Sticky Business: Andrew Billen Finds Little That Is Uplifting in the Musical Musings of Porn Stars

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"You doubt will have noticed," sniffed Richard Dimbleby, fronting a 1965 Panorama, "the growth in the number of glossy magazines in this country that are quite clearly intended for men. Here's a fairly lurid collection." The extract was replayed on Sunday's Sex Empires, just as this viewer was asking how the BBC could possibly justify offering the nation yet another TV history of sex. It was as well to be reminded that even 40 years ago the BBC was not above a little dumbed-down voyeurism.

The big difference in tone between then and now is that Sex Empires, a three-parter (Sundays, 9pm, BBC2) on the rise and--we are puzzlingly promised--fall of pornography, offered no moral evaluation whatsoever. If it did not condemn, nor did it praise. The documentary sided with the early toilers at Playboy and Penthouse who knew they were producing "wank" or "jerk-off" mags and used the technical term "excuse material" for the short stories by Asimov and wine columns by Kingsley Amis that filled the spaces between the pictures.

In the mission to aid onanism, all that changed over the decades were male preferences. The author Mark Gabor summarised that in the 1940s, readers jerked off to legs; in the 1950s, to breasts; in the 1960s, to both; and in the 1970s, to "pussy". "Then, of course, I lost touch," he said, though the documentary demonstrated that what followed pussy, so far as Hustler and Screw magazines were concerned, was vulva.

Given porn's modest objectives, the pretensions of the pornographers were quite something. Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy, considered himself the very vanguard of sexual liberation (but was as phobic as Ruskin when it came to showing pubic hair on his centrefolds). Bob Guccione at Penthouse art-directed his shoots himself and made each photo-spread a soft focus impressionist masterpiece. In retaliation, Larry Flynt's Hustler fought a class war on behalf of the tasteless taste of the rude mechanicals. Flynt so rejected the "connoisseur" model of soft porn that one Hustler literally featured naked women with paper bags over their heads. Ian Stuttard's good-humoured programme scored highest when it explored the weirdness of the porn barons. I hope it eventually discusses the degree to which that weirdness has now become the world's.

The normalisation of pornography is a subject really worth tackling. Instead, Channel 4's Pornography: the musical (21 October, 10.40pm) merely helped the process along. Paradoxically, it was a deeply abnormal film itself. The so-crazy-it-might-just-work plan was to interview women in the sex industry and get the poet Simon Armitage to turn their desperate and degraded thoughts into sad song lyrics. …