Talking dirty

Television

Location, location, location, the estate agents say. This column reports this week from two undesirable locations, the first a small English town crippled by sexual repression, the second a big American city in the throes of unparalleled permissiveness.

The League of Gentlemen, which concludes on BBC2 on Monday (9.30pm), is a bizarre sitcom set in Royston Vasey, a grim-fronted town somewhere northern and moorish. Its subject is provincialism at its most perverted. Royston Vasey abhors E M Forster's suggestion that we only connect, its citizens festering in paranoia about the outside world and, indeed, one another. Up above the main drag, the owners of the remote "Local Shop", who greet customers with the hostile gambit "This is a local shop - we'll have no trouble here", campaign tirelessly against a new road. Down in the housing estates below, Benjamin, visiting on a walking holiday, is confined to his uncle and aunt's home, where telephone use is feared and restricted like a controlled drug.

The insularity has incubated the town's repressions and secrets. The shopkeeper's wife explains her "insides are all wrong", but there is nothing much right about her outwardly either. Benjamin's uncle, Toad-Faced Renton, obsesses on his young lodger's alleged association with "Madam Palm and her five lovely daughters". Babs, the hirsute male cabby, fantasises about choosing "internal protection over towels", misunderstanding quite what a sex-change operation can deliver. Asked to say the first thing that comes into her head when she hears the word "love", Pauline, the officious training officer at the Job Centre, snaps back: "No." Even the butcher is a purveyor of forbidden desire, an offally bag of something or other kept under the counter.

Managing to stitch together such varied sketch material into a narrative is a feat in itself, as if The Fast Show had fused with Stella Street. But the League has a darker pallet than either. This week a dull-voiced guide to the local Stump Hole Cavern ("named after a crippled prostitute who plied her trade there in the 17th century") hinted at a disastrous previous expedition. "I myself sleep with the light on now," he told the tourists. "It's in the darkness I see the boy's face." Expendable, too, are animals: slaughtered sheep, eviscerated cows, vacuum-punched tortoises and melted toads litter Royston Vasey.

When I saw the League perform on the Edinburgh Fringe two summers ago, I noticed Ronnie Corbett in the audience. At the end he went up to congratulate them. In a perfect world, he would have found their review - well, too egregious, and walked out. The series is as slick as you could hope, but not quite as sick as it thinks. Forewarned, count the cop-outs next week.

Darren Star's Sex and the City (Channel 4, Wednesday, 10pm) presents an alternative hell, one of disinhibition. It stars four thirtysomething women charging around Manhattan looking for scalps of rich men. Jobs, families and even friendships are all secondary to them, and certainly to this single-track sitcom from the American cable network HBO. The jargon is hot: a Toxic Bachelor is a good-looking cad; a Modelizer is a man who dates only supermodels; a Martini with a Twist is a cute but gay man. Men are the enemy but, as in the more progressive war movies, this doesn't make the other side the good guys (or gals).

Ably lead by Sarah Jessica Parker as the journalist Carrie, these amazons objectify men, commodify relationships and use sex as a weapon in a power game. Faced with "nice men" they close down quicker than their ThinkPads. "Sean," said Carrie this week, "is the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a DKNY dress. You know it's not your style but it's right there so you try it on anyway." Passed on to a friend, he is later "let go" for expressing a preference for American Classic tableware.

Much has been written about what Sex and the City tells us about the sex war. I'd suggest it has about as much to say about 1990s dating as The League of Gentlemen does about rural deprivation. But that is less of an objection than its formal problems. There is so much voice-over work that you'd think Parker was reading from a book. This is what she is doing, for S and the C is based on the collected columns of the soi-disant sexual anthropologist Candace Bushnell in the New York Observer. In consequence, the better jokes come from the narration, not the acting.

By making each week's episode an illustrated essay on dating rather than a fully realised screenplay, the writers have travelled in the opposite direction from Joseph Heller, who in 1964 adapted Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl for Hollywood. Heller turned the self-help manual into a romantic farce for Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis. I'm not sure if the current approach works any better. The best that can be said for progress is that Carrie at least is in no danger of being unfrocked as a virgin, which is what happened to the fictionalised Dr Brown. Interesting, though, isn't it, that both scripts were written by men?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

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 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers