The Sex Researchers (Channel 4)

Today's nosy-parker sexologists make for unconvincing viewing.

This new documentary series is classic Channel 4 fare: intellectual but smutty - or, if you prefer, smutty but intellectual. It tells the story of the rise of sex research from Victorian times to the present day, taking in all the usual suspects - Dr Freud, Masters and Johnson, Shere Hite - along the way. There are elderly and not-so-elderly talking heads, some good archive footage and various amusing animations for when things get really, erm, mechanical. But there are also lots of naughty images: women furiously masturbating, men proudly revealing their giant members, that sort of thing. What I'm trying to say is, don't tune in if your mother-in-law is visiting - unless she's the kind of woman who reads Nancy Friday in bed, naturally. Maybe check out her bedside table first.

The material included in the first film, which focused on that mysterious thing, the female orgasm, was broadly familiar to me because I was once sent on assignment to California where, it was rumoured, certain drug companies were close to developing the so-called female Viagra. In the course of working on this story, two things happened. The first was that I learned to keep a straight face while extremely suburban-looking American scientists told me about such things as lubrication, blood flow and the swelling of vaginal walls. The second was that I grew increasingly suspicious of what you might call the medicalisa­tion of sex. It wasn't only that I was concerned these doctors were going to make an awful lot of money out of "fixing" something that might not have been broken in the first place. It was their intense interest that bothered me. Why are some doctors so obsessed with the female orgasm? Shouldn't they find the cure for can­cer first?

The Sex Researchers (starts 16 June, 10pm) does not alleviate this anxiety, and how could it? One of those interviewed is Cindy Meston, from the University of Texas in Austin. Dr Meston wears a white coat to work, which is fair enough, I suppose. Slightly more alarming, however, is that her little dog wears one, too; it has his name and title - "laboratory assistant" - embroidered on it in red silk.

Would you let a woman whose dog wears a lab coat stick a probe up your vagina? No, I wouldn't, either. Meston wants to find out why women don't have more orgasms, which seems to me to be a futile project; I'm not sure most of us feel such a lack and, even if some do, it's hardly a matter of life or death. Then again, her little project is possibly not quite so futile as the work of Meredith Chivers. This Canadian researcher has discovered that women get moderately aroused when watching footage of bonobo monkeys mating. Hmm. Lie back and think of the bonobos. Remember where you heard it first, girls.

The film is at least replete with wonderful, and extremely weird, facts. Victorian men sent their randy wives to the doctor to have their genitals massaged, a treatment that proved to be strangely popular. Some of them - the husbands, I mean - also wore spiked metal rings to deal with unwanted erections of their own. In the 1920s, you could buy a mechanical vibrator that could be attached to any electric light socket. The doctor, writer and social reformer Havelock Ellis, who died in 1939, got turned on by the sight of women urinating and not very much else, and was once told by a prostitute about a client of hers who could achieve climax only if he was able to watch a pigeon having its neck broken at the same time as he was having intercourse.

On their own, such items of trivia make for great dinner-table conversation (I'm also looking forward to telling my girlfriends about the bonobos over pasta and a glass of red). When gathered, however, they suggest to me that most people know exactly what they want and how to get it, and have done down through the ages. The nosy-parker researchers, armed with their horrible probes and their plastic penises, are trying and mostly failing to quantify the unquantifiable, clumsily invading what was once the province only of the poet. l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis