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13 September 1999

I was too sexy for the BBC

Yes, there are still limits to what you can see on television: you must not get the idea th

By Rowan Pelling

“In-depth gropes into unoriginal and socially marginal subjects”: that’s how Polly Toynbee branded Adult Lives, the BBC2 documentary series about the way we love now. I’m bored of people saying that – but I have a personal axe to grind in this matter. The magazine I edit, the Erotic Review, was to have been the subject of one of the programmes in the series.

For six months, starting in October 1998, our small Soho offices were spied on by a man and a camera. As we took down copy, telephoned, chose illustrations – and basically got down to the business of putting out our magazine – every one of us was conscious of the cameraman (a charming old BBC hand) staring through his lens. He filmed our editorial quarrels (one, rather drunken one, had me and Michael Bywater screaming at each other about the difference between pornography and erotica) and our contributors’ lunches (though I’d forbidden any filming once our honoured guests had started chewing).

He filmed one of our proprietors, Tim Hobart, at an erotic life-drawing class in Ealing, where the male and female models actually had sex. He followed our other proprietor, James Maclean, to Paris and filmed him wandering round the Musee d’Eroticisme, past naked statues and larger-than-life marble phalluses, snorting in his very British way about the “rather marvellous breasts”, poking at cast-iron bottoms and plaster phalluses, looking for all the world like a charming, urbane, wine connoisseur sampling some rather good bordeaux.

Then our trusty cameraman filmed the walls of our modest little office. And here’s the rub: our walls are covered in framed prints from the Erotic Print Society, lovely, often delicate works by the likes of Aubrey Beardsley and Thomas Rowlandson. Each depicts a fairly extravagant sexual coupling or orgiastic scene. Plenty of naked breasts, nude bottoms, exposed vaginas. And more than a couple of male members – erect and not so erect.

It was the inclusion of these phalluses that offended the BBC. Auntie could handle the breasts, just about cope with the vaginas, but show a willy and the BBC gets all hot and bothered.

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In unveiling Adult Lives, Auntie made a point of saying that the films in the series didn’t show any sex; well, our prints did. Moreover, while other films in the series wore a figleaf of social realism (there is a strong hint, for instance, that the dominatrix included was abused as a child), our magazine was about sex for sex’s sake. The British, it would seem, still can’t come to terms with gratuitous sex: sex for its own pleasurable sake, without the least desire to procreate and without the slightest nod to the social fabric.

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The minute that television attempts to depict sex in this way, the way so many of us actually experience it, the sinister moral minority who police our viewing habits go berserk. A single letter to Lady Howe at the Broadcasting Standards Commission can trigger an investigation and outraged newspaper headlines. Yet in any other enterprise, a single letter of dissent would mean that the project undertaken had been an unqualified success. Lady Howe and her team of 26 helpers receive 2,500 letters a year from the 40 million or so viewers who tune in regularly.

Adult Lives was supposed to be shown in the spring, but the BBC was starting to worry about being controversial and postponed the broadcast. In the end I was rung up and told that our film would be dropped.

A documentary about the way we love now was somehow less praiseworthy than the corset-straining Let Them Eat Cake (plastered all over the Radio Times cover), which reheats Carry On film leftovers for the cerebrally challenged.

And less praiseworthy than a documentary about how the allies used pornography to demoralise Nazi Germany, shown as part of the Secret History series broadcast on Channel 4 this week. Indeed, the subject of the Secret History programme is a perfect example of the kind of prurience we Brits excel at. You can just imagine the moustachioed men of Special Operations salivating over the shoulders of Home Counties gels as they drew vast penises on pictures of Hitler in lederhosen or supervised the printing of cards that showed blonde frauleins being rogered senseless by dark-skinned workmen. These works of art were then dropped in their thousands over Germany, accompanied by leaflets that described the sexual perversions of prominent Nazis. The clear implication was that Johnny Hun got up to the kind of thing no decent British man would – except that there was a well-documented and rather exclusive Blitz party scene that encompassed all manner of what Polly Toynbee called “sexy-weirdness”.

You might argue that the Secret History and Adult Lives series show how far Britain has come along in accepting sex as something natural and part of our everyday life. Yet I would disagree: by dropping the film about us, the BBC proved that our progress has been illusory. The Erotic Review could not be shown to adult viewers because in place of dungeons and padlocks we served up pop-up books with tumescent cardboard willies. Instead of cheery wife-swappers from Essex, we produced uppercrust art-dealers, James Maclean and Tim Hobart. In place of abused sex-workers, we offered the articulate and liberated artists Monica Guavara and Lynn Paula Russell. All of whom explained, in a rather laid-back way, that they worked in the erotic field because they liked it. Tsk, tsk – you could almost hear Auntie’s disapproval. For Britons should not feel so casual about sex. Should they?