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29 December 2023

The Christmas gift of Viagra

I’ve always felt the word festive may be applied as easily to the bedroom as to bunting. Men Up proves it.

By Rachel Cooke

Some will think it odd that the BBC has, this Christmas, chosen to give us the gift of Men Up, a drama about five Welshmen who join an early Viagra trial. Not me, though. I’ve always felt the word festive may be applied as easily to the bedroom as to bunting, for what is sex if not a celebration of all that it means to be human? This turns out to be the most delightful of presents: think The Full Monty meets Masters of Sex, with a few light top notes of Gavin & Stacey.

In his pitch-perfect screenplay, Matthew Barry probes a certain kind of British masculinity with utmost care and discretion, determined to discover in its underpants a burning emotional tumescence as well as, er, the more straightforward kind of engorgement. It is 1994, and in a Swansea hospital a compassionate and bracingly straightforward doctor called Dylan Pearce (Aneurin Barnard) is running a small-scale clinical trial for a pill that will one day be marketed as Viagra. He has a sidekick in an equally kind nurse, Moira (Joanna Page), and a group of shy male guinea pigs, most of whom are impotent as a result of diabetes. Why are these men willing to submit to the good doctor’s humiliations? Wouldn’t it be easier, less embarrassing, to stay quiet?

But, no. They’re desperate. Long ago, on assignment to Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that developed Viagra, I read some of the heartbreaking letters from men whose lives had, or so they felt, been wrecked by their condition – in this series, it’s as if some of those stories have sprung vividly to life. Either Barry did some serious research, or he is uncommonly empathetic.

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Meurig (Iwan Rheon) is struggling to convince his wife that his seeming lack of interest has nothing to do with her; Colin (Steffan Rhodri) is too terrified to meet the lovely woman he found via a lonely hearts column, for fear he won’t be able to perform; Peetham (Phaldut Sharma) is quietly humiliated by his wife’s new business selling underwear and sex toys; Eddie (Mark Lewis Jones) uses bluster to hide the vulnerability that comes courtesy of what he regards as his incompleteness; and Tommy (Paul Rhys), having lied about his sexuality to get on the trial (it’s for heterosexual men only), longs to be fully intimate with his partner of 20 years once again. None of them know each other at the outset, but thanks to the clinic, with its strain gauges – I’ll let you imagine what they’re for – and cheesy porn videos, they bond.

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If this sounds a bit worthy, it really isn’t. Barry’s writing, with its jokes about ball sacks (sorry) and its silly double entendres, is sweetly funny: a throwback, almost, to sitcoms such as Are You Being Served?. It’s also highly observant. His characters speak as middle-aged Welsh people do, at once warm and avoidant. “I’ve got to put the shopping away,” says Peet’s wife, panicking at the prospect of his newly giant erection. There’s such tenderness and intimacy in the way Barry portrays relationships: he knows how forgiving a loving partner may be. What looms large in one half of a couple’s mind, he suggests, may be barely a blip to the other.

Sex, as he makes clear, isn’t a panacea; it can’t fix a broken heart, let alone a broken marriage, but it is an abidingly important and wonderful thing. Poor men, because for them it’s so energetically physical – outward rather than inward – and burdened by expectation and, you know, goals. Lately, I’ve been feeling more than usually furious at blokes (the news, you understand). Watching Men Up, though, I couldn’t help but feel for them. What marvellous performances these actors turn in: first agonised, and then daffy; a collection of beautiful souls as well as (sorry, again) broom handles.

Elsewhere over the holidays, things are somewhat more traditional, not to say predictable. Agatha Christie again takes centre stage at the BBC, with an adaptation of Murder Is Easy starring David Jonsson (Industry, Rye Lane), while Mark Gatiss will bring us another ghost story, this one based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot 249, with Kit Harington. The Winter King is an Arthurian box set based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels (ITVX, with Eddie Marsan), while The Heist Before Christmas (Sky Max) is a film about a boy who hates Christmas, until he meets two very different Santas: one gentle (Timothy Spall), one foul-mouthed (James Nesbitt). Finally, on Netflix, Kate Middleton will hit St Andrews, Prince William will clock her in all her glossy-haired glory, and The Crown will at last wind up. Unbearable, certainly. But also, just possibly, unmissable.

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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