appeal of the orgiastic feast to the modern imagination was its promise of guilt-free indulgence. This was illustrated, rather desultorily, with clips of bad films (Caligula, Up Pompeii) and stills of fine paintings (Titian, Caravaggio) but with little attempt to explore the slow corruption of the concept from an image of the unruly power of pleasure to the stuff of postcard comedy. It seemed odd, too, that the film should have ignored the continuing power of the word "orgy" in tabloid newspapers, where it serves as an indispensable guarantee of excess for eager voyeurs.

For the News of the World, the word orgy usefully combines moral commentary and titillation - without it the suburban sex parties it loves to describe would be drab and slightly squalid. With it, readers are alerted to the fact that there is excitement on tap, even something enviable about these mild transgressions. Come to think of it, my physics master might not have been so wildly off base after all, his pronunciation apart. An orgy doesn't require a set menu of dishes or sexual liberties - just the sense that something more exciting than your own life is going on behind a closed door.

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