British miniseries Adult Material stars Hayley Squires as an adult industry performer who begins to question what’s real and what’s fake in the only business she has ever known as her life and career begin to unravel.
Even in the glacial world of TV commissioning, nine years is a fair time to elapse between conception and completion of a four-part miniseries. But then not every four-part miniseries is about a woman in her mid-30s who has reached the top of the British adult film industry, only for everything to come crashing down.
“We took this show to every buyer in the UK and US and even Europe,” says exec producer Patrick Spence, formerly MD of Adult Material producer Fifty Fathoms but now creative director at ITV Studios. “Everyone who read the script said, ‘It’s brilliant, but we’re obviously not going to make it.’ Where the story goes to is difficult, grown-up, moving and challenging.”
“It’s really brave of Channel 4 to do this,” says creator Lucy Kirkwood of the UK broadcaster that eventually picked up the series. “You need the right people at the helm who could see why it was worth doing, so we had to wait for the right moment for all those ducks to be in a row.”
The central figure of Adult Material is Jolene Dollar, played by Hayley Squires (above), who says the character has “broader complexities than any part I’ve played before.” She continues: “Everyone has a different opinion of sex and the role it takes in your life. Jolene looked as it as a way to make money, have a career and a family life, to achieve something and be in control of her life when she has very few options. When she dies, she wants to have lived a life where she thrived, not just survived.”
Kirkwood picks up: “I wanted to write about choices for working-class women in this country. In the current climate, with austerity and the gig economy, what are Jolene’s alternatives? Here she only has to go to the office two days a month, does the school run, has three-week holidays and lives in a really nice house – and earns more than the men, across the board.”
When DQ visits Jolene’s house in north-west London, we find her an outcast of the industry that had long celebrated her, after a grim incident on set brings her into conflict with both her long-time producer Carroll (Rupert Everett) and partner-cum-agent Rich (Joe Dempsie).
“She considers herself highly respected and in control, a mentor to younger women and able to deal with the business side and the men running the show,” explains Squires. “Then she realises a lot of it’s bullshit. The façade lifts when she doesn’t do what she’s told and doesn’t give them what they need.”
Skins and Game of Thrones star Dempsie, meanwhile, found himself intrigued by the complexities of his character. “With most scripts, there’s a clear way to read a part and know how to play a part,” he says. “But there are numerous points where Rich says or does things that will make the audience question his motivations and priorities.
“The domestic life of someone in the adult entertainment industry and how you maintain a loving trusting relationship… The impact of social media is really important here, and Rich is as addicted to ‘likes’ as anyone, sometimes placing them above the emotional needs of Hayley. I never made my mind up about parts of him.”
One of Jolene’s few remaining allies is an unlikely one: vociferous anti-porn MP Stella Maitland, played by actor and comedian Kerry Godliman in a rare but effective straight role. “Stella’s sharp, funny and ambitious,” says Godliman. “She’s got a strong ethical compass, but a tendency to compartmentalise, which eventually is her undoing. I’d never seen a character like that, let alone played one. The minute I got the script, I knew I had to do it – it tells a human story that happens to be set in the porn world, but it doesn’t moralise.”
Crucial to Jolene’s crisis is her protégée Amy (Siena Kelly), an ambitious if naïve 19-year-old whose rise through the industry becomes inextricably linked to Jolene’s decline. “Amy’s shrouded in mystery,” says Kelly. “It took me a lot of work to understand her. Her doing porn is a rebellion, a chance at reinvention, but the sex she’s had in life so far has been based on porn rather than her own exploration and enjoyment. She’s one of those people who, if you pushed them off a building, would land on their feet. She always manages to be just about OK, somehow.”
Despite the subject matter, Kelly says any reservations she might have had about getting involved in the Banijay Rights-distributed drama were extinguished early on. “They sent out a three-page description of the show explaining why and how they were filming it, and what they were trying to say with it,” says Kelly in wonder. “You never get that with auditions – this was a full-blown treatment, almost. I knew it wouldn’t be exploitative.”
The sex scenes themselves were, as is now increasingly the norm, presided over by an intimacy coordinator. “Yarit Dor helped us choreograph it, taking the stress and worry away,” says Squires. “We could think, ‘How does this sex scene act as a through-line for the rest of the story?’ I always felt comfortable and respected.”
The project also brought British porn icon Rebecca More on board as a consultant. “She’s bright, a brilliant businesswoman and completely on board with this,” says Squires. “She spent a day showing me and Siena the movement, mentality and thought process of a porn star, how to walk from one side of the room to the other in heels and switch on that confidence. I’m so grateful she opened up to us.”
Series director Dawn Shadforth’s background in pop videos (including Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head and Sugababes’ Freak Like Me) ensure the visuals fizz and pop, but care was taken to reflect the basic boredom of life on a porn set, undercutting any residual titillation.
“This is a workplace drama rather than a show about porn,” says Shadforth. “It’s about a woman who works in porn. Understanding that workplace, the weird monotony – Rebecca talked about the beige food that none of the girls would ever eat – we tried to put that detail in.”
Most importantly, Adult Material is realistic about the porn industry, humanising those who work in it, questioning the baleful influence of the platform providers and their obsession with the bottom line, and conceding its influence across almost every aspect of modern culture. The long wait to bring it to the screen – it debuts on Channel 4 on Monday – also allowed a valuable and timely new filter to be added: that of the #MeToo movement and its associated issues of coercion and consent.
“We all experienced a collective shift in reality with MeToo,” acknowledges Kirkwood. “People have been telling the story for quite a while, and suddenly we had a moment where everyone wanted to hear it, so the worst thing we could do is to tell a simple MeToo story.
“This show is always about undercutting things, making you look at events from different angles. We know porn is filtering into real-world behaviour in a way that is detrimental to relationships. You have to keep asking questions and offering alternative realities and narratives. Drama makes us understand those knotty situations more than banging us over the head with a binary morality.”