Keiser Report: it’s worse than crack, I tell you

Been a bit busy the last few days, but have no fear, for there’s more tomfoolery coming down the pipeline. But just to ease us back in, here’s some more from the best business programme on the box. Once again, Vladimir Putin’s English-language teevee channel shows that financial scandals are interesting enough that you don’t have to jazz them up with funky graphics. You just need to find an angry ex-stockbroker, point a camera at him, and let him rant. Eat your liver, Evan Davis.

Max and Stacy tell it like it is

The latest from Keiser Report, the best (and certainly most entertaining) business programme on TV today, as Max and Stacy do their established double act on all the current financial scandals. Gets especially good about eight minutes in when we broach the subject of Mr Tony Blair. Oh, and there’s a discussion about shiny metals too, but it’s in the matter of Tony Blair and JP Morgan that our host waxes wroth.

Area man not amused by Roman rumpo

Due to a passing illness – not serious but annoying – plus a few work commitments, posting has been a bit light round here lately. Normal service will resume shortly, but here’s another cracker from the Tele:

Ban Spartacus orgy filth, says DUP MLA

Say what?

A DUP MLA has called for a controversial TV series featuring extreme violence and explicit sex scenes to be banned from UK TV.

Spartacus, which is based on the world of gladiators in the Roman Empire, is so rude that campaigners are trying to block it from British screens.

Sounds intriguing…

The TV series features full-frontal nudity, extreme violence and explicit scenes of orgies.

Did I say intriguing? Positively enticing would be more like it. But of course this doesn’t fly in some local quarters:

Last night DUP Assembly Member Mervyn Storey added his voice to calls for the series to be banned in the UK.

“We have been fast going beyond the realms of taste and this series will further plunge us into the abyss,” he said.

“I have grave concerns about the content of much of our TV viewing, and this is something which I believe should not be on our airwaves.”

There’s also a quote from the late Mrs Whitehouse’s NVLA, now trading as Mediawatch, but disappointingly none from DUP culture minister Nelson McCausland, nor from the DUP’s resident film buff Jeffrey Donaldson. Perhaps they can be enticed to lend Mervyn some moral support.

Actually, one of my bugbears is that – apart from the classic I, Claudius – TV drama has not really made the most of ancient Rome’s potential. The recent BBC/HBO series Rome was fun, but it was hindered a little by actors talking like they were playing EastEnders in togas.

Senator Philo: I don’t believe I’m hearing this.

Senator Grantus: Sorted, bruv.

Caesar: Get outta my pub!

It won’t do, when we’re used to ancient Romans talking like Derek Jacobi or Patrick Stewart (although, strangely, never with Italian accents). I would also point out that the subject matter of those Pompeii wall murals would make Mervyn Storey’s hair stand on end, before you even get to the Roman authors. Juvenal is a personal favourite – he’s an extremely funny satirist if you can tolerate his repeated jibes at foreigners, gays and Jews – and there’s enough source material to be as lascivious as you like. Gladiator fights and the occasional naked cock aren’t the half of it. If Mervyn had been paying attention in Latin, he’d know this.

Mind you, if they dubbed the dialogue into Ulster Scots, the DUP could hardly object. Nelson might even dish out a grant for it.

Newspaperman shocked at existence of lesbians

I’ve been asked what I make of BBC newsreader Jane Hill coming out as gay. On one level, not very much. As long as she does her job well, I really don’t care about her sexuality. But how the story has broken in the media does have points of interest, and is worth a brief deconstruction.

Let us pass over the knuckle-dragging Sun with nary a glance – the story was aired in the national press in the first instance via Richard Kay’s gossip page in the Daily Mail. Mr Kay, in turn, picked it up by the intrepid journalistic ploy of reading the Beeb’s in-house magazine Ariel. The mag regularly runs those “personal appearance” profiles beloved of in-house mags everywhere, wherein the interviewee talks about her interests, hobbies, pets and domestic situation – partner, kids, what have you. In the normal run of things this is a hetero partner, and hence piques no interest. Jane mentioning her same-sex partner, on the other hand, is apparently newsworthy.

To tell you the truth, it’s not really a surprise. Jane’s sexuality is not exactly a state secret, and has been widely rumoured for years.[1] I do like the matter-of-factness of it, not least because it gives the lie to those who take the attitude that straight people discussing their partners is innocuous, while gay people doing the same is somehow ramming their sexuality down people’s throats. Male journalists, it seems, are making a much bigger deal of the gay woman’s sexuality than the gay woman herself. That she seems to have done this in a casual reference rather than the demonstrative coming-out that celebrities went in for twenty years ago probably demonstrates that attitudes are changing for the better.

But let us ponder awhile on Richard Kay. Any hardcore feminists reading his article will probably not be amused by his references to the “comely” Jane, who is living in “non-marital bliss” after “discovering Sapphic contentment”. I don’t take this very seriously – that cod-louche style is very much par for the course for Richard Kay. No, I was thinking there of the way he frames the opening, in terms of Jane’s many male admirers being disappointed. Now, nobody with a bit of sense really thinks there is a lesbian conspiracy to convert all the fit women – I don’t believe for a moment that Kay thinks that – but he’s touched on a point worth considering, albeit that he may not realise it.

