Adult Material: humour cannot keep porn’s horrifying reality at bay

TV review: The porn industry is worthy of dissection but this series is more horror than comedy

Hayley Squires in Adult Material on Channel 4.

Hayley Squires in Adult Material on Channel 4.

 

The industrial-scale objectification of women, date rape and the sheer, screaming ickiness of the porn industry are all subjects worthy of serious dramatic dissection. And Lucy Kirkwood’s Adult Material (Channel 4, Monday) goes about this task in impressively high-minded fashion.

Alas, as television, it doesn’t entirely hold together. The Ricky Gervais-style cringe humour often feels misplaced. And there is a bizarre swerve, at the conclusion of the first of four episodes, into murder mystery territory.

Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires) is a veteran porn star with a huge fanbase and a nagging worry that she’s a bit too long in the tooth for a profession obsessed with youth (among other qualities). She furthermore carries the burden of trying to be a good person in an amoral business.

We see this when a seemingly naive new recruit Amy (Siena Kelly) gets more than she bargained for on her first day in the business. Jolene tries to intervene on her behalf. Unfortunately, director Dave (Phil Daniels, of Blur’s Parklike video) doesn’t share her protective instincts. The next time we encounter Amy her enthusiasm has been replaced by a hollow stare. A part of her has been stolen.

Jolene – real name Hayley Burrows – faces additional problems at home, where daughter Phoebe (Alex Jarrett) has issues with her mother’s profession. Phoebe also has a secret romantic life which takes a turn for the traumatic and criminal when she wakes to find her boyfriend having sex with her (obviously without her consent).

There is additional drama on the horizon for Jolene, meanwhile, as it is announced her porn studio is to engage in a transatlantic partnership with a nasty American rival fronted by the loathsome Tom Pain (Julian Ovenden). The deal has been brokered by porn impresario Carroll Quinn, portrayed by Rupert Everett as a creepy British updating of Hugh Hefner. Everett is magnificently louche – but the character is far too loathsome to warm to.

Kirkwood has taken on a lot with these diverging storylines (there’s a fourth involving Jolene contracting Chlamydia in her eye – hence the patch she sports throughout). However, she holds it together with often crackling dialogue. There is, for instance, some amusement to be had seeing the jaundiced Jolene taking a moment in the middle of a scene to remind herself to remove the mince from the fridge before dinner.

But this is a world drowning in seediness and the humour cannot keep that horrifying reality at bay. That is probably the point. And yet, the suspicion that Adult Material doesn’t quite know what it wants to be grows more pronounced with a late twist involving Amy stabbing the predatory Max.

Kirkwood has important things to say about the degrading reality of pornography. Yet in showing us the sheer ghastliness of the porn industry she has given us something rather shocking and indigestible. Adult Material is billed as a mannered workplace comedy. What it truly resembles is a horror movie.

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