Hayley Squires in ‘Adult Material’

Adult Material review: Dark, twisting porn drama will make many viewers squirm with discomfort

Adult Material review: Dark, twisting porn drama will make many viewers squirm with discomfort

Adult Material review: Dark, twisting porn drama will make many viewers squirm with discomfort

Soon after Lucy Prebble’s I Hate Suzie, here’s another garlanded young female playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, with a smart, twisting series exploring the dark side of entertainment. Where Billie Piper’s Suzie was a singer and actor, the heroine of the four-part Adult Material (Channel 4) is a porn star, Jolene Dollar, played by Hayley Squires.  

At 33, Dollar – real name Hayley Burrows – is cresting the hill career-wise, rich enough to drive a pink Audi and buy £1,500 boots, but anxious about what happens next. She has a partner, Rich (Joe Dempsie), who works as her quasi-manager, and three children, the eldest of whom, teenager Phoebe (Alex Jarrett), has started dating. Phoebe tries to be circumspect about her mother’s line of work, but school is difficult when your mum is a porn star. On set one day Jolene meets Amy (Siena Kelly), a young woman doing her first shoot after a knee injury has put her dancing work on hold. Amy wonders whether she ought to offer anal. Jolene offers some noncommittal advice and then leaves. When things go disastrously wrong for Amy, Jolene/Hayley is gripped with guilt.  

It’s a career-making performance from Squires, previously best known for playing the single mother, Katie, in Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake. Her Jolene can be pitiable, pigheaded, brash and sensitive, often within a scene. She worries about the effect of her job on her family but refuses to apologise for making a good living, and still enjoys feeling attractive even as she can see the corrosive effect of living in service to the male gaze.  

You don’t come to a porn drama expecting the men to be models of probity, but even so they are a tough bunch. From a gallery of bullies, pervs and rapists, it’s hard to say which is worst. It’s probably Tom Paine (Julian Ovenden), a monstrous American porn boss, but he has competition from the Brits. Phil Daniels does his geezer-in-a-flat-cap thing as a director, Dave, who thinks Jolene is making a lot of fuss over nothing. Then there’s seedy old producer Carroll Quinn, a sour and creepy turn from Rupert Everett in a long grey wig. It would be easy for these stereotypes to slip into caricature, and they are underwritten compared to the women, but perhaps that’s the point. This is a world where men are the other, the customers and the bosses and the boys in the playground, and they still hold all the keys.  

Hayley Squires in ‘Adult Material’
Hayley Squires in ‘Adult Material’(Channel 4)

Inevitably, when it comes to porn, the drama is driven by the friction between the fake and the real, a line that has been eroded by social media and smartphones. The tension can be funny: Jolene records orgasmic videos going through the car wash, or pretends to be a horny flight attendant in between shouting at a child about poo. While it starts in a loosely comic tone, Adult Material never lapses into prurience, and over four episodes grows into something sinister, complex and sometimes hard to watch, as Jolene and Amy slide into crisis. The webs they find themselves in are all the more tangled for being at least partly of their own making.  

As with gambling, the privacy of internet browsers has allowed porn to bloom in middle-class homes and phones over the past 20 years, without the same level of public acknowledgement. People are more open about their illegal drug habits. For something so ubiquitous, there has been little in the way of public scrutiny about porn’s methods and practices, or its effect on the mental health of performers. I’ve no idea how realistic Adult Material is, but I suspect there is more than a grain of truth in its depiction of this shadowy world. It ought to make millions of viewers squirm with discomfort.


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