Sex: A Bonkers History review – the relief when it ends is indescribable

From tragic cucumber jokes to whipping up some ancient Egyptian spermicide, this Amanda Holden and Dan Jones vehicle is an embarrassment from start to finish. You’ll cringe yourself inside out

When discussing how to make a documentary about the South Seas palatable to the masses, the film producer Hunt Stromberg is reported to have said: “Let’s fill the screen with tits.”

Those were the days, my friend, and they went on long enough for women in particular to think they would never end. But times change – and breast coverage changes, too. The desperation of commissioners to find a seemingly legitimate way to get women’s bodies on screen in this increasingly dreadful era of wokeness is becoming palpable. I feel so sorry for them.

But I feel sorrier for us, because we have reached the point where Sex: A Bonkers History, presented by Amanda Holden and Dan Jones, is happening. I have never been so grateful for a programme maker providing only one episode for review. I would not have made it through a second. I would have cringed myself inside out.

There are five episodes in total (I issue this as a warning). It begins with the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, with an almost insultingly quick look at India’s Kama Sutra on the way. Jones is there to tell us the proper, manly facts. Holden is there to decorate the place (this is not my take – those are their stated roles). “You’re the one who knows stuff,” says Holden as they stand in a studio together. “What do I do?”

The next segment shows Holden clad in a Spartan running dress at Crystal Palace sports ground in south London to demonstrate female fitness levels in the ancient city state. It is bathetic and pathetic in equal measure. In voiceover, Jones explains the militarism of the Spartans and that boys were sent to live in barracks at seven before entering, at 10, “what we would consider paedophilic relationships” with adult male mentors. Then back to Holden running in her little dress.

For the Kama Sutra section, Holden conducts a whistlestop interview with Dr Sonia Wigh, a historian of early-modern south Asia. She gets to translate the title (Kama: sex, sensuality, eroticism; Sutra: story) before Holden bounds off to talk to a tantric yoga expert while a clothed couple demonstrate tantric foreplay, which is incredibly intimate and therefore extremely boring televisually.

On to Egypt. “Cleopatra was the first sex symbol,” but also “so good at maths she could probably have got a job on Countdown!” Jones makes a love potion as he talks about pre-Christianity’s lack of taboos around sex and participates in a laboured joke involving a carrot and cucumber. He also makes an ancient Egyptian spermicide, which they apply to pig semen under a microscope to see how effective it is. The sperm stop swimming. “It works!” says Jones. There is every chance they simply died of embarrassment.

Before we all do likewise, there is just time for a granular study of the sexual mores of ancient Rome. “Gladiators were the pin-ups of the ancient world!” trills Holden. The empress Messalina was “the first woman in history to be slut-shamed!” But, Jones notes sternly, the stories about her indefatigable appetites and infidelities could well have been put about by her and her husband’s enemies to discredit her, since history is written largely by men and, hmm, patriarchy, ahh, victors, yes, power structures. “They used a woman’s sexuality to strip her of her power,” says a po-faced Holden. “Much like today.”

The important thing is that Messalina’s story is great uncovered-breasts cover, via reconstructions of a competition she supposedly had with a brothel employee to see who could satisfy more men in an evening. She won (25 to 24, which raises more questions about Roman lubricants than I ever had about Egyptian spermicides), but by this point in the programme we have all lost.

After a quick section on gladiators’ “cock rings” (designed to prevent sex and quite horrible), an art show of Pompeiian phalluses and a Blind Date riff that is worse than Blind Date, it is all over. The relief is indescribable. Whatever anyone was paid for their involvement in this tragic effort was too much and not enough. Please, if you want to fill the screen with “tits”, just do that. Dressing it up as anything else diminishes everyone so much more.

• Sex: A Bonkers History was on Sky History and is available on Now


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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