Trouble in the bedroom

Radio 4's sex season is disappointingly tame - nor does it tell us anything new

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Sadism, sadomasochism, buggery, fellatio, cunnilingus, coprophilia, necrophilia, pornography, prostitution, masturbation, paedophilia. It's amazing what Radio 4 listeners don't get up to, isn't it? But then the anonymous interviewees for the Thursday morning slot in the Sex Lives of Us season (13 September, 9am) did not even let on if they knew what the word orgasm meant. The producer of this documentary, Erin Riley, and reporter, Sara Parker, managed to find some of the most zipped-up interviewees imaginable for what the Radio Times unsmuttily called an "oral snapshot of sexual attitudes in Britain today". Radio Phwoar? Radio Snore, I'd say.

Admittedly, my expectations may have been unduly raised by having just read (see Books, page 58) Julian Clary's excitable contribution to dick lit, Murder Most Fab. Admittedly, too, the opening episode of this two-part documentary dealt with "Old Age to Fortysomething" - presumably for the second part they'll find at least one youngster who has difficulty keeping his pants on. But it was a dismal start to Radio 4's so-called sex season, even by the standards of a station whose daily soap, you will recall, last year sustained a long, agonised double-adultery plot-line in which neither the husband nor the wife ended up having sex with anyone except each other.

Nearly 60 years ago, Alfred Kinsey reported to a shocked world that 10 per cent of men were gay, that half had committed some form of adultery, and that half responded erotically to being bitten. Compare this sensational stuff from the repressed 1940s to the homosexual on this Radio 4 doc who complained that one lover kept biting him "by accident" and so "the relationship came to an end", or the woman who said that she and her husband preferred not to confine sex to the bedroom and sometimes made the beast with two backs on the edge of the sofa "when Heartbeat's on". The nearest thing to a naughty story was the one about the boy who woke up while his parents were having sex and wanted to know, when she came into his room, why Mummy was squeaking. Answer: she was wearing PVC beneath her dressing gown. OK, that was a little kinky, but putting the kid in the picture turned into a scene from Everyone Loves Raymond.

Among the conclusions we were left to draw was that sex slows down the longer a marriage endures and that most people value "other things" about their relationship more than the sex. And, anyhow, we are all different. There were, I'll concede, a couple of touching moments. A 70-year-old worried about her sagging bits and pieces met a man who made her face a full-length mirror and reassured her she was beautiful. A husband recalled making love to his wife on the eve of her mastectomy. But on the whole the contributors either had little to say or, despite their anonymity, kept their secrets to themselves.

Things pepped up a bit later in the morning when Tom Robinson's Gay Times (11.30am) recounted cultural responses to homosexuality in the years following the 1957 Wolfenden report. This was really a midweek version of the Archive Hour, but it contained some good moments. Closeted Dirk Bogarde claimed that after playing a married, non-effeminate gay lawyer in Victim, one of the first films ever to use the word homosexual, the only complaints he got were about his greying sideburns. An unnamed female don on a 1960 edition of The Brains Trust, seeking to rationalise why male homosexuality was illegal but not lesbianism, concluded that it was because male homosexuals had absented themselves from procreation whereas women could always, historically, be forced. Robinson sneered but, as anthropological theories go, it sounded no nuttier than many.

Peripherally, around the Sex Lives of Us set pieces, the regular schedules looked, as the woman said, spicier. On The Choice (11 September, 9am), Michael Buerk was due to interview a convicted paedophile and his wife. Dr Mark Porter's Case Notes the same day (9pm) was down to examine sexual dysfunction. But when, I was left wondering, did anyone last get an erection listening to frigid old Radio 4?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

The Wire: Donna Love Bite
15 September, 9.30pm, Radio 3
A good date turns bad in this drama about teenage kicks.

Great Lives: Brian Clough
18 September, 4.30pm, Radio 4
Matthew Parris doesn't seem to think his was.

19 September, 11.15pm, Radio 4
Mid-life despair among the lock-ups.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How the Americans misled Blair over Iraq