Broadcaster: BBC Four
Review by: Ashleigh Trinkwon
Was anything off limits in the age of excess? This is the question The Age of Excess: When Britain Went Too Far intends to investigate. Presenter Matthew Sweet spends a lot of time wandering around the streets of London and even appears in a nightclub on his own at one point. The sexual content is graphic at times, coupled with the use of strong language. Despite this, Sweet’s very informal and relaxed presenting style makes this an easy-to-follow documentary for the everyday viewer who wants to learn more about what Sweet calls ‘a gin-swashed gangbang’.
A better title for this programme would be The Age of Excess: When London Went Too Far. The use of ‘Britain’ is very misleading: the programme focuses solely on London, a metropolitan capital which certainly cannot be used as a model for the entirety of Britain – small remote villages included – in the eighteenth century. Similarly, the phrase ‘when Britain went too far’ suggests that the programme would include some investigation into moral outcry against the sordid practices of an elite class that was, in most cases, separated both morally and socially from the ranks of ‘ordinary’ people. Yet the programme’s emphasis is mostly on descriptions of the sexual practices themselves, and there is little to no investigation into contemporary moral and social concerns. There is no mention of the Society for the Reformation of Manners or any other contemporary moral philanthropists who highly objected to this supposed ‘sexual freedom’. By whose standards did these members of society ‘go too far’? If you were watching this without any prior knowledge of the period, chances are you wouldn’t be able to answer that question. The problem with generalizing the period as one of ‘sexual freedom’ is that it also assumes that women and the lower classes enjoyed such freedoms, whereas in reality it was often solely the male upper classes that could act as they pleased without as much concern for the consequences. Like many historical discourses, apart from a short look at John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748), this programme focuses on sex and sexuality purely from a male perspective.
Another problem with the programme’s approach is – as with so many historical documentaries – the projection of modern-day comparisons and examples onto an eighteenth-century discourse. We are shown shot after shot of present-day sleazy London streets, clubs and brothels, all in the attempt to help the viewer make the connection between the world of sex in London today, and the world of sex in London three hundred years ago. Similarly, ‘pin-up cards’ of famous eighteenth-century courtesans are placed in a phone box while Sweet picks up the phone and listens to extracts from contemporary records about courtesans and their services. These comparisons are sometimes entertaining and somewhat useful for the screen – but in terms of historical accuracy, they simply don’t work. Another modern analogy Sweet uses is to discuss the sexual practices of eighteenth-century politicians and to then say: ‘Imagine our modern-day politicians doing that!’ – amusing, but not accurate.
However, despite these issues, the programme does succeed in illustrating some continuity and change in attitudes towards sex after the French Revolution, and into the Victorian period, and how some of these attitudes have endured up until the 1970s. It also investigates the rapid expansion of the press and print culture following the lapse in censoring laws in 1695, which led to scandalous material being produced in the print houses around Grub Street.
The tastefulness of some of the material examined is questionable – although arguably, the material was not intended to be tasteful in the first place. At times, the music used, coupled with images of eighteenth-century erotica produces a shot that verges on the sleazy. Yet, this is a documentary about sex, a topic that is arguably still treated prudishly today – in terms of historical documentaries, this is definitely one of the more colourful ones.