Hasn’t pre-watershed telly got very near the knuckle these days? I notice that Tuesday evenings are shaping up as the Battle of the Bosoms – at seven on BBC2 you can see Nigella Lawson (32G) ladling on the sauce with her current series of food porn, while at eight Anna Richardson (32F) is fronting C4’s Sex Education Show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m complaining, it’s just that the hour seems a bit early. Time was when this sort of thing would be held back to the midnight hour.
Nigella Xxxpress is a very odd show. It’s nominally a cookery show, of course, but in fact the cookery is a minor, if vital, theme. Now we know that the old-fashioned instructional cookery show has died a death except for the sainted Delia, and whether we’re watching Masterchef or Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, we expect some gimmick, hook or drama. Nay, we demand it! Nigella is probably the acme of this. Some people will, I expect, be watching for the cookery tips, but they’ll be a distinct minority. There might be a larger audience, mostly of the female persuasion, who will be watching for the lifestyle. I can see them being fascinated by Nigella’s enormous spice rack and treating this as aspirational or escapist programming, the same way people used to watch Dynasty. But mostly it’s about the sex. This is a cookery show that’s not about us wanting to eat the food, but about us wanting to fuck the cook. Or possibly both, maybe even simultaneously.
There are, I suppose, good reasons why the format is ripe for sexing up. Going way back to the Bible – or, for the scripturally challenged, you may like to think of 9½ Weeks – popular culture has drawn a very close link between food and sex, those two great pleasures of the voluptuary. It always fills you with confidence if you’re faced with a cook who obviously loves food, which is why TV cookery shows are all rich flavours rather than healthy options. And, as Jamie was saying apropos of Sarah Palin, if someone gives the impression that she has a lot of sex and enjoys it, that makes her much more attractive. In Nigella’s case, it’s the air of the devoted sensualist that’s as important as her appearance.
And this is what’s played up to so shamelessly. That’s why all the fluttering of eyelashes, flicking of hair, licking of fingers and acres of heaving cleavage. Hence, too, the Meyeresque low-angle camerawork – if you ever see Nigella in the flesh, you’re immediately surprised by how small, almost elfin, she is, because on the telly she looks like Tura Satana. (At least, her tits seem to take up three-quarters of the screen, and while substantial, they’re not that big.) And this all has to be done in a teasing, naughty-but-nice style that won’t scare off the suburban audience. It helps a lot, of course, that she’s posh. A host with the accent, demeanour and wardrobe of Jodie Marsh couldn’t pull it off. It’s quite a delicate confection, and you need the ingredients to be just right.
Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. You’re talking here about a woman who’s naturally very sexy and doesn’t need to camp it up, but it’s being laid on so thick that Nigella is increasingly coming to resemble, well, Ronni Ancona sending up Nigella. And at the end of it, you feel like you need a bath.
C4’s Sex Education Show, while definitely risqué, is actually much less lascivious. At least, while it must be said Anna Richardson is very attractive, the show is not sold on the host’s sex appeal. There is more going on than that.
The target audience is teenagers, which would explain the early time slot. And there’s a clear justification for something like this, in a context where rising teen promiscuity exists alongside monumental levels of basic ignorance of sexual health issues, among adults as well as kids. Hell, you’re in a situation where chlamydia rates are practically at epidemic levels. It seems reasonable to suppose that taking teenagers and giving them a good shake can only be a public service.
So there is actually a serious core here. Last night, for instance, was focussed on childbirth, and was quite good on women’s experiences. Last week, on STIs, was even better, as Anna showed a group of teenagers graphic photos of diseased genitalia. This had a visible, visceral impact on the kids – I’m amazed none of them puked – and if they were shocked into using condoms, this is obviously a good thing. The public service aspect of breaking down British reserve, getting useful information across and exploding old wives’ tales is managed reasonably well. Of course, with British culture being what it is and Channel 4 being what it is, there are also a fair number of daft stunts to lighten the mood. But at least the stunt quotient is kept low enough that we don’t just drift aimlessly into Eurotrash territory.
I should also say that, while I’m not too familiar with Anna Richardson, she may well be the perfect host for this sort of thing. She’s articulate, game for anything (from having an STI test to getting her bush waxed), shows a refreshing lack of vanity, is humorous without sniggering and is obviously very good indeed at talking to young people. Where have the TV bosses been hiding her?
So there you have it. The sex show actually felt cleaner than the cookery show. And both were racier than what was on after the watershed. Scheduling is a strange art indeed.