A new line in videos is selling in the high street and puzzling the censors. Tina Jenkins reports

Marino Franchi smiles winningly and throws his head back, his glossy, dark hair settling provocatively over one eye. 'I've got the smallest cock on the circuit,' he says, somehow turning this revelation into a boast.

I wasn't about to ask him to prove it. After all, I'd seen his manhood, in all its glory, in a protracted masturbation sequence shot for Lovers' Guide - the market leader in the growing video market of sex guides. I tell him that he could have fooled me, and decide it is lucky small things look so much bigger on television.

Performing sexual acts in the name of education is an unexpected career departure for Marino and his beautiful partner, Kathryn Shannon. He, one-time boutique owner, part-time male stripper and full- time body worshipper, and she, sometime page-three model, were told by their agent to audition for Lovers' Guide. They'd never met, but got the jobs and then had the unenviable task of getting to know each other in the biblical sense, under the hot lights and keen gaze of a studio crew.

'I was highly attracted to Kathryn,' says Marino, looking affectionately in her direction. But she admits: 'He's got a bit of a temper on him,' referring to an incident when he lost his rag on set while filming another video, Supervirility.

'Well, it's hard to keep an erection going for 16 hours,' he retorts. Luckily, Marino managed to pull the rabbit out of the hat.

Perhaps that is why Marino and Kathryn are emerging as the new stars of the sex- education video market, commanding up to pounds 3,000 per performance. Even these fees are minuscule compared with the size of the business: more than pounds 10m has been taken in less than a year and 800,000 videos have been sold.

Marino and Kathryn might never have ended up on the shelves of the retail chains but for the fact that the videos are marketed as education. There is no doubt, they are explicit: erections, intercourse and oral sex, shot in 'BCUs' - that's big close ups in video parlance. It is the kind of material that the police might well have impounded under another label.

Superintendent Mike Hames, head of Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad, says that in the old days an erect penis was the unwritten test to decide if a film or video was 'hard core' and warranted further action. Now he sees far stronger videos 'getting through', some coming from the producers of traditional soft porn. If the videos are 'educational' much more is allowed. Supt Hames wants a checklist detailing what can or cannot lawfully be shown.

So are the producers using educational videos as a cover for a product that is little more than pornography?

Anne Dickson, a writer, therapist and psychologist, says the videos bear all the hallmarks of pornography, right down to the red-painted fingernails masturbating an erect penis. 'You don't see anyone laughing or hear the bed creaking. It all looks like a skilled performance,' she says.

No wonder so many people are getting in on the act. Better Sex, Making Love, A Woman's Guide to Loving Sex, Loving Better . . . the list is growing and will be boosted by a number of sequels this autumn.

Does the British public need all this education? 'Absolutely not]' exclaims Margaret White, GP, a former JP and member of Family and Youth Concern, a moral pressure group - 'Unless you assume that the population of this country is so stupid it doesn't know how to have sex.'

The videos have been much criticised by experts for packaging perfection and giving rise to unrealistic expectations. Ms Dickson says the use of lavish settings and beautiful couples could reinforce feelings of deficiency among ordinary mortals. 'It's a fantasy, another world. And it reinforces the mythical sexual ideal. It's the idea that there are all these people out there having a wonderful time and I'm not. It can make you feel profoundly inadequate.'

The criticisms are backed up by a Gallup survey commissioned by Channel 4's consumer programme Check Out 92, which questioned 120 couples. Although 58 per cent said they thought the videos were genuinely educational, and a surprising 78 per cent thought they could help relationships, there were also numerous comments about the couples being too perfect.

'Watching them certainly takes you down a rung or two,' says Ed Cooke, a British Rail worker in Southampton, who patiently sat through several hours of sex education with his wife, Amanda, for the survey. But the couple did admit that they had learnt a lot about foreplay and have experimented since then.

Survey participants were asked to rate the videos on a scale of 0 to 10 for their helpfulness in improving relationships. They scored an average of 6.3.

Each title has to be certified by the British Board of Film Classification before it can be accepted on the high street. The BBFC says it offers advice to producers (but not rules that have to be followed for certification): no violence, fetishes, abuse of women, big close ups or male ejaculation. But a huge majority of the couples questioned said they would not be offended by male ejaculation (77 per cent) or close- ups of penetration (81 per cent).

Although it is still early days to establish who is buying these videos, shop-floor reports suggest that it is not the pavement shufflers in dirty macs, but women, slipping a video in the basket along with the Basildon Bond and pencil rubbers.

Does this mean that Marino and Kathryn will take on a new cult status? 'Performing in videos never did Madonna any harm,' says Marino, a twinkle in his eye.

Let's hope they can sing.

The writer is a reporter on 'Check Out 92', being shown tonight on Channel 4 at 10pm.

(Photograph omitted)