James Walton

Funny, tender and properly horrible: Channel 4’s Adult Material reviewed

Plus: when Jean-Paul Sartre met Les Dawson

Funny, tender and properly horrible: Channel 4’s Adult Material reviewed
Hayley Squires as Jolene Dollar in Channel 4's Adult Material
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Adult Material

Channel 4, Mondays

Between the Covers

BBC2, Fridays

Urban Myths

Sky Arts, Wednesdays

A woman is eating a pie in her car as it gets an automatic wash. Careful to keep the pie out of shot, she then films herself on her phone pretending to have an orgasm, posts the clip online and drives to work. Once there, she’s constantly distracted by thoughts of domestic chores (‘Whites tonight, colours in the morning, hang them out before the school run’) — which mightn’t be so unusual, except that her work consists of having sex.

But if the early scenes in Channel 4’s new porn-industry drama Adult Material suggested a cheeky, essentially light-hearted twist on female life-juggling, this soon proved deceptive. What followed was an uneasy mix of comedy, righteous anger, melodrama, unexpectedly tender family scenes, Ken Loach miserabilism and the properly horrible.

Hayley Squires stars as Jolene Dollar — she of the orgasmic carwash — who started in the porn business way back when storylines were in fashion and has since done well enough to send her children to private school. These days, though, she has to be motherly at work too — especially towards Amy, a young dancer whose recent leg injury has left her needing to find another means of earning a living. The trouble is that the now almost quaint films of Jolene’s youth have been replaced by well, pretty much anything degrading you can imagine — or perhaps can’t. As one director explains: ‘It doesn’t have to be sexy, it just has to be something you haven’t seen before.’ After all, so much porn is freely available that only the most ‘niche’ stuff will attract paying punters — which is where the properly horrible bits come in.

Meanwhile, the freely available kind has also ensured that Jolene’s screen career is familiar to the boys at the school of her teenage daughter Phoebe, who’s agonisingly torn between filial loyalty and disgust — and at an age when there are enough routine embarrassments without this excruciating add-on. Yet, while Phoebe’s plight is affectingly done, the way it has to battle for our attention — not always successfully — amid so many other, more lurid events only serves to confirm that Adult Material can’t really decide what sort of drama it wants to be.

You could, I suppose, argue that the confused tone is revealingly authentic, reflecting the fact that pornography has become such a feature of modern life without most of us knowing what to make of it. Even so, watching the programme is still an odd, sometimes slightly queasy experience, with the sound of grinding gears never out of earshot for long.

Older readers may remember when TV shows about books were a staple of the BBC evening schedules. Nowadays, if they happen at all, they tend to be either over-reverent or visibly nervous about being so elitist as to expect anybody to read. Happily, and somewhat surprisingly, BBC2’s Between the Covers is neither.

Some snooty literary types — including me on a bad day — may have been a little dismayed to see that the host is Radio 2’s Sara Cox and her four guests are mainly comedians (is there anything those people can’t do?). With everybody having to choose a favourite book, pick a favourite literary character and discuss a further title or two collectively, the format is a bit busy to allow for much depth. Nonetheless, the result in Friday’s first episode was a relaxed and highly congenial conversation that took the fact of reading for granted and books in general seriously but never too deferentially. There were a lot of good jokes as well — many of them from the host.

Finally, and possibly still for older readers, let me warmly recommend this week’s Urban Myths. The latest in Sky Arts’s series of 30-minute dramas based on fabled showbiz tales was Steve Pemberton’s winningly affectionate (and winningly titled) ‘Les, Miserable’ which mixed fact and fiction to provide nothing less than the creation myth of Les Dawson.

The real-life starting point was in 1953 when Les, a romantic working-class self-improver of the old school, rented a Parisian garret in the quest to write a great existentialist novel. The garret turned out to have a brothel attached and, when not failing to write his masterwork, he played a badly out-of-tune piano there. Worse, when he complained of his plight, the consensus from the prostitutes was that ‘the sadder you are, the funnier you are’.

At his lowest point in Wednesday’s programme, Les was drinking wine in an alley when he received a visitation from his hero Jean-Paul Sartre, played by Pemberton himself. Les, Sartre suggested, should accept that his gift was for comedy and must never consider making people laugh to be beneath him. ‘People don’t want a miserable fat man playing a wonky piano,’ Les lamented. ‘You would be surprised,’ Sartre replied.