Sex and Death

BBC2, Tuesday December 14th, 9:30 pm

That sound you hear is a venerable institution stabbing itself in the heart, repeatedly. At least, this was the feeling I got from ‘Sex and Death’, a one-off drama screened last week on BBC2, concerned with the dumbing-down of TV, the quest for ratings and sensationalism. Viewers are referred to The Player, a Hollywood movie about how evil Hollywood is, for another example of what is either irony, or self-immolation. Mind you, any quest for the moral high ground was abandoned in the opening sequence, a fake programme, also titled ‘Sex and Death’ hosted by Ben Black, a presenter played by Martin Clunes of Men Behaving Badly fame. I was rapidly hooked, perhaps because I’ve always had way more time for Clunes than, say, Chris Evans or Terry Christian, but more likely because it had an entire week’s quota of nudity, blasphemy and swearing inside ten minutes.

But it’s alright, because it was being “ironic“, see? And, taken as individual elements, there probably wasn’t anything you couldn’t find elsewhere – though Ulrika Jonsson’s split beaver shot was a first. It was the intense concentration of it which was overpowering, TV for those whose attention span is measured in BPM. The opening sequence of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet had much the same kind of exhilirating, hallucinogenic effect, not so much in your face, as playing the bongos on your tonsils. Fortunately, it then settled down.

Or, perhaps, UNfortunately, as Black began the predictable angst about what he was doing, punctuated by walks in the rain or through London at night (he was, as you might expect, an insomniac — no-one purveying this kind of thing is allowed to sleep soundly, naturally), problems with his love life, etc, etc. Slightly less predictable were his battles with his rival, a slimy, Jeremy Beadle-like (yes, I realise “slimy” is redundant there) presenter, played by Martin Jarvis, who specialises in setting people up. Their fencing provided most of the highlights, leading to a stunningly poor taste sequence involving double-crossing jailbait and a very dubious religious fetish. You could tell that director/writer Guy Jenkin had made his name with Drop the Dead Donkey.

As Black teetered towards the edge of breakdown, this all builds towards the greatest episode of his show, opening with him hanging from a cross in a crown of thorns. Anyone familiar with religious iconography – or even the career of state treasurer Bud Dwyer, will have long been able to work out where this was going. The only question was, would they wimp out? Well, I ain’t gonna answer that, since I’m actually unsure. In some ways, it was a major-league cop, but thinking about it, there was a certain subversiveness, which also fitted in terribly well with the ongoing Christ metaphor. Though I freely admit the concept of Martin Clunes dying for our sins is frankly disturbing — whether he does or not…

“I don’t think it’s that far-fetched,” said Jenkin, and he’s right. So, how far would we go in the quest for entertainment? As far as we want to, I reckon: attempting to hold up the lowest common denominator is a futile exercise in a democratic state. “Sooner or later, we’re going to get blown away by some 15-year old who fucks his granny live on prime time,” laments Black at one point, and he’s right. But just because you don’t want to watch it, have you any right to stop it? Perhaps not, but what if it’s being paid for by your licence money? These are not easy questions, and credit to the BBC for at least posing them. And showing us Ulrika’s split beaver, too…