Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex. Photo: Showtime
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Masters of Sex: a drama of sex, ambiguity and darkness

This US cable drama about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American sex researchers who pioneered physiological study of human sexuality, just keeps getting better and better.

Masters of Sex
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When the first series of Masters of Sex (Tuesdays, 10pm) aired in the UK last year, critics and viewers alike asked whether it was the new Mad Men. The similarities are striking. Masters of Sex is a US cable drama set in the 1950s; it focuses on gender relations and sexual politics; and everything about the way it looks – the lighting, the costumes, the set – suggests the kind of soft-focus, detailed period aesthetic that helped make Mad Men such a cultural juggernaut.

Where the two shows differ is their subject matter. Masters of Sex is not fiction – or at least, not entirely. It is based on the life and work of William H Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American researchers who revolutionised the way we think about sex and relationships. Together with Johnson, who started out as an assistant, Masters pioneered a way of studying sex based on observation, as a response to the Kinsey reports of the previous decade that relied only on interviews. In 1966, they published their first book, Human Sexual Response, which was a bestseller despite its academic tone.

You may already have spotted the controversial element. In order to treat sex like any physiological phenomenon, Masters needed subjects to experiment on. This is where Johnson came in. According to Thomas Maier’s 2009 biography of the pair, which is the source material for the show, she had the sort of manner that put people at ease and used her charm to recruit hundreds of “volunteers” for the study. These anonymous participants performed a variety of sex acts in the laboratory, hooked up to monitors and closely observed by the researchers.

As the basis for a TV drama, it’s both peculiar and intriguing. These days, we’re fairly accustomed to casual nudity and even sexual violence on television. The difference here is that it’s all for a “purpose”. It’s not a titillating extra – it’s what brings these characters together in the first place.

In the second series, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan get more space to develop their characters’ unusual relationship. Photo: Showtime

The Welsh actor Michael Sheen, best known for his uncanny impersonations of Tony Blair and David Frost, portrays Bill Masters, a man who manages to be extremely liberal in his attitude to sex while also being repressed about his feelings towards his own sexual partners. The first series focused on Masters’s downward trajectory as his commitment to his controversial study loses him his prestigious job as head of obstetrics at Washington University. It ended with him at his lowest ebb, standing in the rain on Virginia Johnson’s doorstep, finally admitting that he couldn’t live without her. Unusually, the second series picks up in exactly the same place, although, as overlapping flashbacks reveal, the two characters have subtle yet vitally different recollections of this pivotal encounter.

Johnson, played by a cool, contained Lizzy Caplan, is the reason you should be watching Masters of Sex. A twice-divorced single mother of two, she can do something that is virtually unacknowledged for women at the time the show is set: separate sex from love.

As far as her relationship with Masters is concerned, it’s a skill she has to deploy from the start. Despite apparently being a “happily married man”, he urged her to have sex with him as part of the study. In the second series, they continue their assignations outside the laboratory, even though Masters’s dismissal has resulted in the study being temporarily shut down. “Of course we’re not having an affair, Virginia,” Masters scoffs in the first episode, as they meet in a hotel to discuss “work”. The false names they give to the reception become roles they perform for each other – characters who mingle with their own.

The failing of the first series was that it had too many characters interweaving in too many plots. The second promises more: the camera lingers longer on Sheen and Caplan, giving them the space to infuse their relationship with a sense of ambiguity and darkness. Even in real life, no one ever really understood the partnership between the pair – why he divorced the mother of his children to marry her, or why they then divorced after over 20 years together. On-screen, they dance around each other: sarcastic, evasive, intimate. It’s the uncertainty that keeps you tuning in. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge