The Sex Robots Are Coming is nothing more than prurience and voyeurism

Shame on the person – a man, surely? – who commissioned this Channel 4 programme.

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Channel 4 is having an AI season, which sounds grand until you tentatively dip your toe into the cyber-water only to discover that, in at least one case, this is nothing more than an excuse for a little light prurience and voyeurism.

Shame, then, on the person – a man, surely? – who commissioned it. He must have sat through The Sex Robots Are Coming (30 November, 10pm), an investigation into the world of robots designed specifically for the purposes of sterile humping, and thought nothing of its nauseating content, of how in some 55 minutes of television we heard from only one critical voice. As he did so, what on Earth went through his head? On second thoughts, perhaps we’d better not get into that.

Centre stage in this documentary was the RealDoll made in San Marcos, California – lifelike, near-human-size female dolls. According to the manufacturing company’s founder, Matt McMullen, this was only an “art project” until the day a customer asked him if it would be OK to have sex with his doll, at which point a light bulb flashed over his head.

Now, having accepted that he’s running a business rather than Titian’s studio, McMullen is expanding. His next offering, if all goes to plan, will be Harmony, a doll so sophisticated that she can make conversation (though we’re not talking Oscar Wilde here; on a first “date”, one of her opening gambits was the line: “Do you masturbate?”), and among whose features is a self-lubricating vagina that responds to what Susan, the scientist who is programming her, described as “thrust-speed”.

If this sounds horrible, that’s because it is. As Dr Kathleen Richardson, a robotics expert from De Montfort University noted in the two nanoseconds she was given to make her point, what the world really needs right now is a male accessory that reduces women to a series of parts, whose “voices” they can turn on and off at will. But if it was a surprise that the brains behind Harmony was the seemingly very capable Susan, it was heartbreaking to hear how she had become interested in the dolls in the first place. “I’m not a beautiful woman,” she said, describing how she had bought one for her husband to celebrate the completion of his PhD.

Even more desolate-sounding was Tine, the wife (of 36 years) of James, who already owns four non-robotic dolls and is keen to upgrade when Harmony comes on the market. “I was uneasy,” she said of her return home to a newly doll-stuffed house after a period away nursing her mother. “But it got better as time went along.” And then: “He could have found a live person, but he didn’t do that.” It was the note of gratitude that tore at the heart.

Joe Orton Laid Bare (BBC Two, 25 November, 9pm) didn’t have anything particularly new to tell us either about the meteoric rise of the Leicester playwright, or about his brutal murder by his jealous, thwarted lover Kenneth Halliwell. But it certainly had its moments, my personal favourite being the one when an elderly man called Robin Fairfield – on screen, he was presented as a “friend” of the playwright – described their encounter in the loos of a Chelsea department store one afternoon somewhere towards the middle of the Sixties. Having followed Orton down the King’s Road, it was in a cubicle in Peter Jones that they became, as Fairfield put it, “more intimately acquainted” – a genteel turn of phrase that would have had Orton roaring with laughter.

John Lahr, Orton’s biographer, appeared and so, too, did his sister Leonie, goggle-eyed as ever (she is Joe, minus the elocution lessons and Rada). Plus, we got a few glimpses of some of the library books Orton and Halliwell defaced, a satirical campaign of destruction for which they were eventually sent to prison. What, I wonder, would Emlyn Williams, a writer who surely did not deserve to be on the receiving end of their scissors-and-glue wrath, have made of their amendments to the cover of his Collected Plays? (Their titles, post makeover, included Up the Front, Up the Back, and Fucked by Monty.) Would he have smiled? Or would he have caught, as I suddenly did, a strong and horribly prescient whiff of overpowering envy? 

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 appears in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world