Let's talk about sex and why we must maintain age of consent

NEVER mind Michael Howard. If you want the perfect definition of "something of the night" then you'll find a picture of Frank Finlay in the dictionary. The actor embodies both the darkness and the allure of the nocturnal in features which are at once both wolfishly handsome and bleakly troubled. And they were never more handsome, or troubled, than when he was Peter, the conflicted and lustful father in Andrea Newman's Bouquet Of Barbed Wire.

Philip Larkin once wrote that sexual intercourse began in 1963, between Lady Chatterley and the Beatles' first LP. But for my generation it was 13 years later. Our initiation into the power, both compelling and destructive, of erotic passion came with the explosion of Bouquet onto our screens in the mid-Seventies. Screened at 9pm on a Friday night, it was all the argument you needed for a TV watershed. It drew the viewer into a vortex of sexual entanglements where the unleashed libido was both a weapon of control and a certain route to misery. For those of us who were not yet teenagers, Bouquet was forbidden TV fruit, and it was only when we'd graduated to big school that we were able to follow Finlay, Susan Penhaligon and the rest of the cast in their heated couplings.

Last week ITV announced that it was planning to revive Bouquet in a new format with Trevor Eve in the role Finlay made famous. Now ITV does not have its troubles to seek this weekend, and at first blush the decision to revive the show looks like another unforced error from the rudderless channel. It at one and the same time reminds viewers of how far ITV has fallen since it dominated the airwaves in the Seventies, and seems to suggest that the channel is now so bereft of original ideas that all it can do is reprise its back catalogue, in an increasingly vain effort to recapture past glories. It risks making ITV look like the Archie Rice of the digital age.

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But then again, the ITV management may have struck a sensitive point in the national psyche by reviving Bouquet at just this moment. There is certainly more than just a whiff of the Seventies about contemporary Britain. A fag end Labour government, nationalised industries taking industrial action, a massive debt burden. And even a referendum promised on Scotland's constitutional position. All we need is Ally MacLeod back and the Bay City Rollers in the charts and it really will be dj vu all over again. So perhaps Bouquet will resonate now, as it did 30 years ago, with the self-indulgent passions and spiral to self-destruction of the Manson family mirroring our national concerns.

If Bouquet is to succeed however, and rescue ITV en route, then it needs to deal sure-footedly with the issues at the heart of the drama's original, compelling, appeal. Attitudes towards sexual passion have certainly changed since the Seventies. On the one hand, the Seventies was an age, even more than the Sixties, of sexual liberation. It was the era of Studio 54, Plato's Retreat and the Playboy Mansion. The decade when the pill was widely available and Aids unheard of. Bouquet caught that sense of barriers being dismantled and taboos being broken.

Since then, attitudes towards sex have become, curiously, both more blas and less relaxed. We've become used to accounts of wild nights of lust, in our racier Sunday newspapers and sleb magazines. The antics of Jordan and her cage-fighting lover, make Bouquet plotlines seem positively Victorian in their primness.

Yet, at the same time as we've grown familiar, bored even, with that level of prurient intrigue, we've also become much less comfortable with the broader idea of sexual abandon the Seventies seemed to herald. Because we've seen so many troubling consequences of the sexual revolution, 30 years on, we're much less likely to look back at the whole process of taboos being broken as a glorious liberation.

The dramatic increase, over the last three decades, in sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, broken marriages and fractured homes has driven a profound change in how we see the Seventies. We can't turn the clock back, and we would never in any case want to go back to a world where homophobia was rampant and feminism viewed as a fringe movement. But the fashionable Seventies idea that any sort of restraint on sexual self-expression is a form of oppression has gone. In those years the momentum was all directed towards breaking down barriers. Now we energetically seek to defend those barriers we have left.

That is why the case made on Radio Four this week by the law professor John Spencer, that we should lower the age of consent from 16 to 13, provoked such a storm. Of course we know that, in many cases, teens will start being sexually active before 16. And the professor's case that the age of consent is there to protect the young from predatory older adults and not to criminalise adolescents themselves, has its supporters. But the age of consent is far more than just that. It helps teens themselves say no and resist the sort of pressure to "experiment" which can lead to disease, heartbreak and pregnancy. It affirms our society's determination to use law to protect the innocent. It keeps our children from straying into the barbed-wire-strewn no-man's land of emotional loss and personal turmoil which premature entanglements inevitably involve.

The return of Bouquet to our screens will remind us of the destruction uncontrolled passions can wreak, and having seen the consequences we now all know that there are some emotional dramas best kept contained on our screens, rather than being allowed to shape our culture.