When Radio 3 met sexology

“Some people are addicted to potatoes and as a result find it rather difficult to have sex.”

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Private Passions
BBC Radio 3

“To be an historian of sex sounds certainly . . . fun,” suggested the presenter Michael Berkeley (9 August, 12 noon); he was not entirely convinced, one suspects, “but my guest Faramerz Dabhoiwala, a professor of history at Oxford, has proved that sex is also a serious subject.” (Oh, no. Is it?) Over to Dabhoiwala to make several elegant choices of music throughout the programme (Philip Glass, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major) and to explain how he had embarked on the “search for sex” out of “sheer curiosity” as a student, researching a book called The Origins of Sex: a History of the First Sexual Revolution.

Might you consider putting talk of revolution to one side for a moment, Faramerz, and merely detail for us all this determined, curiosity-driven, 1980s undergrad sex research? Precisely how Stakhanovite was your work ethic? How Thatcherite your hours? But Michael (very much in charge, as always) was frustratingly keen to keep the conversation more general, the tone quite vague and adagio. Little mention of physical sex was made during the hour-long edition: nary a dimly glimpsed embrace of unclothed limbs. Instead we had the definite sense of spinning out the theme to occupy vast, amorphous colonnades.

“Did you come to any conclusions about human behaviour as a result of all these . . . explorations? Did it teach you anything about the fact sex is always there and always will be and there’s no getting away from it?” (Michael, you’re a genius.) Dabhoiwala – adult, non-trivial, but friendly – agreed, “I  think that’s true. Science can explain why we’re not attracted to potatoes but beyond that everything is up for grabs.” More than any other, this curious comment seemed to appeal to Berkeley, who shot back: “Some people are addicted to potatoes and as a result find it rather difficult to have sex.”

Rarely, if ever, has a crisis of such magnitude even been mooted on Private Passions. But just as a grateful nation turned up the dial, Berkeley recovered and changed the subject, returning to his regular, more Radio 3 tone: three parts convention to one part irony. “I was glad to find you’re a nut for Bach, Faramerz . . .” So, to the 1731 cantata Wachet auf, which Dabhoiwala suggested (ah, too fleetingly!) was “rousing in the mornings”. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais