This week on Channel 4, we watched a cheery 58-year-old American engineer called James going on a first date. He was meeting Harmony, an extravagantly shapely blonde who was obliging enough to be wearing a low-cut crop top and tiny shorts, and who greeted him with a charming smile. After a spot of small talk and a dumb-blonde joke, she then alternated between assuring him how great he was and inviting him to masturbate over her. ‘You’re awesome,’ a visibly smitten James declared — apparently not at all bothered that Harmony was a robot.
This scene — clearly regarded as a heartwarming one by Harmony’s maker Matt McMullen — provided the big finish to Thursday’s The Sex Robots Are Coming, which did its best to take a measured, non-sniggering, non-aghast look at the latest developments in the lucrative sex-doll market.
Until recently, the problem with such dolls has been that, while they may look increasingly realistic (albeit from the more pornographic end of the reality spectrum), their social skills are distinctly limited. But now Matt’s company is one of several competing to produce dolls that can recognise their owners and have proper conversations. If all goes well, customers will even be able to select their new doll’s personality, with options including shy, talkative and — for added realism, some unreconstructed males might think — moody.
Not that James doesn’t have a soft spot for the old type too. When we first met him, he proudly introduced us to ‘the lovely April’ — his favourite of the three non-robot dolls with whom he shares his life. (‘It’s not to demean women,’ he explained as he flipped the naked April over on his bed and slapped her bottom. ‘It’s more an appreciation of their physical beauty.’) More surprisingly, perhaps, he also introduced us to Tine, his wife of 36 years, who insisted that James is ‘a great husband’.
Tine was still present when James told us that April is ‘the perfect girl’ — although not when he went into some detail about how exciting his and April’s sex life is. Or when he said that if he had to choose between her and his wife, he really doesn’t know which one he’d go for. And with that, he went back to gently washing April’s face and tenderly removing her head to repair her neck.
But, it seems, even the lovely April mightn’t be able to hang on to her man now that his eye’s been caught by a newer model. So what about the ethics of sleeping with robot sex dolls?
Matt duly took a rather pious line, arguing that any objections from oppressive bigots will gradually go the same way as homophobia and transphobia. Indeed, he clinchingly predicted, within 50 years, sex robots will be as widespread as porn. (So that’s OK, then.) Less thrilled was Kathleen Richardson, feminist academic and founder of the sci-fi-sounding Campaign Against Sex Robots. On Thursday, Richardson was allowed approximately a minute to make her case that these objects objectify women — but, given that the English language was on her side, she made it persuasively nonetheless. Even so, James’s own verdict was possibly the most telling of all for the future of male-robot relations. ‘It might be selfish,’ he said. ‘But I’m all right with that.’
For all its eye-popping content, The Sex Robots Are Coming was at heart a conventional documentary. Not so Naples ’44 (BBC4, Sunday), based on the wartime diaries of Norman Lewis, who before becoming a travel writer was an intelligence officer during the Allied occupation.
The programme, in fact, was based very heavily on the diaries — because most of it consisted of Benedict Cumberbatch reading them in voiceover to the visual accompaniment of contemporary footage and clips from later, vaguely related films, including some of Catch-22’s Roman scenes.
At first, this mosaic technique was a little distracting. But soon it started to create a hallucinatory quality that felt entirely appropriate for a city where humanity was reduced to something approaching the elemental. In one section, Lewis wrote of working-class housewives lined up facing a wall with piles of tinned food beside them — the idea being that any soldier could have sex with them as long as he added another tin. Elsewhere, he saw a British officer beating an Italian civilian with a chair, then asking a private to shoot the man. ‘I don’t mind if I do, sir,’ the private replied. Several times, Lewis noted that two things flourishing amid the chaos and hunger were theft and religion, with a third of Allied supplies ending up on the black market and the churches packed.
There was also an almost King Lear sense of an already horrifying situation constantly getting worse, as delayed-action German bombs began to explode, and epidemics of typhus and smallpox broke out. And that was before Vesuvius erupted…