Simon Hoggart

Sex lives and videotape

Him and Her (BBC 3) is the BBC’s notion of a really edgy sitcom.

Sex lives and videotape
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Him and Her (BBC 3) is the BBC’s notion of a really edgy sitcom.

Him and Her (BBC 3) is the BBC’s notion of a really edgy sitcom. This is not My Family. The first words uttered are from a bloke who is in bed with his girlfriend. ‘You. Are. Very good at blow jobs.’

‘Thank you,’ she says demurely.

‘And I am brilliant at receiving them.’

Moments later we see her sitting on the loo, and not just for a pee. Then a neighbour drops round to discuss, inter alia, Kate Winslet’s breasts, and how everyone pauses that bit on the Titanic DVD.

I found myself wondering what would have happened if an advance tape had been shown to Lord Reith. ‘It is, um, er, director-general, somewhat experimental in tone and content.’

‘Let me take a look, laddie! Ah yes, this is exactly the kind of thing we should be doing! Y’see, that is how young people talk to each other these days. This is how they live! Never let it be said that the BBC flinched from showing life as it really is, however uncomfortable that might be for some!’

Apparatchik, amazed: ‘So you’re quite happy with it, sir?’

Reith: ‘I most certainly am, laddie! Book them for another three series, prime time on BBC 1!’

There’s plenty of sex in Mad Men (BBC 4) as well, now back for its fourth series. I’ve tried to analyse its appeal, why I look forward so much to each episode and why I feel a sense of frustrated anticipation when it’s over. I suspect that it’s like living in someone else’s dream. While we sleep we are unsure of our identity, just like Don Draper. We float from one disconnected pleasure to another. Draper can barely meet a woman before he is in bed with her. They smoke constantly. They drink whenever they please. They eat wonderful food in expensive restaurants and wear fabulously tailored clothes. They are rich, successful and unshackled by morality, sexual or commercial. Even the music, calm and monotonous, is eerie, dreamlike. The programme is slow, often desperately slow. Sometimes whole scenes have no apparent point, or else the point is revealed only much later. Or not at all. Even the credits — silhouetted bodies falling from a skyscraper — evoke 9/11 and the memories of those who preferred to die rather than face an intolerable reality.

ITV is making a big push with its autumn drama, starting with a remake of A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, which was a hit in its 1976 incarnation, starring Frank Finlay as the dad in love with his daughter, and Susan Penhaligon as the object of his hopeless desire. In those very early days of video, people held Bouquet parties — not to engage in the same sexual combinations, like fans of Withnail and I matching the characters’ drinking — but because you couldn’t miss the show, and you also wanted a social life. So you asked your friends to come round with a bottle of wine, probably Romanian red.

Is it as good, or at least as hopelessly, guiltily captivating? Hard to say after a single episode. But they have already got one thing right: the characters are pretty intolerable: the creepy dad, the vague yet selfish daughter, her odious husband who is both sadistic and masochistic, the naggy wife, plus various smug lovers and mistresses.

In 1976 I tried to draw a cat’s cradle of all the sexual partnerships throughout the series, but it wound up looking like a cable-knit pullover. So lashings of sex (at one point Trevor Eve, the dad, sees his young assistant working at an architectural plan, and, overcome with lust, grabs her and takes her on a nearby table. It lasts about five seconds before he grunts to indicate that it’s all over and she presumably thinks, ‘Oh, well, back to the drawing board.’) and a collection of universally unsympathetic characters — what more could you possibly want?