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Sex, A Bonkers History TV review: the ups and downs of 2,500 years of in-the-sack antics

 (A+E Networks EMEA/Sky History/Leigh Keily.)
(A+E Networks EMEA/Sky History/Leigh Keily.)

Lockdown: some people perfected their sourdough starters, others launched side hustles. Me? I finally discovered the genius of Horrible Histories.

Isn’t that a kids’ show, you ask? Well, yes, and... no. It picks out history’s more gruesome facts, but each episode is such a richly-stitched patchwork of skits, pastiches and laugh-out-loud musical numbers that it’s far too good for children if you ask me. And I’m not the only one who thinks so because a new history show has lifted the format directly.

Sex: A Bonkers History from Sky and the History Channel, is fronted by Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden and historian and bestselling author Dan Jones, or, as Holden says: "The one who actually knows what he’s doing." Touted as Horrible Histories for adults, it’s a pale imitation of that show, but one that nerdy fact collectors will love.

The series charts some 2,500 years of in-the-sack antics and kicks off with the Ancients: that is, the Greeks, the Egyptians, 3rd Century India and the Romans, the latter famous for shagging anything with a heartbeat.

It gallops along at a steady pace, with historical tidbits played out in settings that barely stir the BPM; Crystal Palace athletics club, Chelsea Physic Garden, and Teddington, a quaint London suburb that may be one of the capital’s best places to live but has about as much sex appeal as your nana’s false teeth. One is grateful that they kept the show’s carbon footprint low, but Horrible Histories delivers its PG version with far more fizz.

Holden gamely helps bring the facts to life by putting them to the test, often while decked out in ancient-themed fancy dress. She’s a Spartan woman, she’s Cleopatra, she winces through a tantric sex demonstration, she wears a finger monitor to a boxing match to see if blood sports are, in fact, an aphrodisiac, as believed in gladiatorial times (spoiler: they’re not). Holden is both a history teacher with a glint in her eye and a knowing smile, and the kid at the back of the class sniggering at an ancient rendering of comically large phallus (which admittedly, will never not be funny).

 (© A&E Television Networks 1996-)
(© A&E Television Networks 1996-)

Jones, for all his excellent facts, delivers more grimaces than lols, bless him. He takes the reins to talk Ancient Egyptian inventions like chilli-infused love potions (cue the first big ick of the episode with the line "My tongue is getting erect having tasted it"), fiddling with vials of pig sperm, and discussing 3100 BC contraceptives that include crocodile dung. You’ll never have been so grateful for the invention of Durex.

A session in a yoga studio to simulate parts of the Karma Sutra made me want to crawl behind the sofa – and I live alone. I can only imagine how awkward it might be watching this with family, but hey, that’s what Gogglebox is for. That said, there are no particularly graphic scenes – bar a few topless and bouncing buttocks filler shots - but they’re over in, ahem, a flash. It’s all rather tame, really. This show is firmly for history geeks, not the freaks.

And for the geeks, there are plenty of tantalising threads to pull at and look up later on Wikipedia. The experts have dug up excellent and occasionally shocking sex stories that your school’s history curriculum definitely skipped over.

Like the one about Roman emperor Claudius’s wife, Messalina. Legend paints her as a sexual predator who challenged Rome’s best prostitute to a sexathon to see who could get through the most blokes in one night. But those stories were written decades after her death, suggesting she was the first sexually liberated woman in history to be slut-shamed by a bunch of threatened men. Now that’s really Horrible.

Sex: A Bonkers History premieres Monday, September 18 on Sky History