Let’s depart from journalism for a second. In the acting profession, which is known for its advanced metrosexual attitudes, out gay men are so common as to be totally unremarkable, whilst I find it hard to think of more than a handful of out lesbians who enjoy professional success. It’s a double standard, of course, and my theory is that it has something to do with women being cast in roles on the basis of their attractiveness, and a possible prejudice that women who are known to be gay will thereby be rendered less attractive. It can’t really be a gay woman’s inability to play straight parts – think how brilliant Ian McKellen has been in innumerable heterosexual roles – and it would mesh with the old Hollywood practice of inventing rampantly heterosexual tabloid personas for male stars who in their private lives were as gay as a goose.

TV journalism is obviously not the same as acting, but it isn’t entirely different in how it selects its female stars. On his recent retirement, Peter Sissons was giving off about the “autocuties” who were achieving prominence on the news as a result of their attractiveness rather than their journalistic ability. Sissons overstated his case – there are plenty of young, telegenic presenters who are actually quite good, and for really serious stories like wars the crusty old men are still preferred – and this made him sound a bit like Ron Burgundy, but he was onto something.

There’s definitely a trend, pioneered I think by CNN in the States, to push relatively young and attractive people into prominent positions. News 24 definitely has that aspect, and a notable bias towards the blonde and skinny, with gleaming white teeth. We’re not talking here merely about the need for people working in front of a camera to be presentable – at times, and especially for women, it goes well beyond that. Take GMTV political correspondent Gloria de Piero. Gloria isn’t a joke journalist – if you’re not up at six in the morning, you can occasionally read articles by her in the New Statesman – but I was struck that GMTV proudly put a notice on their website about her being featured in the FHM Hundred Sexiest Women list. It isn’t quite Gloria’s employers issuing a press release saying “Never mind her journalistic qualifications, look at the size of those norks!”, but it’s not a million miles away.

So, in a business where the fanciability of the female anchor counts for nearly as much as her ability to read the autocue, it makes a sort of sense that the story of Jane Hill’s sexuality might be couched in the terms that Richard Kay uses. But disappointment from male admirers? Let’s try a thought experiment. I don’t often see Jane Hill on the news due to work patterns – if I switch on News 24, it tends to be late at night, when it’s often presented by the very beautiful Martine Croxall. Since Martine is married with kids, it’s a fair assumption that she’s probably straight. But if you were a gay woman who had been captivated by those big blue eyes, would knowing that make you find Martine less sexy? Not if you know the difference between reality and dreams.

To put it another way, Will Young or John Barrowman being gay didn’t stop them becoming pinups for straight women, nor has Hugh Jackman’s straightness stopped gay men fancying him. I can see where an illusion of availability or unavailabity might have some marginal significance, but we’re talking about a construct of the imagination (the person we see on our screens) as against the flesh-and-blood individual (in their real life off the screen). Unless you are a) a personal acquaintance, or b) a scary delusional stalker person, you are not really going to be thinking in terms of getting your leg over with that person off the TV. The point is that what you fancy is an idealised simulacrum. To that extent, the celebrity’s real life isn’t all that relevant, and girls with posters of Will Young on their walls are unconsciously vindicating Baudrillard.

To return, finally, to the matter-of-factness of the “outing”. I do think this shows a change in our general social mores. Think what it was like in the 1970s, when popular culture would retail us comedy poofs like Mr Humphrys but open homosexuals in public life were virtually unheard of, despite years of legalisation. That’s the context in which you have to see the sometimes melodramatic comings out in the 1980s. It was incredibly important, for instance, to have Kenny Everett be open about his struggle with Aids, because Kenny’s openness, and the love the public had for him, helped massively in breaking down taboos around Aids, as much in my opinion as public information campaigns.

I was just talking above about the increased visibility of gay men in the culture, and the relative invisibility of lesbians. I don’t want to heap any expectation on Jane Hill, and am a bit sceptical about the concept of role models, but I will say this. While it’s great to have an activist like Martina Navrátilová or Ellen DeGeneres, there is absolutely no requirement for any gay person in the public eye to be an activist. If we’re talking about what would help young gay women, an increased number of prominent and professionally successful women who just happen to be gay would be of value in itself.

[1] More precisely, it was rumoured that she was bisexual, which may or may not be true. But it scarcely matters, because to the heterosexist mindset There Are No Bisexuals – you’re one thing or the other.

No sex please, I’m the commissioning editor for drama

A while ago – well, it would be a wheen of months ago now I suppose – Greg Dyke was on the telly asking why British TV can’t make dramas like the Americans do. Greg argued, and I think he was correct in this, that the Brits do love their formulaic hospital dramas, police dramas and soaps, with the occasional costume drama thrown in. This is true – not that there’s anything wrong with TV stations producing this bread-and-butter stuff, but the real question is why the reluctance to produce things other than hospital or police dramas. It’s a good question.

