Review: Sex and Sensibility, BBC 4

Set against political scandal, mass immigration and growing cultural hysteria, this three-part BBC d

Despite, being a dazzling time full of progress and change, as the turning of a new century loomed, drug abuse, sexual deviance and syphilis were rife. Europe in the late 1800s was a hot bed of radical ideas and “there were also more ominous undercurrents”. Indeed, as Smith points out Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, at art nouveau’s height.

The first episode, broadcast last Thursday, explores the rise and fall of this flamboyant decorative style from it’s emergence in the Bohemian underbelly of Paris onto the streets of the city, giving us an insight into both the flourishing aesthetic of art nouveau and the lives of some of the city’s most glamorous and controversial fin de siècle figures.

Smith looks at the iconic, sensual images of actress Sarah Bernhardt, the exclusive architecture of the famous Maxim’s restaurant, Paris’s art nouveau metro stations as well as the exquisitely gaudy beauty of jewellery designed by Renee Lalique. But Smith’s exploration of this decadent world is  not just a flick through the picture books, as he reveals how some of art nouveau's stars risked their reputation to give meaning and purpose to work they thought would affect social change.

In Episode two Smith shifts his exploration to Britain wherein the “sensuality of exotic foreign influences met the genius of British craftsmanship”. Our art nouveau heritage is excavated revealing the “meteoric”, “dazzling”, “controversial” yet brief career of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley whose illustrations and association with Oscar Wilde scandalised the British public of the day. Smith also looks at the work of William Morris and Charles Rene McKintosh as well as lesser-known talents such as Margaret Macdonald.

Episode three, airing on Thurdsay 5th April, will see Smith journeying to Vienna to take a look at the master of art nouveau, Gustav Klimt.

The series uncovers glimpses into the world of art nouveau. Through visits to their private houses, previously unseen collections of their work and interviews with their enthusiasts, Smith talks engagingly and intriguingly about this fashion fad that disappeared almost as fast as it emerged. Whether you are a fan of the art nouveau style or not, the scandalous lives of its fin de siècle’s participants more than makes up for its over-the-top and whimsical aesthetics.

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Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.