TV UK, 20 November

It's tough being 14 on Channel 4.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Reversals (ITV1 on Wednesday night) seems to have been based on a lost screenplay recovered from the deepest 1970s.

Frustrated by the medical profession’s glass ceiling, and pissed off by her consultant husband’s philandering with his juniors, a sassy female doctor assumes his identity to take a new job, and in a bid to win her back, the husband gets into drag to take her lecturing job. (Come to think of it, this is a plot straight from the 1770s.)

Sarah Parish and Marc Warren in the lead roles managed to keep this dinosaur breathing for a couple of hours, but the prognosis was never good. As well as its creaky sexual politics, Reversals also featured a pantomime villain, played by Giles from Buffy, who was not only a male chauvinist pig, but also a ruthless costcutter who performed hysterectomies to save money. After the baddie’s obligatory emasculation (kick in the bollocks), equilibrium was restored, and husband and wife returned to their proper roles, except that he was more sensitive. A victory for feminism? You tell me.

And so to the 1660s, where sexual philandering was apparently a good thing. Charles II (BBC1, Sundays at 9pm) is unashamedly pro-Restoration, and packed with references to how horrible the Puritans were, and how much nicer it is to have a hereditary monarch in a big wig running around impregnating everything in sight. Still, this is far classier than ITV’s Henry VIII.

A clearer expression of today’s sexual politics was apparent in Pleasureland (Sunday), part of Channel 4’s ‘Adult at 14’ season. This one-off drama was pornography for concerned parents, playing out their worst nightmares for emotional effect, and asking them to believe that there is something worthy about putting themselves through such an ordeal. The young cast was very good, and the direction was neat, but Helen Blakeman’s script was grim in more ways than one.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘peer pressure’ taken so literally. First the innocent 14-year-old heroine was marched by an apparently more experienced friend into the garden during a party to service a charmless boy, and finally she returned the compliment by delivering the same friend, having discovered that she was really a virgin, to two men outside a nightclub.

Not only is sex presented as a nasty, brutal affair, but so is friendship. It has become a cliché to observe that girls are much nastier bullies than boys, and Pleasureland milked that cliché for all it is worth. In the end, the two traumatised girls were reconciled, while a third girl who had actually got pregnant was ditched. It’s tough being 14 on Channel 4.

No doubt such things happen, but they are hardly representative of most teenagers’ experience. Pleasureland has been feted for having ‘no time for a grown-up’s point of view, for adult moral judgement’, but can you imagine a drama representing teenage sex as normal, as harmless fun? Isn’t it like that for anyone? And let’s not even mention the millions of teenagers who simply don’t do it, and aren’t particularly worried about it.

Maybe we should restore the monarchy, and learn to be at ease with sex. Oh, wait….

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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