10 OCTOBER 1998, Page 12


'SEX on TV,' said this magazine's editor. 'Is it true there's more of it — what with all this digital stuff?"Uh, sorry,' I replied. 'I think you've got the wrong man.' It's not that I'm prudish or anything. In my time I've watched a hard-core porn video involv- ing donkeys and pigs (the latter are partic- ularly revolting because pigs have corkscrew-shaped willies); and I once went to a live sex show in Amsterdam where a woman placed a bottle of Coca-Cola between her legs, removed the top and drank the contents (but not, ahem, using her mouth). But I can't say I derived much erotic pleasure from either experi- ence. In fact, I found it all rather depressing.

Nor, I'm afraid, can I work up much more enthusiasm about the considerably less explicit sexual activity you're allowed to see on British televi- sion. I've never watched the topless darts on Live! TV; nor have I seen Tiffany strip as she reads out her Big City Tips; I've no inclination to catch Sexanoty (the adult version of Jackanory) on the Playboy channel; and I'll always go out of my way to avoid any drama series on ter- restrial television where steami- ness is the main selling point: the recent Andrea Newman starring Samantha Janus, say, or that one by Deborah Moggach where everyone slept with everyone else until the only available option, duly explored, was the lesbian scene.

There are various reasons for this. One is that the more explicit television sex is, the less erotic it is. Another is that you really need to watch it in the company of fellow males so that you can bellow laddish things like 'Go on! Get your tits out' — some- thing I'm rarely able to do now that I'm married. But my principal objection is aes- thetic. It seems to me that the quantity of sex in any given television series is in inverse proportion to the quality of the drama: Would anyone really have watched Fay Weldon's Big Women if it hadn't kicked off with an extramarital shag and four women dancing naked in a circle?

All of which I would happily have explained to the editor, given half the chance. But he didn't want to know. He'd commissioned an amusing cover from Michael Heath, inspired by the ever- increasing quantities of wild and pervy sex we're all apparently going to be watching on television thanks to the digital revolu- tion, and he jolly well wanted his resident television 'expert' to write a piece to go with it, so there.

Still, I knew the sort of story that was needed. With the advent of digital televi- sion, there are now at least 200 new chan- nels. In a couple of decades, there may be as many as 1,000. All these will need filling by enterprising programme-makers. Many of these channels will inevitably be dedicat- ed to repeats of Upstairs Downstairs and The Onedin Line. Others will be 'narrow- casted' to various special interest groups: one for dogs and dog-lovers, another for shark obsessives, another for DIY enthusi- asts. Others still might cater for any num- ber of bizarre sexual preferences.

There might, for example, be a Rub channel for frotteurs; a Toe Jam channel for foot fetishists; the Gere channel for rodent enthusiasts; a Strap-On Channel for lesbians; and the Big Black Gay channel for big black gays. These would all be avail- able on a pay-per-view basis and, being inevitably funded by only a very small num- ber of viewers, would have all the produc- tion values of the readers' wives section of a downmarket porn mag.

That was my theory, anyway. The reality, I soon found, is rather more prosaic. Though digital television may indeed lead to a small increase in the number of sex- oriented programmes, they are unlikely to be much different from the sanitised offerings already available on terrestrial (Chan- nel 5's late-night soft porn movies) and satellite (TVX, the Adult Channel, Playboy TV) or cable (Live! TV). We might end up with a bigger choice of stripping newsreaders, naked chat shows and soft porn movies: the sort of cheap and cheerful, saucy seaside post- card erotica that goes down so well with British lads after a few pints on a Friday night. But we are in absolutely no danger as yet of being transformed into a nation of square-eyed, hard-core porn junkies.

There are two reasons for this. First, television is very expensive. Even if you wanted to set up an incredibly low-budget channel for, say, rub- ber fetishists, it would still cost around £10,000 per hour's television. You'd be unlikely to recoup much of this from adver- tising (there are only so many rubber-wear manufacturers); and there are almost cer- tainly not enough rubber fetishists out there available to cover your costs through subscriptions. On top of that you'd have to pay further vast sums to have your pro- grammes encrypted so that only people with a decoder could see them. And then you'd have to persuade a provider, Sky for example, to carry your channel and to bear the responsibility for ensuring it complied with the rules on sexual broadcasting.