Greg’s star exhibit on the other hand was the US cable outlet HBO. You may not know HBO, but you’ve surely watched some of its product, which spans The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex And The City, The Larry Sanders Show, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm, amongst many others. I know the law of imports applies here – that the best American product is imported and there are oceans of crap on the TV over there that we don’t get to see, but even so, it’s an impressive hit rate. And the thing is that what HBO is known for in the States is that, being a subscription service and not reliant on advertising, it can fill its schedules with nudiness and cuss words that the networks can’t get away with (I will return to this presently), but if you look at the programmes listed, you’re also talking about generally intelligent adult-oriented drama of the sort that has provoked the networks into raising their dramatic game.

Greg was interested to know why the BBC, with far greater resources, couldn’t produce that sort of material on a regular basis. I would guess that it has something to do with the BBC’s funding base, and its requirement to provide something for everyone, which exists in tension with the Reithian idea of giving the public what they don’t yet know they want. You get bits of this in the documentary strands on BBC4, but it’s sobering to think that Beeb bosses think of their more intelligent programming as the expendable bit. On the other hand, if the Tories get in and allow broadcasting to degenerate to the levels of Italy, we may look back on this as a golden age.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about the nudiness and cuss words, well, specifically the former.

Apropos of HBO, I’ve lately been enjoying its new series Hung, which you may want to catch if you haven’t already. The show revolves around Ray Drecker (Tom Jane, of The Punisher fame), who works as a high school basketball coach in Detroit. Ray, when we meet him, is a man down on his luck. His wife has left him. His kids have gone to live with his wife. His house has burnt down, and he’s living in a tent. He hates his life, and he has no money. Ray realises that he does have one marketable asset, and it lives in his trousers. So he decides to put his generous male organ to work and goes into business as – let’s not beat around the bush here – a male prostitute.

This is where the show could easily devolve into Deuce Bigalow territory, but really it doesn’t. What it is, is a decent if near-the-knuckle comedy-drama very much like Californication, or that old HBO classic Dream On. The humour is ribald without being crass, and the scripting is surprisingly subtle. The important point is that Ray’s knob is really just a maguffin to hang the story on – the impressive thing about Hung is how character-driven it is. Thanks not least to Tom Jane’s nicely nuanced performance in the lead, we come to care about Ray and his various problems, emotional issues and dilemmas – his self-loathing and hankering after his failed marriage in the first instance. There’s a certain amount of flesh of course, though not as much as might be expected, and if you took the flesh out – which is always a good test – you’d still have a pretty good drama.

This leads me to ponder a question somewhat at a tangent to Greg Dyke’s, which is to ask why British TV drama, with rare exceptions, can’t do sex. I’m not talking about sexual explicitness here, nor about the physical staging[1] but about the portrayal of sex in a dramatic sense. With the notable exception of the late Dennis Potter, it’s hard to think of good examples of sex being integrated into drama in an interesting or intelligent way. And although I’m cautious of cultural essentialist arguments, I have the feeling that this has something to do with inherited Puritan attitudes and particularly the close association of sex and guilt. You don’t get this in French or Italian or Spanish cinema. That old sexist reprobate Tinto Brass doesn’t do guilt, and his films are all the better for it – if they were guilt-ridden, they would be unbearable. Maybe it’s a Mediterranean thing. (In the context of Puritanism, it’s interesting that northern European culture – see Babette’s Feast for example – tends to stereotype Catholic cultures as voluptuous and sensual. I suppose this again shows how Irish Catholicism, with its strong Jansenist influence, is deeply weird in European terms.)

Another thing that doesn’t help is this tendency in British – or rather English – culture to put on a distanced, ironic, even supercilious air, and to distrust anything done with passion. To digress a little, as bad as Kate Thornton was hosting X Factor, the more accomplished Dermot O’Leary is far worse, because la Thornton was always willing to give it some welly. O’Leary tries to be as hip as he was on BBLB, but just comes across as Mr Insincerity, which is a terrible fit for the pachyderm bombast of X Factor. The lesson is that there are certain things you can’t do in a distanced way – if you’re going to do them at all, you have to do them with commitment.

Which is a roundabout way of coming to the way British drama deals with matters sexual. There is of course the vacillation between the censorious and the gratuitous – the former can be seen in something like The Vice, where those involved in the sex trade are so unremittingly grim and grotty and evil that it just sinks into this misanthropic mire. But there are also the two key dramatic paradigms. The most straightforward is the Bouquet Of Barbed Wire paradigm, which quite obviously draws on issues of guilt and concerns of respectability, and which ends with the moral lesson that the character of loose virtue (which is almost invariably to say, the promiscuous woman) must be punished for upsetting the social mores.[2]

This is why I didn’t like the BBC’s Mistresses, billed as the British Sex And The City. I don’t like SATC much either[3], but the whole point of it was surely the lack of guilt – Samantha shags her way through New York and has a ball doing so; she has her share of heartbreak, but that isn’t set up as a heavy-handed punishment for her promiscuity, and if aspects of her life are empty, then she’s learned to cope with that. On the other hand, Mistresses, although it had an excellent cast (I’ll watch Sarah Parish in just about anything), high production values and decent writing, couldn’t escape suburban moralism. You had these nice, prosperous women with their nice jobs and nice families and nice houses and nice bits on the side – and the whole story revolved around how miserable they were. Thirty seconds of a woman indulging in some illicit rumpo would be followed by twenty minutes of her sitting around with her friends, drinking red wine and moaning about how miserable she was. Maybe there was a female thing I was missing, but unless you’re Dostoyevsky there’s a limit to how much dramatic mileage you can get from people being eaten up by guilt, especially when there’s not all that much to justify the guilt. Sometimes, and by this point my attention may have been wandering, the women seemed to be wallowing in guilt over sins they hadn’t committed, which is taking the Puritanism just a teensy bit too far.

