How come no one ever went to Laois on one of these erotic journeys?

TV review: Little Birds tries to be shocking but can just look like a Duran Duran video

Little Birds: Juno Temple as Lucy Savage, with Hugh Skinner as the gay aristocrat she’s married off to

Little Birds: Juno Temple as Lucy Savage, with Hugh Skinner as the gay aristocrat she’s married off to

 

Little Birds (Tuesday, Sky Atlantic) is not a Sesame Street prequel. It’s the tale of an American innocent – is there any other kind? – who goes on an erotic journey.

In the olden days Americans were always going on erotic journeys (never erotic staycations), and they were always going to places like Spain and France and, in this case, Morocco. No one ever went on an erotic journey to Laois.

A sort of adaptation of one of Anaïs Nin’s dirty books (or erotica, as we call such things now), written on commission for an unknown collector, Little Birds has as its hero Lucy Savage (Juno Temple), scion of a wealthy US arms-dealing family who has already been medicated and therapised to deal with her wanton urges and is now being married off to a gay aristocrat who lives in Tangier.

Some scenes in which a sexually ravenous contessa pursues and seduces a timid employee remind of me of Carry on up the Khyber

We meet the Technicolor Savage family at dinner, where their all-American normality is edged with gun-toting, barbed grotesquery. Then we cut to a brothel where a gold-toothed woman (Yumna Marwan) is whipping a man in a gas mask before urinating on him. Everyone needs a hobby, says you.

That’s about as shocking as things get. Although Nin’s stories are still alarming (the title work of the original Little Birds is about a paedophile), the sexual elements emphasised in this series – extramarital longing, consensual BDSM and homosexuality – aren’t transgressive by modern television standards and only seem remotely dangerous if you filter them through the eyes of the prudish Savage family. It does feel, nowadays, that transgression is only ever channelled through stuffy historical propriety.

At two points in the opening episodes characters recount more disturbing stories of taboo sex, but verbalising these tales only highlights how quaint most of the erotic content of the adaptation is. At one point Lucy partakes in a supposedly outre erotic film being created by a scandalous woman named Lili von X (Nina Sosanya). It looks a little like a Duran Duran video. Some scenes in which a sexually ravenous contessa pursues and seduces a timid employee remind of me of Carry on up the Khyber. I’m not even sure this adaptation of Anaïs Nin is even trying to be truly erotic, which is a bit like remaking the Fast & Furious films but deciding you can do without the cars and just focus on the dialogue and acting.

Little Birds: Nina Sosanya as Lili von X, who’s making a supposedly outre erotic film
Little Birds: Nina Sosanya as Lili von X, who’s making a supposedly outre erotic film

One sexual taboo still implicit in every beat of this project is the way non-Americans are eroticised in the interests of a Yankee ingenue’s sexual education. Just by dint of travelling to somewhere like Tangier, erotic adventures seemingly abound. All travel is not the same, however. I don’t remember any 20th-century erotic travellers going into apoplexies of lust over the big potato-shaped head of a red-faced Irishman around the back of Supermac’s, despite this being a formative experience for many Irish Times readers. (I’m looking directly at you, in particular.) I am of course, talking about BC – Before Connell – here. I know Normal People changed things irrevocably, and I am available to write such things for any rich collectors who happen to be reading this review.

In the absence of Truly Taboo Rumpy Pumpy (the name of my erotic novel), we get themes I don’t remember in the book. There’s a subplot about Moroccan independence, for example. (It’s possible I missed Nin’s references to foreign affairs when I read Little Birds 25 years ago, distracted as I was by the phwoar-an ones). There’s also some tonal confusion about whether we are to take the sporadic sexcapades seriously or if they’re just meant as a gentle distraction from a heightened melodrama about an heiress finding herself while on her holidays. One way or another, it doesn’t manage either nearly as well as Shirley Valentine.

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