Sticky business

Television - Andrew Billen finds little that is uplifting in the musical musings of porn stars

''You no doubt will have noticed," sniffed Richard Dimbleby, fronting a 1965 Panorama, "the growth in the number of glossy magazines in this country that are quite clearly intended for men. Here's a fairly lurid collection." The extract was replayed on Sunday's Sex Empires, just as this viewer was asking how the BBC could possibly justify offering the nation yet another TV history of sex. It was as well to be reminded that even 40 years ago the BBC was not above a little dumbed-down voyeurism.

The big difference in tone between then and now is that Sex Empires, a three-parter (Sundays, 9pm, BBC2) on the rise and - we are puzzlingly promised - fall of pornography, offered no moral evaluation whatsoever. If it did not condemn, nor did it praise. The documentary sided with the early toilers at Playboy and Penthouse who knew they were producing "wank" or "jerk-off" mags and used the technical term "excuse material" for the short stories by Asimov and wine columns by Kingsley Amis that filled the spaces between the pictures.

In the mission to aid onanism, all that changed over the decades were male preferences. The author Mark Gabor summarised that in the 1940s, readers jerked off to legs; in the 1950s, to breasts; in the 1960s, to both; and in the 1970s, to "pussy". "Then, of course, I lost touch," he said, though the documentary demonstrated that what followed pussy, so far as Hustler and Screw magazines were concerned, was vulva.

Given porn's modest objectives, the pretensions of the pornographers were quite something. Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, considered himself the very vanguard of sexual liberation (but was as phobic as Ruskin when it came to showing pubic hair on his centrefolds). Bob Guccione at Penthouse art-directed his shoots himself and made each photo-spread a soft-focus impressionist masterpiece. In retaliation, Larry Flynt's Hustler fought a class war on behalf of the tasteless taste of the rude mechanicals. Flynt so rejected the "connoisseur" model of soft porn that one Hustler literally featured naked women with paper bags over their heads. Ian Stuttard's good-humoured programme scored highest when it explored the weirdness of the porn barons. I hope it eventually discusses the degree to which that weirdness has now become the world's.

The normalisation of pornography is a subject really worth tackling. Instead, Channel 4's Pornography: the musical (21 October, 10.40pm) merely helped the process along. Paradoxically, it was a deeply abnormal film itself. The so-crazy-it-might-just-work plan was to interview women in the sex industry and get the poet Simon Armitage to turn their desperate and degraded thoughts into sad song lyrics. These toilers on the fringe of showbiz would then perform the numbers, karaoke style. Brian Hill, the director, used the same technique last year in a prize-winning documentary musical, Feltham Sings, about the young people's detention centre. It worked a treat because everyone was thoroughly miserable and the songs soared over the prison walls like the prisoners' chorus from Fidelio.

What Hill hadn't thought through this time was that any porn worker willing to sing about her trade on Channel 4 was likely to be an exhibitionist beyond even the usual demands of her calling. Such a person would not, in other words, be taking her clothes off simply for the money. So Hill found a bevy of painted beauties who gave every sign of being in it for the larks. Channel 4 had ordered a dark Sweeney Todd-style musical about the perils of the flesh trade. It got Anything Goes.

Anything certainly did. Karina Currie, website "mistress" and porn actress, who sang a jolly song about her gentleman loggers-on, drew the line at anal sex but only because "300 dicks later" she would need an operation to save her arse. Her "porn stud" boyfriend, Arran Bawn, had fewer reservations, although, as he explained in a story about douching, anal sex can be a sticky business even for chaps. Karina's mother, Lesley, listened admiringly as Bawn and Currie chatted. Lesley is currently the booby prize for quiz contestants on a digital porn channel. "Poor cow," said Karina, who obviously didn't think there was anything poor about her mum, herself or her porn stud.

Just as blithe was Faye Rampton, a horsy girl whose day job is being the star turn at "bukkake" parties, where groups of men pay to ejaculate over her. Channel 4 filmed one of Faye's dos from a disrespectful distance. It was a great success, except the venue had no shower room so Faye had to steel herself for a train ride home "looking a bit crusty". Luckily, she is not the complaining type.

Kelly Cooke, who portrayed herself as an older, wiser and semi-retired porn star, sang plaintively: "It's a bit like an X-ray/ It's a bit like Art/ But where is the heart?" But where's the heart in most business, darling? Armitage's lyrics were adequate, the performances generally less than that. The interviews between the numbers, however, were surprising and revealing. They showed a group of women who considered themselves to be on the right side of an unfathomable joke against men, albeit one Richard Dimbleby would not have found amusing.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times