The other dramatic paradigm is of course the Carry On paradigm, which is more widespread than you might think. This isn’t, by the way, incompatible with the guilt scenario. The important thing about the Carry On films and their 1970s offspring was that coitus was permanently interruptus, and much of the humour derived from Sid and the other lecherous old blokes failing to get their leg over. Moreover, a bit of Donald McGill saucy humour can work well as a means of sidestepping (not challenging) a puritanical culture.

So there is of course the direct line of descent from Carry On through the Confessions series and other 1970s sex comedies[4]; to shows like the late lamented Eurotrash, which almost seems like nice clean fun in this age of Babestation; and indeed into modern British porn – Ben Dover’s character is basically Sid James with a camcorder, and the Omar series is essentially constructed in terms of Robin Askwith movies with real shagging[5]. But the influence of the Carry On aesthetic goes well beyond that, even into the realms of costume drama – The Tudors has more than a hint of the classic Carry On Henry about it, and the recent Desperate Romantics partook of the same approach. Even if you take the BBC’s adaptation of Fanny Hill, which had fantastic source material plus the reliable Andrew Davies on script duty, there was a pronounced undertone of Carry On Up The Brothel. ITV, on its occasional breaks from Lynda La Plante police procedurals, sometimes does a “raunchy” drama, usually starring Suranne Jones, and they invariably fall into the Carry On mode.

So, there is a huge swathe of human experience that is habitually treated as either a nail to hang moral lessons, or as an occasion for nudge-nudge wink-wink tomfoolery. This doesn’t leave much space for other interpretations. Maybe it’s me, but I find that an approach of at least moral ambivalence – the way the prostitution in Hung, like the gangsterism in The Sopranos, is not taken as the subject for a treatise but as a window onto our protagonist’s character – works better dramatically. I say this not in a prescriptive way, but in the sense that cliché is the enemy of good character-driven drama.

There are two other points that are worth flagging up. One is an aesthetic point, in that the dominant mode on TV is naturalistic, as exemplified on the soaps. Obviously this is not documentary but a faux naturalism, and is a very stylised aesthetic in itself. And it’s an aesthetic that draws a lot on the theatre, in being very dialogue-heavy and plot-heavy. You can of course get this in the cinema, but cinema is a different medium and different aesthetics work well in it, especially with a heaviness on the visual and a willingness to tolerate periods of silence. Some American TV dramas – Without A Trace comes to mind – are moving towards a more cinematic style, and the HBO phenomenon has encouraged that, but it still hasn’t really filtered across the Atlantic. And the cinema’s visual aspect means it can draw not only on the theatre, but also on the aesthetics of (say) painting, or more often photography.

As you art buffs will know, both painting and its offspring photography deal in large part with the human nude, and this is an aesthetic of form.[6] Apart from a few extreme moral puritans or radical feminists, not many people have a problem with it. But such is the theatrical influence that it still feels odd if that attitude is translated into moving pictures. The cliché is that nudity must not be gratuitous but must be justified by the plot. Let’s say you are a film director and you have Kelly Brook in your cast – how do you justify getting her naked? To stay respectable, you have to use some plot device. Actually, Kelly Brook has been naked in a few films, not very good ones, where some flimsy plot device has been found. But a film director who just said that Kelly Brook looks beautiful naked and he wanted to capture that on screen – that comes across as a bit off, even though it would be perfectly acceptable from a still photographer.

So it goes. Tinto Brass has a reputation as a sleazy old perv, and maybe he is a sleazy old perv, but is what he’s doing essentially all that different from Lucian Freud’s painting? His film Miranda is essentially an extended study of Serena Grandi’s naked form – it’s the fact that it’s in moving pictures and not stills that’s the issue. An analogous example from the Anglophone world would be Nicolas Roeg’s infamous Full Body Massage, which consists of little more than Bryan Brown and Mimi Rogers talking philosophy as Brown rubs oil into Rogers’ breasts. The camera’s lingering on Rogers’ body is an absolutely photographic aesthetic – and it’s no coincidence that Roeg is a cinematographer by background – it’s just not something we’re really used to in film, still less in TV.

Finally, there’s also the question of what you’re trying to say – or if you’re trying to say anything. If you like the commedia all’italiana of the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll know that it’s not just a matter of saucy humour – many of the directors, writers and actors were communists, and had some things they wanted to say about Italian society, bourgeois morality, corruption, religion and so on. To go downmarket, the German B-movie genre of nunsploitation relies on some sort of critique of Catholic morality and sexual repression – well, all right, it’s mostly about actresses in nuns’ habits getting their tits out, but there wouldn’t be much point if it didn’t tap into some social attitudes, if it wasn’t subversive or satirical in some way.

