Kerry Godliman’s children haven’t seen a lot of their mother’s work, and for understandable reasons. Elsie, her daughter, is 13; Frank, her son, is 10. That means most of Godliman’s stand-up material – which isn’t exactly potty-mouthed but does occasionally feature the kids, as well as gags about yuppy parents “having a w--- on Rightmove” – is out, as are appearances on Mock the Week. Even her acting career, whether “the dead wife” in Ricky Gervais’s After Life or as Teens in Lennie James’s mystery Save Me, hasn’t been PG.
But her latest job might just top the lot. Anybody who saw Adult Material last week will know that just about every taboo in the book is happily broken in Lucy Kirkwood’s Channel 4 drama about the porn industry. And if it didn’t feature in the first episode, it probably features in the next three.
“I don’t think I could show it to my daughter, no. I tell her what I tell my parents about my standup: ‘I’m never going to let you see it, but if you sneak in at the back wearing balaclavas, so be it’. But I’m not going to sit and watch it with her,” Godliman, 46, says. “I can’t even watch Sex Education with her. It’s just too horrific to watch a sex scene with a child.”
Only, it isn’t quite as straightforward as that. As well as being unapologetically shocking and funny (and that’s just Rupert Everett as a gruff porn baron in a bad wig), Adult Material is also a refreshing study in consent and power. So it means Godliman, who plays an MP and lawyer to Hayley Squires’ troubled porn performer, is left with a parenting quandary. A small part of her, she says, “thinks it might be kind of useful” if Elsie saw it.
“The truth of it, as a parent watching, is that we’re all scared about suspecting – knowing, in a way – that our children have seen porn, and in a way that our generation didn’t. The fact they can see on a phone while they go to school, I find that really upsetting. So I push it down and deny it.”
I wonder if making the series – which had real porn performers as consultants and extras, and makes no firm judgment either way on whether the industry is good for women or not – changed her attitude.
“Nah, it pushed it down further,” Godliman says, adding a cackle. They are a close family. A recent camping holiday, home schooling and lockdown in general (for Godliman, that involved “Yoga with Adriene, sourdough and starting a podcast – all the clichés), brought them closer still. But Godliman has the same battles as the rest of us.
“It’s just very hard parenting teenagers as they come into their sexuality. The last thing they want to do is talk about sex with their mum. It’s never been an easy chapter of parenting, and now it’s exasperated by the prevalence of porn. It’s like, ‘Oh, is that what’s educating my child? Is that what’s sexualising them?’ Because that upsets me and I don’t quite know what to do about that…
“I think I’m discovering that, as a parent, there’s only so much you can achieve in the family conversation. My daughter’s already, at 13, saying things about body image that I’m shocked she’s started to believe. I thought I’d raised her to be a bit more…” She lets that thought trail off. “But I only raise her to a point. Ben [Abell, Godliman’s actor husband] does too. And she sees things online, on TikTok, so how much control do I have?”
Godliman’s hand-wringing, as she cradles a coffee in a pub near her south London home, is exactly the kind of introspection Adult Material is probably having on viewers all over the country. It isn’t the first drama to cover the world of pornography – David Simon’s acclaimed HBO series The Deuce covered the US scene’s heyday – but it is the first, and easily most thorough, take on the British industry.
Godliman’s character, Stella, is a dauntless, cool MP modelled after the likes of Labour’s Jess Phillips, Angela Rainer and Stella Creasy. She’s clearly a rising star of the Left, but finds out just how repressed society still is when she loses her job after getting caught (though not in the act) watching porn, and subsequently admitting it. It is plausible.
“Yes, and it is mental. And particularly mental given we know, and have known since even before Profumo, that male cabinet members have been gimping around the House of Lords for years. We know things go on, sex scandals. But everyone pretends [porn] is behind the net curtains. It’s this otherworld, this underworld,” Godliman says.
“And its repression is now part of our problem as a society, that we don’t discuss these things. All the grey areas about porn, sex workers, gender politics… we thought we’d sorted all that out, post-MeToo, but I find it fascinating that I have conversations with my daughter about things I thought we’d sorted out in the Nineties, and my mum thought she’d sorted in the Seventies. Like body image. I can’t just keep throwing Caitlin Moran books at her. You think, is this just cyclical? Will it ever go away?”
Godliman, who was raised in the “not posh” side of West London and mainly did stand-up throughout her 20s, initially wasn’t sure she could take the part. “I thought, can a woman with my background be a barrister? I’ve never seen it before. I just assumed I’d have to do RP (Received Pronunciation) and change my accent.” It was rare, she discovered, but not ridiculous.
It’s not much different in comedy. Or wasn’t, until a few years ago.
Godliman is dismissive of fear of “cancel culture” killing jokes. “Who’s been cancelled for a joke? No one I know of. Even Frankie Boyle’s got his own show,” she says. “I know people who’ve been cancelled because they’ve been predatory backstage or racist. Not for satirising the news”
But the social upheavals of recent years – be it addressing a lack of diversity or generally detoxifying workplaces – have brought welcome changes.
“It’s very common now to be on a bill where the white, straight bloke is the minority – not the majority – and that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?”
The only exception? Comedy panel shows, as ever. She sighs. “It’s definitely improved, but it’s not there yet. Mock the Week has a long way to go. A lot of shows don’t have a female anchor or captains, and it’s still the culture that the blokes are doing it properly, while we might be the one or two token women...”
It means Adult Material, with its all-female crew – from lead actors to writers, directors and producers – came as a welcome tonic. A sign of how things can be done differently.
“Yeah, and that’s never happened to me before. There were some days when you just wouldn’t see a man. It’s often the opposite, all male apart from hair and makeup. It was so exciting to have that flipped, but then you think, ‘it shouldn’t be, should it?’” Maybe Elsie should be allowed to watch, after all.
Adult Material continues on Channel 4 on Monday at 9pm; her podcast, Memory Lane, is available to listen to now