Enter the naughty pagan nymphets

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FOR A while now, credulous TV executives have told each other over expense-account lunches that history is the new cookery, and might even turn out to be the new home makeover. We’ve had it up to here with Nigella Saatchi’s bouncy soufflés and are beginning to tire of effete interior designers telling us to paint everything white. Now we just want to live in the past.

It’s difficult to get too annoyed about that. After all, the three of us still howling in the wilderness for television to aim a little higher intellectually would have to accept that history can offer a certain degree of cerebral enlightenment. That is, if approached with a modicum of rigour and an adult perspective. OK, you can stop sniggering now.

The problem facing any television historian with a smidgeon of self-respect and a smouldering ambition to be the next Simon Schama is that they have to disguise their academic credentials beneath a smokescreen of populism. The skill is in doing it without being forever ridiculed in the common room.

After seeing the first programme in Channel 4’s new series Pagans, the jury is out on whether anthropologist Richard Rudgley will be congratulated on balancing populism with genuine insight or whether he will find his credibility diminished by his willingness to cater to the prurience of the mass audience.

What is to be hoped is that the channel packed all the cheap sensationalism into the first programme to pull in an audience that might stick around for the less lurid explorations of pre-Christian European culture. The subtitle is Sexy Beasts and the opening frames offer lots of titillating glimpses of naked flesh, flagellation and those game gals from The Wicker Man prancing around without a stitch on.

First, though, Rudgley opens with a few pithy comments about the pagan relationship with wolves. It’s made implicit that he would rather be talking academic abstracts, but the demands of a modern documentary means that he has to pretend to be Sir David Attenborough, and go into a cage and strike up a relationship with wolves. As it turns out, they are much friendlier than the average council-estate Alsatian, but Rudgley isn’t happy. "It wasn’t my idea to do this," he bleats.

Fortunately, the producer’s hands-on approach isn’t employed in the next segment, when Rudgley investigates the claims by the prissy Welsh chronicler Gerald that pagans had sex with horses. Now that would have been a test of the presenter’s commitment. Instead, we get Rudgley mooching around Scandinavia looking at pagan etchings of phalluses while aiming risqu banter at experts who all seem to be young, Swedish, female and blonde. I can understand a documentary series wanting to get away from the dry image of academia, but at times this strays into Carry On territory. "Was there a case of them painting a big phallus and saying ‘My one’s bigger than your one’?" Rudgley asks Dr Asa Fredell, of the University of Gothenburg. She smiles nervously, and no doubt makes a mental note that everything they say about the British is true.

One of the most erotically charged scenes you are ever likely to witness in a documentary revolving around archaeology occurs when Rudgley, for no obvious reason, investigates the long-established Scandinavian tradition of the smoke sauna. Saunas being complicated affairs for the beginner, obviously requiring someone to explain it, Rudgley chooses to venture in with the winsome (blonde) Estonian heritage officer Reet Hiiemae. "Mixed changing rooms," he breathes huskily, as Reet takes off her blouse. "Would you like a towel?" he asks, and looks disappointed when she says yes. In the sauna, she goes on to explain the cultural significance of steam and heat for pagan civilisations, but you suspect he isn’t really listening. He flicks at her flirtatiously with some birch twigs. "Thank you," she squeals girlishly, and the camera crew discreetly withdraws.

He still looks pink when he makes his vague concluding speech, suggesting that a couple of millennia of Christian censoriousness have built up a misleading impression; that these pagan peoples enjoyed a close relationship with nature and sensuality, where the natural processes of birth, sex and death were bound up with their everyday lives. "I think that’s a pretty good thing," he says. I bet you do, Rich ...

• Pagans, Channel 4, 9pm tonight