Television Sex: A story of virgins, lovers, sinners and survivors

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The Independent Culture
Sex Bomb Channel 4

If you were to tune in to Thursday's episode of Sex Bomb 24 and a half hours late (it could happen), you'd end up watching Eurotrash. Don't worry, you'd soon notice your mistake. Never mind Sex Bomb's kitsch trailers and saucy title, Gwyneth Hughes and Angela Holdsworth have made a sober four-part social and political history of sex in Britain from the 1960s to the present day (two parts last week, two parts next week). It is so determined to be regarded as a set text by future generations that the narration in next Thursday's episode keeps referring to the Nineties in the past tense. It is the anti-Eurotrash.

1960 may seem too convenient a year zero - it wasn't artificial insemination that kept the species going prior to the invention of the mini-skirt - but the series makes a persuasive case for "revolution" being the only word dramatic enough to describe the overhaul of attitudes which began in that decade. One interviewee gushes about the Pill as a gift from the heavens. Another woman is in tears as she recalls how, in 1966, at the age of 16, she was dropped off by her parents to give birth at a "mother and baby home". Later, two nuns walked off with her new child. Mother and baby didn't meet again for 18 years. Compare this with the 18-year- old in next Thursday's episode who fancied having a baby last year, and was encouraged by her mother to pick up a sperm donor in a club. The girl is now teaching sex education in her local comprehensive. She can't remember the name of her baby's father.

Sex Bomb covers ground from abortion law and the Pope's denunciation of the Pill to Aids, Back to Basics and, somehow, Jamie Bulger. It's a tremendously ambitious project, if sometimes so straight-faced that you suspect the makers' top priority was not to upset Mary Whitehouse. There were times, I'm ashamed to confess, when I prayed for an appearance by Antoine de Caunes.

The first programme had a few laughs, though, mostly derived from its Sixties footage - a rich comedic source, as Harry Enfield will tell you. There was the terrifyingly moustachioed Sir Gerald Nabarro MP warning us that "the permissive society is considered by some youngsters to be 'trendy' and 'with-it'. Personally, I consider ... [that it] leads to evil, misery and poverty". There were girls peering at a breast-revealing dress in a shop window. "It won't catch on in Wolverhampton," sniffed one. Alan Bennett must have reached for his notepad. And there was that old faithful, the public information film in which a doctor pronounces the fateful initials VD, and his young patients adopt the facial expressions of people who have just had their hair yanked from behind. In 30 years' time, let's not forget, the shots of the 18-year-old's sex education class will be as good for a laugh as this footage is today.

Archive material aside, the programme is an oral history (no sniggering at the back), in which we hear about the sexual revolution not from its guerrilla leaders, but from its foot soldiers, drafted from all walks of life. Every time a magazine (Cosmopolitan) or a club (Heaven) comes into the story, we expect to meet its founder. Instead, there's an anecdote from "someone who read that magazine" or "went to that club". Mind you, perhaps "all walks of life" is an exaggeration. A disproportionate number of the more lubricious memoirs are preceded by the sentence: "Tom [or whoever] was working in the music business at the time." Either Gwyneth Hughes has a lot of friends who work for record companies, or the music business is the one to be in.

By excluding interviews with the drafters of this parliamentary bill or the publishers of that controversial book, the series loses more than it gains. Much like a topless dress, it feels incomplete. Some of the anecdotes from "ordinary" people tell us a lot about the tempores and mores, but others tell us very little. There is no analysis, either. The programme refuses to make overt judgements on the events it records, but its effect is to leave you with some sympathy for the views of Sir Gerald. Just look at the way the titles of the episodes progress, from "Virgins" (Sixties) to "Lovers" (Seventies) to "Sinners" (Eighties) to "Survivors" (Nineties). Makes you glad to be living today, eh? The message is that we're just as screwed up after the sexual revolution as we were before it: we're slaves to our biology for all our language of liberation.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. The series finishes with the marriage of a loving, stable couple - even if their baby is at the wedding, the best man is the groom's son by a previous partner, and the congregation is a web of step-parents. With this scene, Sex Bomb just about pulls off a positive ending: you can still play Happy Families today, but the rules are more complicated and there are a lot more cards in the deck.