Channel 4’s powerful drama Adult Material was created by an all-female team. Moya Lothian-McLean reveals how they did it
For a show that feels so now, Adult Material has been a long time in the making. It is nearly a decade since writer Lucy Kirkwood first thought of penning a story that would pull back the curtain on the mysterious world of the British pornography industry. Now, her vision has been fully realised as a four-part drama series.
Adult Material has a lot riding on it, in every sense. Belief in Kirkwood’s work is such that the show has become the flagship programme of Channel 4’s highly anticipated 2020 autumn season, a gaudy gem in its crown.
But those tuning in to see a lascivious romp will be wrong-footed; after the first episode aired earlier this month, several viewers expressed surprise at the darkness immediately on show, with intense scenes featuring rape and even a murder. Carry On, it ain’t.
Instead, what Kirkwood has created, alongside director Dawn Shadforth and an ensemble cast led by Hayley Squires as Jolene Dollar – an adult actor at the “top of her game” – is an uncomfortable, probing and darkly funny examination of power dynamics and consent. Some people will not be ready for it. Many thousands more will.
“Adult Material on Channel 4,” a friend texted me, as the first episode drew to a close. “AMAZING.”
“We don’t give people answers,” Hayley Squires tells me, of her role in the series, which has already been deemed “career-making”. “We give them viewpoints. We allow them to make their own mind up”.
Fate brought Squires and Jolene together: Sheridan Smith was originally lined up to take on the role but was forced to exit the series due to scheduling conflicts, so Squires stepped up.
What drew her to the show, I ask? Complexity, apparently. Kirkwood sent her some scripts and a giant research treatment containing nine years’ worth of investigations into the porn industry and the storylines that had been born out of it.
“It was a huge document,” Squires remembers. “It talked about all the complexities of the show and her research and the character arc of everyone in it.
“It was the complexity of the character, the humour of her, the very detailed and complex ways Lucy had told this story without being in any way prescriptive or a mouthpiece for her own opinion [that made me want the part].”
While Squires remains tight-lipped about the exact ins and outs (forgive me) of Adult Material’s plot line, she is happy to share a broad-brush sketch of the bigger picture. “When you first meet Jolene in episodes 1 and 2, she’s at the top of her game,” Squires says. “Legendary status. She projects this air of being in control and having all these plates spinning, that she’s fully aware of the industry and the people she shares her life with, both professionally and personally.
“Then she meets Amy, who comes to set for the first time. Something horrific happens to her on her first day of shooting. And Jolene takes it upon herself to take this girl under her wing, and go on this campaign for justice, which means that they’re taking on her closest colleague and the very large corporations that she’s been working with for a number of years.”
This is apparently when it all starts falling apart for Jolene. She is forced to confront trauma from her past and the looming threat of the all-powerful, international porn studios that blur the lines between what is empowering and what is exploitative.
‘It is about the particular way the Brits make pornography [and] the British class system’
She risks losing “everything”, including her children, Squires explains. But Jolene does not yield. “She believes in something, even if she’s not coming to terms with why she’s doing it.”
Although Adult Material was in development years before the likes of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Lucy Prebble’s Billie Piper vehicle I Hate Suzie, comparisons have already been drawn. All three handle difficult conversations about complicated women, agency in a patriarchal world and how power fluctuates in different contexts. It’s no coincidence that they are programmes created by women.
“It couldn’t have been made any other way,” says Shadforth, of the quartet of women creating and leading Adult Material. Her colleagues agree.
“What’s really standing out is that these stories have not [previously] been told by women,” says Channel 4’s head of drama, Caroline Hollick, who worked with Kirkwood and Shadforth throughout Adult Material’s development process.
“When we were working on the scripts and the edits, I was really aware how rare it is to see honest, unvarnished stories about women and sex and to see women making decisions that are uncomfortable and unconventional.”
Both Hollick and Squires say there was an aim to remove Adult Material from the “male gaze”. “This show was fundamentally made by the female gaze,” observes Hollick. There’s an incredible male contribution to the show but the lead actor, the writer, the director and the DoP were women. That feels like something that would have been harder to achieve 10 or 15 years ago.
“What you get with the shows [such as I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie] coming to the fore now is that there’s a generation of female film-makers who are coming to their peak and that’s why you’re getting these shows happening at the same time, because these women are not afraid to tell the truth about uncomfortable realities,” says Hollick.
She admits that, at times, during the development process of Adult Material, she found those realities just too uncomfortable. This resulted in stand-offs with Kirkwood about removing some of the more controversial decisions that Jolene makes.
There would be late-night emails about editing out certain scenes. But Kirkwood and Shadforth pushed back, the scenes stayed, and Hollick says she realised that they were right.
“I’d never seen a show like this before,” she explains. “Sometimes, you do lose your bottle. But you have to remember, as a commissioner, you’re not automatically right.”
Making Adult Material changed her profoundly, Hollick says. “I’d always seen myself as a pretty modern, feminist kind of person. But what I realised was that I am just as uptight and middle class and judgemental as the next person.
“Some of the arguments I had at the start of the script came from my old-fashioned feminism, where I thought, ‘Well, we can’t put this character through this. That’s not a feminist thing to see happen on screen.’ And that was where I was completely wrong.”
Although Adult Material had already been commissioned by the time Hollick joined Channel 4, it became her passion project. It was classic Channel 4 in its lineage.
“I don’t think Netflix would make something like this,” she says. “This show is British to its core. It is about the particular way the Brits make pornography; it’s about the British class system as much as anything else.
“Channel 4 has a remit to push boundaries, to innovate, to reflect lives that don’t get seen on screen. And to be really bold. I’m old enough to remember Michael Grade being referred to as the ‘pornographer in chief’ because Channel 4’s material was considered so filthy. I like to think we’re in that tradition but also that this is an incredibly modern show, reflecting who we are today.”
Modern, indeed: an “intimacy director” – now ubiquitous in the industry – was on set to choreograph all sex scenes, something that “just makes sense”, says Squires, for whom Adult Material was her first time filming scenes of that nature. “Talk about in at the deep end!” she laughs. But she describes the experience as “comfortable”, thanks to scenes being so carefully worked out between the actors and movement director Alex Reynolds, whom Shadforth worked with on His Dark Materials.
Consultations with adult stars themselves also heavily informed the work. On top of Kirkwood’s nine years of research, porn star Rebecca More, aka one half of the infamous Cock Destroyers, was on hand to provide advice and insight to both the actors and the development team. She stressed the large role that social media now plays in the careers of porn stars.
It is reflected in the finished product – the very first scene opens with Jolene faking an orgasm for her Twitter followers (a platform her loving partner maintains for her). It is a key revenue stream for adult actors in 2020, who gain far more agency (and opportunities to profit) from independently made digital content than from films produced for studios.
Adult Material is not going to be for everyone. Some will shy away from the truths it uncovers about an industry that, despite being more normalised than ever, still operates under a veil of protective secrecy. But the series offers no easy answers and nor do its creators want it to.
They are just hoping that people will join them on the journey and be open to the difficult themes it confronts – and how that might cause audiences to reflect on their own judgements, lives and workplace relations.
But the one thing Hollick most wants to stress as our chat draws to a close is that, “it is incredibly funny. That will surprise people. There were jokes that we just sat in the edit rooms and laughed out loud at. I miss those script meetings so much.
“The show is just really funny, even if it’s difficult to watch at times, when some shocking things happen. It’s really entertaining. I want people to ride that wave all the way through.”