▶︎ Adult Material is available on Channel 4 (four episodes)

Like the porn industry it puts under the microscope, Adult Material knows that where there’s muck, there’s brass. So this bold, ambitiously over-stuffed miniseries opens on porn-star heroine Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires) orgasming noisily in a car wash to grab our attention, as well as that of the fan base she’s video-messaging. The fact that the act is as fake as her eyelashes (she’s eating a sandwich) underscores another of the show’s tenets – that however up-close and personal porn gets, little is what it seems. 

Despite this eye-popping opener, Lucy Kirkwood’s four-part melodrama is neither graphic nor exploitative, as it traces Jolene’s bumpy journey from blithely professional mega-Milf and mum to hard-won self-knowledge. Kirkwood, best known for writing the integrity-interrogating Chimerica (staged in 2013, a Channel 4 miniseries in 2019), makes sure there are bracing political questions about porn under the pillow talk. When ingénue Amy is injured after being coerced into her first anal shoot, despite Jolene’s motherly concern, going public about this exploitation threatens to pull the older performer’s life apart. Stardom and sass are limited weaponry, it turns out, when you don’t own the means of production. Rather like I May Destroy You, the show gets its fierce energy (and a fair amount of black comedy) from showing a female view of power relations in the entertainment business, and exploring the murky areas of sexual ‘consent’ in porn and elsewhere.

However, after a glorious, packed and rollicking first episode, in which we’re immersed in the workaday realities of making porn (health and safety checks, the one-off price of anal virginity, chlamydia eye infections from pop shots), the show suffers a bit from its quart-into-a-pint-pot plotting. Neither a cautionary tale, nor a raging feminist rebuttal of the industry, Kirkwood’s capacious story is studded with plot twists and trip-wires – everything from a knotty court case, a counter-accusation and a violent attack, to daughter Phoebe’s ‘sexting’ ordeal. While this switchbacking keeps the series’ tension high, the sudden reveals and reversals also undermine the impact of the main storylines.

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Siena Kelly as Amy in Adult Material

Fascination with Hayley Squires’s fiercely funny and brassy Jolene keeps us hanging in there. It’s an extraordinary performance, Squires moving effortlessly from chatty, queen-bee on-set professionalism, through warmly efficient mothering, to the self-destructive acting out (“I work in the ONLY industry in the world where women get paid more than men!”) that will endanger her. Siena Kelly is highly engaging and equally protean as problematic protégée Amy, whose appealing openness and vulnerability make Jolene’s protective rage easy to understand. 

Kirkwood’s characterisations are chewy and complex, however, as grey-shaded as her portrayal of the porn industry. Amy’s eager-to-please misdeeds incubate an intriguing turn in the series’s back-end, after her own abused back-end kickstarts the drama. Male characters get less texture here, with Julian Ovenden’s dangerously self-obsessed and sadistic American porn star ‘Tom Pain’ and Phil Daniels’s ducking-and-diving geezer director both full of stereotypical sleaze. Only Rupert Everett’s Boogie Nights-inflected Carroll, a flamboyant and sometimes kindly old-school producer, nostalgic for the big budgets and bad behaviour of porn’s 70s golden age, has some depth to him. 

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Rupert Everett as Carroll Quinn

Underlining the journeyman reality of today’s porn production, the show’s flat, noughties soap-opera visual style created by director Dawn Shadforth (who directed episodes of the Getty kidnapping drama Trust, 2018) is resolutely unglamorous. It neatly accentuates Jolene and Amy’s everyday reality, their daily life of industrial-estate porn studios and suburban kitchens contrasted with the candy-coloured erotic provocations they tweet. Even Carroll’s ‘decadent’ party-turned-orgy looks stickily low-rent.

Episodes are seasoned spicily though, with occasional surreal bursts of Jolene’s sex-drenched fantasies, her bottom half screwing on camera while her top half is busy emptying a whites wash, or peopling a forbidding courtroom with delirious wankers (judge included). Darkly funny, they also illuminate the gap between her reality and the reckless lack of boundaries that a life in the sex industry has inculcated.

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Kerry Godliman as Stella Maitland with Squires as Jolene

Beyond its enjoyably supra-real tone, and dips into soap-opera plotting, Adult Material is most punchy when acquainting us with the realities of porn-star life. It’s particularly acute about how technology has revolutionised the business, omnipresent free online porn creating a huge market while forcing pay-porn into extreme content, far riskier for its female performers. Rather like I Hate Suzie, another star-in-crisis story, it makes smart use of social media meltdowns for key plot-points. A handful of rage-tweets about porn’s lucrative fictions – “Webcamming is boring”, “I’m always faking”, “I’ve had three cervical tears” – can rock a career to its foundations.

A drama as enjoyably hectic and messy as its heroine’s life, Adult Material finally settles, after genre-hopping through black workplace comedy, soap opera and lurid melodrama, as a surprisingly sensitive character study. Digging beneath Jolene’s big-mouth-big-tits porn queen persona, it ensures that she keeps her dignity even when all else is lost. Jolene may be due a great fall but she’s resolutely not a fallen woman.

Further reading

I May Destroy You review: Michaela Coel rewrites the rules of the game

By Kate Stables

I May Destroy You review: Michaela Coel rewrites the rules of the game

I Hate Suzie review: Billie Piper’s tabloid target enters meltdown mode

By Hannah McGill

I Hate Suzie review: Billie Piper’s tabloid target enters meltdown mode

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