Five Times British TV Went Sexy

British television began in 1929 with content that was decidedly not X-rated and, save for a brief break thanks to World War Two, it has not stopped since. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been occasional dalliances with less savoury content, of course. After all, man cannot live on bread alone.

Is this enough to capture the young adult viewers? Please say yes, we can’t stoop much lower!

So let’s take a look at those times when stuffy old Britain had a go at broadcasting more adult programming, whether people wanted it to or not. Here are just five examples:

5. The BBC Attempts Family-Friendly Smut

The Seventies were a very different time with very different standards to what we would accept today; and that’s even before we get into what all the presenters caught up in Operation Yewtree were doing. This was the era where saucy film franchises such as the Carry On series reached their peak and, naturally, television wanted in on that action.

The BBC is known throughout the world for its wholesome, high-brow content (and also for Top Gear and Doctor Who) so it may come as a surprise to discover that it also dallied in peddling smut. This smut was cleverly disguised as wholesome family content in the form of Are You Being Served? and by “disguised”, we mean the station was utterly blatant about it.

Episodes regularly featured an elderly woman complaining about how various things affected her “pussy”. My Humphries was an overtly homosexual man who embodied every single gay stereotype you could imagine; and if a gentleman would enter the premises, he would always declare “I’m free” to “assist” him. Eager to please, that one – if you catch my drift.

The show presented itself as part farce, part department store sitcom, and part pantomime but let us be absolutely clear: despite all of that, it was 100 percent smut. Viewers loved it.

4. Channel Four’s “Youth Culture” Sexy Show

Whenever you talk about sex on British television, you are going to have to deal with Channel Four. The self-styled bad boy of the Eighties and Nineties, Channel Four made sure it was the home of edgy content.

Passengers arrived on the station at a time when the forty-somethings of the modern day were still the kids that forty-somethings of the Nineties were annoyed by – and my goodness did they give them something to complain about.

Part documentary series about hard-hitting topics of interest to young people; part music show; and part documentary series featuring sex, Passengers was the counter-culture show that you tuned in to if you wanted to know what was going on that “The Man” wasn’t going to tell you.

So if you want to know about the war in Bosnia and also get the latest on the host of The Girlie Show‘s sex life, this was the show to watch. Which brings us to…

3. An Amateur Hour, Girl-Themed Chat Show

If you ever needed a show to embody the concept of Trying Too Hard, you should look no further than The Girlie Show. Broadcast at a time when “ladette” culture (a viewpoint that can basically be summarised as “hey, what if young women were as sex-mad and unapologetic about it as young men?”) was big in Britain, The Girlie Show attempted to cater for a crowd that was eager to watch lurid content instead of going out and getting laid on a Friday night.

If you’re seeing the flaw in the plan there, well done. You’re clearly better at scheduling than Channel Four (yes, them again) was in 1996. The amateur production quality, complete lack of talent amongst the presenters and overall lack of ability to entertain anyone who wasn’t drunk meant this show was cancelled after twelve episodes.

Sadly this is British television, so that equates to two whole series of excruciating content with a veneer of low-grade smut plastered over it in the vague hope of keeping viewers tuned in long enough to grab some ratings.

2. A Nudist Assault Course

If there’s anything Channel Four can do, Channel Five can do it worse. The baby of the British terrestrial channels, Channel Five didn’t begin broadcasting until 1997; which is a point in time where terrestrial television was losing out to Satellite TV in a big way. Naturally, the executives at Channel Five needed to find a way to grab an audience for themselves and when the channel was taken over by the guy responsible for brainless so-called newspaper The Daily Star, the obvious answer was “sex”.

Enter, Naked Jungle. A one-off game show centred around an assault course and hosted by a reformed alcoholic trying to rebuild his career, the show was filmed with host and contestants entirely naked. If you like the idea of seeing average-bodied people attempting an assault course in their birthday suits, you probably won’t after watching Naked Jungle.

This atrocious attempt to appeal to the lowest-common denominator saw the show condemned in the House of Commons and it’s now regarded as a contender for the absolute worst thing ever shown on British television. This is quite an achievement since one channel aired a Nazi-themed sitcom and even that wasn’t regarded as badly as Naked Jungle.

1. Channel 4 Shows Soft-Core Porn

Back in the Eighties, Channel Four was the new kid on the block and it was eager to make its mark. It tried to stand out as something new and different, something that appealed to a different kind of audience to the two BBC channels and its commercially-backed rival, ITV. It wanted to be edgy, avant-garde and just a little bit risqué; and it decided the best way to do all that was by… well, airing soft-core pornography disguised as arthouse films.

A red triangle is a warning sign on British roads. It denotes danger and most people in the UK are aware of what it means even if they don’t drive. Channel Four execs therefore decided they would air a red triangle on their channel before showing certain programs and films late at night; as a warning that the content they were about to broadcast was definitely not for children.

The triangle would also be displayed in the top-left of the screen in a similar fashion to how many channels stick a watermark on the screen these days. The hope was that if viewers saw that triangle, they would know the show was not suitable for minors and would therefore change the channel instead of subjecting underage people to what was being aired.

It didn’t work. In a result that will shock precisely no-one, adolescents were drawn to the Red Triangle Films, as they quickly became known, like a moth to a flame. Teenagers actively looked out for the triangle as a signal that smut was afoot. The Red Triangle became the Bat Signal for horny Brits looking to get off with their bad selves; and Channel Four’s ratings soared in the late night slot the films were broadcast in.

As a result of the Red Triangle‘s success, Channel Four has continued to try to push the boundaries on sexy content ever since; to rather great success. Sex sells and, despite the stereotypes of British people as stoic, stiff-upper-lip types, it’s clear the UK is buying.

Zoë Kirk-Robinson is a cartoonist and comedian who writes every day because she thinks it keeps her sane. Her latest book, All Over the House: Book Three, is out now.

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