Last Night's TV - The Sex Education Show: Am I Normal? Channel 4; Imagine, BBC1

A lesson they'll never forget

Reviewed,Tom Sutcliffe
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:33

For The Sex Education Show, Channel 4 helpfully installed a video booth in the playground of a Surrey high school so that its pupils could pose their most intimate questions in private, uninhibited by anything other than the knowledge that they might end up on prime-time television asking them. One boy appeared to be worried that he might be underperforming: "At the age of 14, how many times should you masturbate per day?" he asked anxiously. I don't think it's compulsory just yet, son, though that day can't be far off given the breezy, come-one, come-all approach to sexual satisfaction that is the prevailing orthodoxy on this series. "We all deserve to have great sex!" exclaimed Anna Richardson, and behind the cry of empowerment – to old and fat, disabled and gay – there was the faintest whisper of compulsion, a sense that erotic fulfilment was a duty some of us might be shirking. There's a lot of talk of taboos in this programme, as in its predecessors. But the true taboo here would be to raise your hand and say that you weren't sure that sex was all it was cracked up to be, and you might be better off reading a book.

The series carries the subtitle Am I Normal? and it's bent on levering apart the narrow parentheses that clamp around that concept so that virtually nothing, however unusual, will fall outside of them. This can't be harmful, I would have thought. Lining up five naked female models will surely have provided young schoolboys with a better start to the day than a period of double maths, and may also have given reassurance to their female counterparts that not everyone looks like a Page 3 model underneath their clothes. Most of the teenagers in the audience understood precisely what was expected of them – pieties of normality and acceptance and it's-all-perfectly-natural – and they delivered them on cue, although the faces they pulled when two of the models suddenly spread their legs wide betrayed the fact that both sexes were still coming to terms with the inner convolutions of the female genitalia, and might have preferred that this enticing grotto retained something of its covert mystery.

Richardson, in between making teenagers blush and perjure themselves, got on a soap box about disabled sex, persuading tetraplegics and wheelchair users to share details about their private life that – in a more repressed/ modest age (delete according to taste) – might have been kept between them and their partners. Yes, Ben agreed, double incontinence could be a bit of a drawback: "My first sexual experience, I pissed on her and fell out of bed... I haven't read all of the Kama Sutra, but I don't think that's in it." This too was in the interests of empowerment: "It really is inspirational to be around people who even though they are physically challenged are refusing to give up something as important as sex," said Richardson, after discussing techniques with a group of wheelchair basketball players. She concluded the programme by telling younger viewers that they could find answers to questions not covered on the programme website, though, since it contains explicit material, "if you're under 18 parental supervision is recommended". Oh yeah, I can really see that working. "Mum! Would you come and look over my shoulder while I check up on wet dreams?"

They didn't have a lot of sex education back in 1957, which is perhaps how Tom Jones ended up as father while still a teenager. Come to think of it, Tom Jones was sex education for a lot of people in the Sixties. Imagine's extended interview with him – built around recording sessions for his latest album, was very enjoyable – not least because Jones himself seems devoid of vanity or self-importance. It was a programme partly about the weighted lottery of song choice, which can make the difference between a life in working men's clubs and ending up top of the bill in Vegas, as it did for Jones when he managed to persuade his manager and Les Reed that he should release "It's Not Unusual" instead of Sandie Shaw (helped, it was suggested here, by Sandie Shaw's generosity in insisting he keep the song he'd only been intended to demo).

But it was also about Jones's innocent passion for performance, which meant that throughout his career he remained simultaneously a superstar and a starstruck fan. There was a wonderful bit of archive of him from his American television show, duetting with Stevie Wonder on "It's Not Unusual", the faintest look of panic in Jones's eyes, as if he was wondering whether he would be able to keep up with the other singer's harmonic inventions. He also talked about his private jamming sessions with Elvis, in the latter's Vegas suite, both men singing gospel songs together into the small hours... the sort of story to make a music executive weep with frustration, at the thought of those prodigiously marketable notes evaporating unrecorded.

As has been widely reported, one of his current label bosses wasn't too happy with the song selection for the album he was shown recording here, at Peter Gabriel's Wiltshire recording studio. "I paid for a Mercedes and got a hearse," he said, after first hearing it. What a hearse he got, though! When it was passing – particularly with a superb cover of Dylan's "What Good Am I?" – the only respectful thing to do was bow your head and take a moment for contemplation.

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