Possibly part of this relates to the consequences of sexual liberation. What used to be transgressive is now commonplace. In the 1970s a drama like Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, centred around extra-marital sex and illegitimacy, could be considered risqué. In times gone by, homosexuality could be used to shock, but now it’s almost totally mainstream. There aren’t many taboos left, and it’s much harder to work in a shock factor. Actually, in strict terms, that may not be a bad thing – if you can’t reach for an easy shock factor, that could create an incentive to write something imaginative. But again, it depends on programme-makers being creative rather than lazy, and on having something to say. American TV drama shows that’s possible – British TV drama is a bit dispiriting at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine that the potential isn’t out there. If only it could be put to some use.

Tangential to this, there’s an interesting discussion of porn over at AVPS.

[1] There is the perennial problem, experienced by everyone from novelists to pornographers, of how to actually present a sex scene that isn’t hackneyed. As gonzo porn auteur Ben Dover says, at this point in his life he can’t tell whether that last anal scene was any good, because it looks indistinguishable from any one of the last hundred he’s done.

[2] This finds expression in the iron rule of horror movies, that the girl who shows most skin dies first, and the one who keeps her top on survives at the end.

[3] My basic objection to SATC is that it’s shoehorning female characters into a gay male fantasy. But then again, millions of women love it. Go figure.

[4] At this point one recalls veteran pornographer David McGillivray quipping that he started to agree with Mary Whitehouse at that point in the 70s when you couldn’t go to the cinema without seeing Robin Askwith’s naked arse. Mind you, it’s not as if McGillivray raised the tone much himself.

[5] Omar’s faithfulness to the Askwith template is remarkable. The basic plot is that Omar finds himself in a situation, like joining a gym or becoming a door-to-door salesman; he meets a woman and engages in some saucy dialogue; he and the woman shag; immediately after the pop shot, there is a loud banging on the door from the woman’s husband/boyfriend/dad; Omar has to flee, running with his knees up in the air like he’s in a Madness video.

[6] We must emphasise here, the classic approach is to examine the whole form – not some airbrushed beauty, but a whole that incorporates the imperfections.

Meet the well-known serious actor, Mr Ben Dover


BBC4’s Rich Man, Poor Man has consisted of a slightly odd pair of documentaries, a sort of cousin to Secret Millionaire, about materially successful men getting to a point in their life where they are pondering what they’ve achieved and what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. The first subject was self-made publishing tycoon Sir John Madejski, who made his money with Auto Trader. I must confess to not knowing very much about Madejski, but then I’ve never been to Reading. Madejski, in a rather touching show of local patriotism, has put an enormous amount of money into regenerating Reading; but, as is the way with these things, this means that almost everything in Reading, from the football stadium down, is named after Madejski. One immediately thought of the way Castlereagh Council keeps naming its public buildings after Peter Robinson.

Nonetheless. I didn’t feel the programme really worked in terms of giving an insight into Madejski. The guy seems to have an interesting family history, which wasn’t given much play, and how he’d made his money was likewise skated over. And while Madejski is evidently quite a prickly character, the voiceover was so sarcastic one actually started to feel a bit sorry for the Tory tycoon. Generally, the feeling was of a lost opportunity.

But it was the second documentary in the series that appealed to this blog’s unfailing instinct for the lowest common denominator, as we spent an hour in the affable company of Lindsay Honey. Probably the name Lindsay Honey doesn’t mean much to you, but if I mention gonzo porn auteur Ben Dover, you’ll likely nod in recognition. The two are in fact one and the same. (I know Lindsay Honey sounds like a porn name, but it’s actually his real name.) So we meet Lindsay at the difficult age of 52, having spent the majority of his life in the adult industry, and reaching something of a crossroads.

The starting point is that porn isn’t what Lindsay wanted to do in the first place. He’d started out as a musician, had some ephemeral success with that, then drifted into porn as he found himself between careers. He would have preferred straight acting, but found he had a knack for porn, then made a success of it. And now, he’s got plenty of money, a lovely big house, flash cars and shelves full of porn industry awards. He’s respected – nay, lionised – by his peers. But he’s not content with that. For one thing, his success means he has far too much time on his hands. For another, he’s approaching that age where he physically won’t be able to do what he’s made his living at all these years. He could, he supposes, sit around the house drinking beer and annoying the hell out of his wife and kid. (And there was a missed opportunity there in that Linzi Drew didn’t appear. She always gave good interviews, and her telling her other half to catch himself on would have added something.) Or, he could try something else. And this is where his ambition to prove himself as a straight actor comes in.