And this is the second reason why there won't be a huge increase in the amount of steamy sex on television. It won't be allowed. Both the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Stan- dards Commission have strict guidelines on the degree of sexual naughtiness permitted on television: ejaculation's out; so is pene- tration; and there's even a rule on 'Engorgement and Tumescence'. These guidelines extend to anything broadcast on digital television. Any broadcaster which goes beyond the bounds of decency will be prosecuted.

Quite what these bounds of decency are, however, is left for the broadcaster to guess. How stiff does a male member have to be, for example, before it qualifies as an erection? This was one of the problems faced by Channel 4's Stuart Cosgrove when he was attempting to run a season of con- troversial films about sex on television under the title The Red Light Zone. He eventually decided that any member point- ing upwards at a greater angle than the Mull of Kintyre (look at a map) should be deemed beyond the pale. The cable chan- nel Gay TV has experienced similar prob- lems with one of its better-endowed stars. Even when limp, he gives the impression of looking unacceptably swollen.

If it's heterosexual sex you want to show, however, you seem to get an easier ride. Screenwriter Andrew Davies says he rarely encounters too much trouble with the cen- sors for his television adaptations. Bad lan- guage is usually seen as more of a serious problem than scenes involving love-making. 'Invariably you expect a certain amount of haggling. Your original script might have 45 fucks and a cunt in it. And they'll bargain you down to 15 fucks and a cunt and a half.'

He was quite cross that he wasn't allowed to show Mr Knightley and the heroine in bed at the end of his version of Emma, but that was the producer's deci- sion, not the BSC's. But he's anticipating few problems with his decision to have the rakish Captain Tilney shag Isabella in his forthcoming adaptation of Northanger Abbey for ITV, even though Austen wasn't quite so explicit in the original.

At the moment, Davies believes, televi- sion is going through a fairly permissive era. 'Blow jobs are more frequent and sex with the woman on top seems to have become practically obligatory. Perhaps this Is meant to be symbolic of women's empowerment — which is a bit of a con when you think that all the chap is doing is lying around while the woman exerts her- self.'

Probably the biggest recent landmark in television sex, he reckons, was the scene where Ferdy was buggered in the final episode of This Life. 'It was done in a self- congratulatory way — the implication being that this is a jolly good thing for any- one who feels like it. I thought that was quite a breakthrough.'

According to surveys by the ITC, the public has indeed grown more broadmind- ed about the portrayal of sex on television. Where people start complaining, apparent- ly, is when they stumble upon sex scenes when they're not expecting them. It's quite OK, for example, for Channel 4's Eurotrash to show women with huge blubbery breasts making porn movies and German foot- fetishists licking each other's rancid toes because showing depraved Euro-filth is the programme's avowed raison d'être. If that sort of thing happened before the 9 p.m. watershed on EastEnders, though, there'd be a public outcry.

But in terms of sexual permissiveness on television, Britain is still way behind the rest of Europe. In France, for example, subscribers can watch hard-core pornogra- phy on channels like Canal Plus. Over here, the only way of seeing material that strong would be to do it illegally using a special decoder. Nor is this situation likely to change in the foreseeable future. What politician in his right mind would try cam- paigning for a relaxation of the laws gov- erning hard-core pornography on television?

So I'm sorry to disappoint all those of you who turned eagerly to read this article having been seduced by Michael Heath's titillating cover but, whatever your perver- sion, it's no more likely to be catered for in the new digital age than it was in the old terrestrial, cable and satellite one.

Unless, perhaps, you get your sexual kicks from watching endless repeats, wall- to-wall documentaries about sharks and other killer animals, or very cheaply made programmes in which men with beards show you how to build your own shed. In which case you might find the advent of digital television even better than Viagra.