The Secret World OfSex, Channel 4’s Watching The Detectives, and sex on the radio.
Sex and the over-603
A new BBC2 series The Secret World OfSex endeavours to shed some light on the sexual Dark Ages before the 605. Tom Lappin hears how producer Steve Humphries found his material.
Sex began in 1963. claimed Philip Larkin, and TV producer Steve Humphries is ofa mind to agree with him. ‘Britain prior to the 60s was deeply repressive towards sexual matters. and ignorance, guilt and fear surrounded sex in all its forms. particularly sex outside of marriage.’ says Humphries. whose BBC2 series The Secret World OfSex treads new ground with its personal stories ofsexual experience before the 60s. and offers a grim view of a pre-permissive age.
The six programmes use a combination of original archive film and frank interviews with older people to give a fascinating and disturbing picture ofthe narrow and repressive attitude to sexual behaviour that prevailed in Britain until relatively recently. That the series ever made it to the screen at all is a tribute to the depth of research
‘I got the people basically by advertising in every
2 local newspaper in Britain asking people to tell me
about their sexual experiences.‘ says Humphries. ‘I got a couple of hundred replies and out of that about 60 people who agreed to do face-to-face interviews. which I recorded. It was very difficult to get them to talk about sex in the first place. there were lots ofembarrassed silences and pauses. but then. after an hour or so. people seemed glad to be able to talk about it after all this time.‘
The results were published in a book A Secret World ()fSex which was published in 1988 and resulted in the TV series being commissioned by BBC Bristol. ‘When it came to doing the television
3 series it was difficult all over again because people
who are in the book didn‘t want to go on television
talking about their most intimate experiences. for
the obvious reason that it‘s a much more public medium. So we had to do another research drive to find people who would talk about their experiences on television.‘
A danger oftransferring this type ofmaterial to TV is obviously that the subjects prepared to talk about their experiences to the nation are not necessarily typical of their generation. It‘s a drawback Humphries is aware of. ‘The people we got to speak on the programmes are only typical of
58 The List 19 April—2 May 1991
the people who broke the sexual taboos of the time.‘ he says. ‘I don‘t think they are typical of everybody. Each programme looks at a particular sexual taboo whether it be homosexuality. prostitution. illegitimacy. and so on. The people talk about how they broke those taboos and the consequences it had for them. And. for example. in the illegitimacy programme. the consequences — sent to the workhouse. homes or mental hospitals — were typical for the time.‘
The stories that emerge are astonishing. Edna Higginbottom was certified in 1938 when it was discovered she was having a sexual relationship at the age of fifteen and locked up for 20 years. In fact it was not until 1959 that the Mental Defectives Act (sic) was repealed and many women who had been committed for having pre—marital sex were released. An even more disturbing case is that of Ruth Neale who was raped at the age ofeighteen and. pregnant as a result. was committed to a mental hospital. She is still there. 75 years later. completely institutionalised but happy to speak to Humphries about her experiences. and be filmed.
‘It was quite a common thing to shut women away in mental hospitals. especially for having under-age sex or ifthey had an illegitimate baby, or just iftheir parents didn't like having them around and could come up with some suspicions that they were having under-age sex.‘ says Humphries. whose research showed a marked difference in the sexual experiences of men and women. ‘There was a lot of hypocrisy and double standards. that‘s always been the characteristic
. a "
Fun at Southend Fair in the not-so-good old days.
British attitude towards sex. Women were punished and criminalised for breaking the sexual taboos of the time.‘ he says. ‘whereas men got off far more lightly. and in male circles there was almost a celebration of breaking the taboos.‘
Not that the series is all gritty social history. There is a distinct sense of reliefand delight in some of the interviewees. at being able to tell how they got round social restrictions. and broke the unspoken rules. It’s a welcome contradiction of the received idea that sex and the elderly are unrelated topics. llumphries points out proudly that ‘I don't think anybody has got anyone to talk about those kind ofexperiences before. certainly not on television.‘
The social strictures and taboos were not completely wiped out in the sex and drugs and rock ‘n‘ roll ()(lS. llumphries is keen to make a follow-up tracing sexual experience over the last three decades and doesn‘t envisage it being a tale of untrammelled licentiousness. even if we disregard the influence AIDS has had on sexual behaviour. ‘All these taboos are still present in a diluted and modified form.‘ he says. "The taboo on sex before marriage was very strong before the war. and that seems to be the one that has been most weakened. but there still is a sense ofshame in families ifthe daughter has a child outside of marriage. if someone has a sexually-transmitted disease, or is gay or lesbian or whatever. The taboos are still around albeit much weaker.’
The Secret World ()fSex starts on BBC? Tuesday
i l 23 April at 9.50pm.