The journey was a lot of fun, although the (again) sarcastic narration in the Nick Broomfield style was a bit of a distraction. Old Lindsay is an engaging character and an accomplished raconteur, he doesn’t take himself at all seriously – which is sort of a prerequisite for the Broomfield style to work well – and you were involved enough to be interested in his journey. In fact, there was a surprising amount of pathos there, as a morose Lindsay contemplated the state of modern porn and said he wished it was still illegal. He doesn’t seriously mean that – after all, he did time under the Obscene Publications Act – but I got where he was coming from. In the old days of illegality, there was only a smallish amount of product coming from a handful of swashbuckling producers. Today, not only is the romanticism gone, but there is this enormous glut of porn, mostly of terrible quality, and particularly in Lindsay’s gonzo niche, where any bozo with a camcorder can make a movie, and the temptation is strong to use more extreme imagery to cover up for a lack of quality.

So it would be fair to say that Lindsay has mixed feelings about his business, and that’s what informs him as he tries to decouple Lindsay Honey from Ben Dover and try his hand at legitimate acting. Thus we got the best bits of the film, in Lindsay’s interactions with his acting coach. The thing is that Lindsay obviously has some natural acting ability – he’s created and spent twenty years playing a popular character, the mullet-haired, anally fixated cheeky chappie Ben Dover. But, while he’s made a living exposing himself physically in a way most actors couldn’t do, he’s never exposed himself emotionally, and you can see the stress he goes through trying to go through an acting lesson without resorting to the cheeky wink to camera. Quickly he discovers that trying to master the process of acting is actually bloody hard work.

And so, this raises the question of whether he’s willing to stick with his new project, or just lapse back into his comfort zone of presenting porn awards and lending presence to the Ben Dover stall at Erotica. Another obstacle is trying to convince anyone in legitimate acting that he’s worth bothering with – despite there being a shortage of male actors of his age, most agents aren’t interested when they hear of his porn background. He eventually does get two wonderfully condescending female agents to give him a chance, and their comments are revealing. They don’t care about his background, but they are quick to pick up on how nervous he is and on his lack of training. Despite noting his natural charisma, it’s the nerviness that worries them, and convinces them that he would have trouble getting past an audition.

So that’s the set-up, and it’s this tension that keeps us with our protagonist to the end, cheering him when he shows application and cursing him when he’s just being lazy. Towards the end, Lindsay is virtually in tears when the great Ken Russell remarks that he has some potential; but then the next day, it’s back to the comfort zone. An entertaining ride, then, and now I wish I’d seen the Ben Dover one-man show at Edinburgh.

On related notes, there’s a consideration of the economics of porn at AVPS, and some thoughts on sex-positive feminism at Unknown Conscience.

How casting works (at least for women)


On the face of it, Strictly Come Dancing doesn’t have much in common with MasterChef, and stylistically they couldn’t be further apart. But the reason why I find both of them compulsive viewing has a lot to do with the way they get the basics right. There is an arc whereby the contestants develop their skills. There are meaningful tasks meant to test those skills. And there are credible judges.

The desire for credible judges may spin out of the BBC’s slightly snooty attitude to reality shows, but it works. Over on the third channel, one might chuckle at the thought of Cheryl Cole (the weakest singer in Girls Aloud, which is really saying something) judging a singing contest. Or there is the stunning absurdity of Piers Moron judging a talent show. But we all know the shows from the Cowell stable are panto, and they don’t really pretend to be otherwise.

Strictly is different, in that yes, it’s an entertainment show – as the partisans of John Sergeant pointed out at tedious length last year – but it also has some substance to it, not least thanks to the high-powered judges, who are not only experienced professional dancers themselves but serious experts in the field. You have ballroom maestro Len Goodman, proprietor for many years of his own dance school; award-winning theatrical choreographer Craig Revel Horwood; pop video specialist Bruno Tonioli, who’s worked with Michael Jackson amongst others; and yes, choreography legend Arlene Phillips. For readers of a certain age, Arlene may be best known for this:

but she’s not simply a relic of the 1970s. To this day, any time you go into the West End, it’s a fair bet that there’ll be a big Arlene Phillips show on. If there’s a revival of Guys and Dolls or Saturday Night Fever, you can be pretty sure that she’ll have a hand in it.

But you see what I mean, having a heavyweight panel adds something to it. To have these guys criticise or praise your dancing is worth so much more than, say, Piers Moron saying you can’t sing. (The proper response to which should be, “Come up here and have a go yourself, matey.”) You know the way the most emotionally charged bit of the MasterChef final is when they cook for a room full of top French chefs? It works on the same principle – people who are experts in the field are the ones most worth listening to.

So why is it that Arlene Phillips is being ditched from the Strictly judges’ panel in favour of 2007 winner Alesha Dixon? To be fair, this isn’t a total travesty, in that Alesha is a very good dancer, and she’s warm and personable enough to bring something to the show. However, one has to question what her judging credentials are, in terms of her experience and technical knowledge. And in a way, that’s a hazard of having a high-powered panel – sat beside the other three, there’s a very clear danger she’ll look like a lightweight being carried by the others.

Why, then, the move? The Beeb say it’s all about refreshing the brand, but many viewers have pointed out that it only seems to be Arlene – a well-preserved 66 – who needed refreshing. There has been no move to replace Messrs Goodman, 65, Tonioli, 53, or Revel Horwood, 44, with younger models. And of course Bruce Forsyth, 81, remains in situ as host. (Sorry Vernon, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.) What’s more, this whole affair comes on the back of a long line of complaints from female broadcasters about how women of a certain age find it difficult to get a fair crack of the whip. Why is it that “refreshing the brand” always seems to mean the older woman getting rolled over?

