TV review: Sex on the box. Sex in a box. It’s everywhere

Michael Sheen as Dr William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex. Photograph: Sony
17 Oct 2013 @ 4.50 pm
| News
Michael Sheen as Dr William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex. Photograph: Sony
Michael Sheen as Dr William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex. Photograph: Sony

Masters of Sex (Channel 4, Tuesdays)
Campaign for Real Sex Season (Channel 4, Mondays)
Breathless (ITV, Thursdays)

If it’s lessons about sex you’re looking for, there’s plenty to keep you edified and entertained on the TV right now.

There are some obvious parallels between two new series, Breathless (ITV) and Masters Of Sex (Channel 4). Both looked at sexual issues, and it wasn’t clear on the early evidence which would be the right horse for viewers to back.

The British runner, Breathless, was a curious hybrid, and perhaps less sure of itself. This story of gynaecologists in 1961, just before the sexual revolution and the Beatles’ first LP, has been described in some quarters as like crossing Call The Midwife and Mad Men.

As is the way with such lazy attempts to pin something down, that’s about as helpful as saying a novelist is somewhere between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jeffrey Archer.

Both new shows look great, beautifully shot evocations of the era or, at least, that era from the perspective of the seriously well-to-do. And Breathless contains some telling period details. It really was the case as late as 1961 that some young couples had difficulty conceiving because they didn’t know what to do.

There are clearly some stories which are going to be slow-burners in Breathless, such as the mystery surrounding the child of the Don Draperish Powell (Jack Davenport) and his elegant, swelegant wife (Nathasha Little).

Was it just me, though, or was it all a little too cryptic? Occasionally, I had some difficulty getting a handle on one or two of the stories. Perhaps, having set out its stylish stall, Breathless will settle down into something altogether more compelling.

By contrast, Masters Of Sex hit the ground running more assuredly, with its story of 1950s’ American gynaecologist William Masters undertaking pioneering research into human sexuality.

It’s both funny and perceptive, unlike Masters himself (Michael Sheen). This is a man who, to judge from the sex scenes with his desperate-to-conceive wife, is strong on the theory and not so good on the practice.

Then again, his ignorance of female sexuality suggests that he’s no great shakes (though this will doubtless change) on the theory either. Masters Of Sex could turn into a great show, or with the relentless focus on sex, it might become an exquisite cut in too narrow a world.

What was Mariella Frostrup doing near the Sex Box? Photograph: Richard Ansett for Channel 4
What was Mariella Frostrup doing near the Sex Box? Photograph: Richard Ansett for Channel 4

For all the quality of some output, Channel 4 is determined to lay down ever more challenging markers in its bid to make us think that maybe Mary Whitehouse had a point after all.

What to make of Sex Box, in which a couple (allegedly) have sex in an opaque box, watched by a live TV audience, as part of a “Campaign for Real Sex” season?

I find Channel 4’s notion that they are somehow reclaiming sex from pornographers (and purveyors of keg and lager sex), ever so slightly disingenuous.

However, to come clean, I saw only two or three minutes, watched from behind the hand which wasn’t clutching the remote.

A young couple’s post-coital observations were so trite they might have been professional footballers, so much so that I was half expecting them to spit after talking to Mariella Frostrop, a woman whose largely sensible comments as a newspaper agony aunt suggest that she won’t look back on this show as her finest hour.

I dare say that adolescents everywhere must have been agog with excitement at the show’s premise. It reminds me of the excitement in my teens when we heard there was a Swedish film, I Am Curious Yellow, in which “you could see people doing it”.

When I caught up finally with I Am Curious Yellow a few years ago (via a DVD at York Library, since you ask) it turned out that, bar one or two almost subliminal, grainy black and white couplings, the film mainly consisted of interviews with Swedes about the country’s class structure.