Why are sex scenes on television so dreadful, ask Rowan Pelling.


Research has long shown extreme violence can have a corrosive effect on viewers, but there's no evidence to suggest the same of post-watershed scenes of consensual, passionate intimacy. Yet, throughout my childhood and teens, you were lucky if you ever glimpsed more than a kiss on the small screen.

So my bacchanalian chalice overflowed when HBO launched Sex and the City. I felt the Western world had finally shrugged off its residual prudery. But the sages are right: be careful what you wish for.

It was when I started watching Game of Thrones that I first became consciously queasy at the direction TV sex was taking. Was there any good reason for women to constantly be on all fours with gratuitously jiggling breasts while men had sex with them? I was disturbed by the fact so many such scenes lacked eye contact, sensuality and genuine intimacy. Whose agenda was being served other than the kind of blokes who love pornography?

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Then I tried The Fall and found myself repulsed by the way it eroticised the misogyny and sadism of Jamie Dornan's serial killer, turning him into a seductive anti-hero whom the copper heroine (played by Gillian Anderson) lusted after.

But I reached a personal nadir last week while watching MotherFatherSon, the BBC's new drama about power politics, seen through the lens of a horribly dysfunctional family.

In Wednesday's episode, the son Caden (a stroke victim) tore open his wound from brain surgery and then lunged open-mouthed at his mother's breast while blood gushed all over his pillow. It was so Grand Guignol I laughed in disbelief. I wondered what kind of dramatist thinks the only way you'll understand this man had been infantilised is by watching him suckle his mummy?

I also find it hard to forgive the fact that Caden's mother in the drama - the luminous Helen McCrory - is made to look ridiculous when she played the most outstandingly sexy Anna Karenina I've ever seen. But then MotherFatherSon is not the kind of thing you watch for its subtlety or nuanced characterisation.

In the first episode Caden was seen, pre-stroke, instructing a prostitute in the particularly outre ways he required her to be submissive. It seems to me you didn't need to see the humiliation and pain on this young woman's face to understand the key narrative point that Caden finds true intimacy impossible and pays to have perverse fantasies enacted.

What's rare now is voltage: the electric current palpably running between Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling in Tipping the Velvet (2002). Or the dangerous energy radiated by a young Daniel Craig in 1997's The Ice House.

To be blunt, I yearn for scenes that bring a flush to my cheeks, just as I yearn to know less about the peccadillos of sadists, perverts and serial killers. The narcotic sensation of erotic love is the most powerful phenomenon many of us will ever experience, so it's only natural to long for a little vicarious gratification.

Perhaps an obliging dramatist can give us a Cathy and Heathcliff for the 21st century.

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MotherFatherSon is on TVNZ Demand.