It’s also possible, I suppose, that after last year’s big row, when a lot of viewers took against acid-tongued Arlene for her pointed criticisms of John Sergeant’s crap dancing, that some executive somewhere thought it would be a good idea to repair the damage by ditching the panel member who had taken the most stick from the public. All the same, it looks just a bit too much like Cheryl Cole being drafted in to replace Sharon Osbourne. And the funny thing is, since Strictly has had no trouble attracting contenstants as beautiful as Lisa Snowdon or Kelly Brook, there is absolutely no need to glam up the panel.

In related news, we’re still waiting for ITV to confirm who will be replacing Fern Britton on the This Morning sofa. While there has been no formal announcement, the smart money is on the big job going to former kids’ TV presenter Holly Willoughby, who is pleasant enough but has no experience in hosting a talk show. Why is it that, when her former Ministry of Mayhem co-presenter Stephen Mulhern is marooned on Animals Do The Funniest Things, Holly is enjoying such a meteoric rise up the televisual pecking order? I’ll give you two guesses:


It’s possible, even likely, that there are experienced female broadcasters out there who are not amused at the idea of Holly’s norks beating them to a big presenting job. But they will probably stay quiet if they want to work for ITV in the future.

Of course, the really shocking examples of this casting theory are to be found on News 24. But that’s another story.

Richardson contra pornographiam


And so we’ve had Channel 4 bringing back their smash hit Sex Education Show, starring Anna Richardson, or “that mad sex woman” as she’s now known up our way. I dealt in passing with the last series, but here I just want to ponder the show in a bit more detail, and some of the issues it’s brought up.

Firstly, what’s right with it. A lot of the show’s success does really depend on the presenter, and la Richardson is tailor-made for this sort of thing. She’s no-nonsense without being unsympathetic, and has a natural ability for talking to young people. She also seems game for just about any wacky stunt the producers throw her way, which is maybe why I do have some misgivings about it. The thrust of the show may be educational, but this is C4, so the powers that be (I’m guessing middle-aged blokes in the commissioning department) want it to be Phun. That means a self-conscious wackiness often veering into Eurotrash territory, which does sometimes clash with the serious tone in other segments.

But maybe that’s fitting, because this series is billed as Sex Education vs. Pornography. We’re talking here about how the rampant pornographication of popular culture rubs up against the traditional prudishness and prurience of respectable British culture. As our host kept repeating, 90% of teenagers had seen porn and 30% claimed to be using it for educational purposes. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that things have changed qualitatively since the days when teenage boys would pass around top-shelf magazines, and the Auntie Jayne column in Escort was about as near to sex education as anything you could find.

Of course, the net has changed things massively in terms of quantity. Porn is much more accessible now, in no more time than it takes a teenager to click “Yes, I am 18” on a computer screen. And yes, much more extreme material is readily available online, stuff that fifteen or twenty years ago you would really need to search for. Although, from the sniggering of the boys talking about bestiality or coprophilia, and bearing in mind what teenage boys are like, I suspect that their downloading of these clips and passing them round on their mobiles has more to do with the gross-out factor than any actual arousal, the same way kids of a previous generation used to dare each other to watch video nasties.

And yet, this huge amount of explicit material still goes hand in hand with stunning ignorance in matters of sexual health and even basic biology. It was amusing to notice that the teenage boys, voracious consumers of porn though they may be, still didn’t know how to locate the clitoris. Probably that says something about most porn’s lack of attention to female arousal. Other clues are that teen pregnancy remains at very high levels, and chlamydia is almost endemic amongst British teenagers, when you would expect them to be better informed than ever. There is probably more sex education in schools than ever before, but it clearly isn’t doing the job; condoms are readily available, but kids don’t seem to know how to use them. Whether this is the crisis it’s hyped up as, I don’t know, but it seems obvious that something is wrong somewhere. I suspect, though, that it’s got at least as much to do with the culture as the availability of porn.

This, of course, is where Richardson and her crack team of health professionals come in, with frank advice for the kids. A particular highlight is seeing their faces when confronted with graphic pictures of the outcome of gonorrhea or syphilis, a shock tactic that military doctors have applied to good effect for decades. But it’s this more worthy material that doesn’t sit too comfortably with the wackiness, and perhaps demonstrates why Antoine de Caunes isn’t presenting.

It is true that the influence of porn can be seen, particularly when it comes to body image. 45% of the girls surveyed were unhappy with their breasts. Some 27% of the boys admitted to being insecure about their cocks, and presumably the other 73% were lying. It was predictable, if depressing, that when the boys were shown pictures of ten pairs of breasts, all of them chose the single fake pair as the most attractive. It was much more depressing when the girls did likewise – with all the eating disorders about, they really don’t need more unrealistic images to live up to. And, as one might expect, everyone regarded pubic hair as somehow gross and abnormal – not something that you start out with and can choose to remove or not, according to taste.

