Victoria, a single mother in her early thirties, is getting her children ready for school — ensuring an equitable distribution of toast and issuing a series of determinedly patient instructions. (‘Listen to Mummy, you need to put your socks on.’) Once they’re gone, she then heads to a hotel to meet the first man that day who’ll be paying her £250 for sex. ‘It’s the perfect job for me,’ she explains cheerfully. ‘Very flexible.’
Victoria was one of three women featured in Louis Theroux: Selling Sex (BBC2, Sunday) for which Louis furrowed his familiar brow, adopted his finely honed bemused expression and set off to investigate transactional sex in digital-age Britain. Victoria, for example, advertises on the website AdultWork, where her clients can rate her TripAdvisor-style. (‘A splendidly satisfactory young lady,’ wrote one, rather quaintly.) They can also read her self-description as both ‘a classy lady’ and ‘the filthiest lady you would ever meet’. ‘The yin and the yang. I like it,’ commented Louis — as ever, leaving us unsure as to whether he was being sincere, polite or mocking. (My guess is that by now he doesn’t know either.)
Newer to the work was Ashleigh, a 23-year-old student who naturally feels ‘empowered’ by the job. From her, we learned that AdultWork also permits escorts to rate clients. Happily, she soon found one much admired for the size of his penis, and went to his Fulham flat, where Louis loitered outside for an hour, agonising further as to whether this can ever be a ‘healthy’ way to earn a living.
The third woman, Caroline, has been married to Graham for 44 years — although only for the past few of them has she been a prostitute, with Graham’s full blessing. As she explained, a repressive religious upbringing had led to the inevitable ‘struggle with self-esteem’, until she discovered that men were willing to pay her for sex, with the result that she’s now ‘who I am meant to be’.
In other words, this was a programme whose chief demographic appeared to be amateur psychologists. Fortunately, Louis had picked three women who offered plenty to analyse because what started as an almost knockabout programme gradually morphed into something darker.
Victoria, it turned out, had left home at 14 and immediately fallen into ‘many bad sexual experiences’. On the plus side, this has left her with the ‘ability to have sex with anyone and it not mean anything’. Ashleigh, whose Asperger’s was mentioned only in passing, had been abused between the ages of six and 12. ‘I’m over it now,’ she told Louis, although, as she noted herself, she was crying while she spoke.
Faced with all this — together with Graham’s admission that he’s sometimes ‘a bit irritated’ when Caroline sleeps with other blokes — Louis had the tricky modern task of trying to judge what he saw without being judgmental. In the circumstances, he understandably opted to hedge his bets: deciding, for instance, that it was ‘impossible to say’ how ‘Ashleigh’s new life would contribute to her recovery’.
And yet, of course, even by Louis’ standards, this was pretty disingenuous. By the end of an undeniably eye-popping documentary, there seemed little doubt that these women were unhappier than they claimed — or that, by agreeing to appear on television, they’d essentially allowed themselves to be stitched up like kippers.
And from that there’s really no easy transition to the big TV event of the week: the return of Crackerjack! (CBBC, Friday). Sadly for anybody hoping for proof of a tragic decline in children’s television, it was a delight: warm, funny and, judging from my ten-year-old daughter’s reaction, a guaranteed hit with its target audience.
The presenters are Sam and Mark: a kind of Ant and Dec for the under-12s, with the same knack for exuding infectious enjoyment of each other’s company. The comedy is reassuringly traditional, with custard pies and grown-ups’ humiliation much to the fore. We even get some old-school variety performers, including on Friday a spectacular fire act which we were duly warned not to try at home — although in a possible sign of the times, on a programme where brownies and cubs once bopped along to big-name bands, there was a distinct lack of pop music (as well as of brownies and cubs).
For the first episode, some of the former presenters were also invited along to take a bow — and, while say, Jan Hunt’s impression of Tommy Cooper mightn’t mean much to today’s viewers, my daughter assures me that she likes ‘seeing old people when they were young’. (That Basil Brush, mind you, hasn’t aged a day.) And amid the nostalgia, we perhaps caught a glimpse of the future too. One of the questions in the closing quiz was ‘Name Prince William’s brother’, and the young contestant didn’t have a clue.