Ten years in the making, PORNOGRAPHY: THE SECRET HISTORY OF CIVILISATION is a six-part series, which tells for the first time on British television the history of pornography. This landmark series charts the changes in sexual imagery prompted by the advent of new technologies over thousands of years: from ancient times to print, photography, film, video and the Internet. With unprecedented access to the modern porn industry, interviews with pornography experts and historians and an unparalleled collection of archival material, it is also the story of how these technological mediums influenced the development of pornography, who used it, how it was distributed and how it was censored.
But the real story of pornography is also a secret history of civilization. Pornography puts aside the usual moral arguments that have clouded the issue for decades and takes an objective historical perspective. Pornography, far from being some smutty sideshow on the margins of society, has in fact played a vital and central role in civilization and our cultural evolution.
Each program focuses on a different technology and how that new technology revolutionized pornography and made it available to new groups of people, however hard the authorities tried to control it.
THE ROAD TO RUIN opens with the science of archaeology. Sexual imagery has been at the heart of culture all over the world, from the Cerne Abbas man to the painted walls of Pompeii, from the carvings of Bourges Cathedral to the obscene pamphlets of the French Revolution.
THE SACRED AND PROFANE shows how printing was seen as something that turned hitherto acceptable sexual explicit expression into something far more dangerous. Indeed pornography was instrumental in fermenting the French Revolution, with shockingly explicit sexual satire directed at the monarchy. Photography was the greatest leap forward ever in the history of pornography. In the nineteenth century, to ask where pornographic photographs were sold is like asking where you can buy drugs today.
THE MECHANICAL EYE examines the appeal of photographs, their development and their consumers, as well as the evolution of the porn magazine. This film also covers the birth of the mail order porn dealer; heralding arguments which have parallels today with debates on internet pornography.
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOXY covers the rise of the porn film industry. But porn on film, and the porn cinema was an interstitial time. At the end of the 70s the new vehicle for porn was video.
SEX LIVES ON VIDEOTAPE shows how the advent of video ended pornography's crossover dreams. Video re-made pornography in its own image, replacing the glamour and fantasy of the movies with a real documentary style. The most significant contribution of video was that it turned consumers into producers; the audience picked up cameras and started recording their sex lives on videotape!
FUTURE SCHLOCK looks at the new era of digital manipulation and asks how digital technology has affected the pornography that we produce, and the way we consume it. We talk to people who say that the Internet has dealt the biggest blow yet to the establishment. Pornography in physical forms - books, magazines, and videos - could always be seized and destroyed, but on the Net, pornography has shed its physical form and gone digital.
After taking in the fast-paced anthropology lesson of this engaging six-part series produced for British television in 1999, it would seem that for most of civilization, pornography hasn't been such a secret after all. The six lively episodes take playful account of that which is on more people's minds than will easily admit, and which has been an important, if often vilified part of world culture since humans could think about such things. This two-disc set is a stylish and tidy chronological account of erotic imagery that the episodes categorize from earliest recorded history to the latest (as of the end of the 20th century) prospects afforded by the Internet and virtual technology. An array of interview subjects from scholars to porn stars talk about everything from the graphic images discovered amongst the ruins of Pompeii and the one-of-a-kind erotica traded among high-class Europeans, to what it's like for individuals to make and distribute their own adult encounters through the facility of their own bedroom camcorders. Before it was demonized and censored when the printing press brought porn to the masses, it seems erotic drawings were a lot of jolly good fun that was not at all stigmatized. (One of the most amusing sequences is an interview with a prestigious, septuagenarian and erotic art historian who is interviewed about his specialty while reclining nude under the gaze of a woman sketching his portrait.) Once the church became involved, deeming the depictions of man, woman, and beast doing what came naturally as obscene--a relatively modern classification--it moved into the shadows of sociological study. The episodes on photography, including still and moving pictures and the impact "modern" technology had in creating a porn industry are interesting, but not entirely enlightening for most people who have even a passing knowledge of the development of erotica from French postcards to adult home video. There's nothing too outrageous for the prurient-minded to go ga-ga over, although there is a fair amount of explicit imagery (this is British TV, after all). By and large, as the five-plus hours go by, the episodes become a witty chamber piece for the open-minded who will find themselves well entertained by the precision and depth of this secret history's artful telling. There are no special features included, just a lot of old-fashioned lessons about our lengthy fascination with looking at birds and bees that are not our own. --Ted Fry