Adult Material review: Channel 4 offers laughs and shocks in dark porn drama

Channel 4's new drama about a British porn star raises big questions about sex, consent and power - and will have you both laughing and crying.

Adult Material
4.0 out of 5 star rating

*Warning: contains adult themes and language*

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Adult Material starts with the unmistakeable sounds of an orgasm. British porn performer Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires) is sat alone in her bright pink convertible during a drive-in car wash, but, as we quickly realise, the noisy scene is entirely simulated as she’s filming a quick video of herself for her legions of social media followers. It’s a comic moment – more When Harry Met Sally than sexy – but it also sets out some of the show’s key themes: voyeurism, fantasy, and the unglamorous, even mundane behind-the-scenes of Jolene’s industry.

Whatever your thoughts on porn, leave them at the door – and while you’re at it, leave behind any assumptions you might have about this show, too. Lucy Kirkwood’s funny and dark script has plenty of shocks in store for viewers during the first episode alone – including one that will leave you reeling. 

The opening car-wash scene sets the tone for the first half of episode one (‘Rosebud’), which follows Jolene as she arrives at a porn shoot, joking and bantering with the director, Dave (Phil Daniels), and with fellow actor Sabelle (Timmika Ramsay). Her on-camera sex scene is punctuated with both polite chit-chat about her male co-star’s home renovation and her brisk questions to the crew about where the camera will be pointing during her scene. (When it comes to Adult Material’s own camera angles, we have the female gaze of director Dawn Shadforth.)

Jolene’s breezy demeanour only falters when she meets Amy (Siena Kelly), a 19-year-old dancer who has injured herself and is hoping to make some quick money before she resumes her dance career. Amy seems at first delighted to be shooting her first scene, especially alongside the famous Jolene Dollar; but a last-minute change to the shooting script throws her fledgling career in porn into doubt. 

Adult Material
Siena Kelly as Amy in Adult Material.
Channel 4

At home, Jolene is revealed to be a working mother-of-three, while her long-term partner Rich (Games of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie) manages her social media, even helping her film a hilarious video for a remote client with a foot fetish. Their relationship seems at first ideal, but a twist during one scene suggests that Rich may be more interested in watching ‘Jolene Dollar’ than he is in his real-life partner.

Meanwhile Jolene’s teenage daughter Phoebe (Alex Jarrett) initially seems fine with her mother’s career choice, but as she starts a relationship, she turns to her mother with a question about consent – and Jolene’s answer not only exposes her own complex relationship with power, but also proves to be a spectacular case study in how-not-to-parent. Like many other scenes in Kirkwood’s scripts, it will also leave viewers at home with their own questions about issues like consent and sexual power dynamics. 

There are hints of even darker things to come when seedy porn producer Carroll Quin (Rupert Everett) throws a rainy pool party and tells a horror-struck Jolene about an upcoming collaboration with US porn kingpin ‘Tom Pain’ (Julian Ovenden), who has a reputation for shooting films about prepubescent girls. Jolene is also haunted by disturbing dreams involving Amy, which are as strange and fantastical as the fantasies they both take part in on-camera. 

Sheridan Smith was originally signed on to play the part of Jolene Dollar, but pulled out due to scheduling clashes. We’ll never know what her take on the role would have been, but Squires brings charm, humour and vulnerability to what already looks set to be an iconic television part. 

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Adult Material will air on Channel 4 at 10pm on Monday 5th October 2020. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide, or take a look at our new TV shows 2020 page to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.