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A Brief History Of Sex On TV

© BBC Pictures

From Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tipping The Velvet to... Bewitched (stick with us here)

Thanks to its frank, honest approach to female sexuality, Wanderlust, the new series landing on our screens next week, has already prompted a flurry of headlines branding it the BBC’s ‘most controversial’ and ‘most explicit’ drama to date. When Toni Collette, who stars as Joy, a therapist struggling to keep the spark alive in her marriage, said she was ‘happy’ to ‘take the accolade’ of being ‘the first woman to have an orgasm on the BBC,’ it raised eyebrows even further. ‘To be a middle-aged woman, to be in a long-term relationship and to be alive, dealing with a lot of things – it’s tough,’ she said. ‘Certainly a middle-aged woman’s sense of self-esteem, of sexuality, is not often talked about.’

While it’s hard to argue with that particular assertion, is there actually any truth to her main claim, that Wanderlust is the first BBC programme to depict a female orgasm? It’s 2018, after all: surely the broadcaster couldn't be that prudish? The BBC have said that they’re ‘unable to confirm’ Collette’s remark, re-stating that the show is ‘one of their] most frank dramas about sex and relationships.’ Writing in [The Guardian, Zoe Williams has briefly considered the BBC back catalogue to debunk the actress’s assertion, citing a sex scene from a 25-year-old adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an older example then listing some more recent shows like last year's Apple Tree Yard and BBC Three's Fleabag.

In the star’s defence, it’s actually pretty difficult to identify this particular ‘first’ in screen history. In the film world, this honour goes to Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy (1931), who later parlayed this notoriety to launch a successfully Hollywood career (and an unlikely sideline as an inventor, her research eventually providing the groundwork for Wi-Fi technology). On the small screen, though, there’s no definitive name or scene to cite. Perhaps that’s because TV is notoriously more reticent when it comes to depicting sex (or it was, at least, until Game of Thrones came along) or because TV producers tend to use familiar, cagey shorthand to ‘tastefully’ allude to orgasms: barely an episode of Sex and the City would go by without the obligatory curling of toes or widening of eyes.

With this in mind, we've trawled the archives to bring you a brief and non-exhaustive history of sex on the small screen, starting in the strait-laced 50s and culminating with this year's most talked-about shows...

Wanderlust begins on BBC One at 9pm on 4th September