There was, mind you, one of the stunts that worked quite well. This was when our foxy presenter got a porn star makeover. This involved fake nails; fake eyelashes; fake tan; about a yard of hair extensions; waist painfully corseted; tits hoisted up to throat level; and enough mascara to put Alice Cooper to shame. And all topped off with an outfit straight out of Footballers’ Wives. This led Anna to say, “I feel like a slag.” Then she went out on the street, noticed the stares and whistles, and started to see why some women get a kick out of dressing that way. Her insouciance lasted until the vox pops, when the punters said that she looked “up for it”, and, on being shown a picture of her in her normal state, that they found that much more attractive. Aww. (And they were right, too.)

What was interesting about that was that the vox-popped punters were older – not middle-aged necessarily, but past school age. And this is why I tend to be a little more sanguine about whether there’s a crisis. Get together a group of fifteen-year-olds, ask them about sex, and you’ll get all sorts of strange ideas and attitudes. By the time they’re 25, most of them will have outgrown most of those attitudes. The question is, whether they do themselves any damage in the interim, and this is where decent education comes in. I have a feeling Anna Richardson may be trying to turn the tide back, but one can only salute her indefatigability.

Postman Pat

You know, I never realised Spitting Image was still running in France. But it’s nice to see Olivier Besancenot keeping the old profile up.

It’s a flipping travesty, that’s what it is…


I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Dancing On Ice. Oh yes. This is shaping up to be Strictly: The Revenge, with Coleen Nolan in the Sarge’s role.

Mind you, it’s hard to stay annoyed, because there are enough ridiculous things about DOI that would really annoy you if you took it seriously. Schofield’s decibel level, for one. Tony Gubba’s overwrought commentary, for another. An unfeasibly rowdy audience that boos any score below a 4.5 and on occasion has been known to actually shout the judges down. And Holly. Oh God, Holly. Normally you’re left wondering how she can wear so little while stood next to an ice rink, but at least advanced pregnancy has curtailed that. But we still get the “Jaaason, why only a three?” Which is a silly question – as he’s the low-scoring judge, if I were a contestant, he’s the one whose points I’d value the most.

Oh, and I still can’t figure out what Ruthie Henshall is doing there, except that she replaces that Russian woman with the thick accent. I understood what the Russian woman was saying, but Holly evidently didn’t, and the one thing you don’t want is for Holly to be just stood there grinning vacantly. At least any more than she does in the normal course of things.

All right, so last night our local standard-bearer Zoe Salmon got eliminated. I’m a little scundered about this, partly because she’s one of the very few people on TV who talks like me, but mainly because she was one of the really good performers. I stress here, I don’t blame the judges for their final decision, because Jessica gave the better performance in the skate-off, and our girl was very gracious in bowing out. The fault, if there is any, belongs to the Great British Public for putting two of the top three in the bottom two. With only five in the field, one of the top three in the skate-off was always likely, but two leaves you wondering what the electorate is playing at. But not wondering for long, as it basically boils down to women who fancy Donal McIntyre and women who identify with Coleen Nolan.

There have been a couple of things this year that have left me a little uneasy. One is that wee lad from X Factor who looks like Eddie Munster and who, with his ballet training and his rollerblading, has been so far ahead of the field from day one that it isn’t even funny. I’ll allow that the Eddie Munster kid has put on a good show, although I’ve not warmed to him, mainly because he gives the impression that he’d be happier leaving the partner behind and just skating solo. The other thing is that you’ve had Coleen appearing on Loose Women five days a week and essentially using it as a platform to appeal for votes. I don’t blame her for availing of the opportunity, I just note that it’s an advantage no other competitor has.

But, leaving aside the suspicion that the weakest contestant keeps getting put through at the expense of better performers because of her popularity on another show, there is something here redolent of the Sarge’s run on Strictly. One thing that was brought up then was that this scenario would be unimaginable on Dancing With The Stars in the States. Over there, if you put in a bad performance, you’re off. I think this has something to do with a cultural difference that you often see reflected in sports, which is that America doesn’t really have this identification with the plucky underdog. There is a very strong theme in American culture of celebrating excellence; there is a very strong theme in British culture of celebrating the endearingly crap, which sometimes goes as far as actually putting down achievement.

But then, I have this purist streak where I like to be entertained by good performances, and I find limited entertainment in a middle-aged woman struggling to stay upright when good performers are going out. She seems nice, and she’s trying hard, and you do feel the urge to give her a big hug for her efforts, but I still wouldn’t vote for her. But, although I think it’s a shame that these things are turned into personality contests, we have to face the fact that that’s what they are for the majority of voters.

To be honest, on that basis, I think Coleen should win the show outright. When you make the public the final arbiters, there’s a populist logic that kicks in – the same as those TV awards where the public used to vote David Jason the best actor every year, whether he’d done anything or not. The show’s producers are surely aware of this, and one assumes that Coleen was invited on in the first place because of her appeal to women of a certain age. If that’s where they are starting off, I’d like her to win just to see those guys can put her victory in their pipe and smoke it.

But I’m only saying that because I don’t take it seriously. If I did take it seriously, I really would be annoyed.

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