There’s nothing like a pagan mating ritual to make everyone feel uncomfortable about sex again.

Scenes of masked woodland romps with group chanting, pan flutes and dripping goblets scrape the soul’s blackboard because they manage to be both liberated and repressed. (Think Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man, Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut and, if you unfocus your eyes, Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music.)

The randy and the ritualistic: that’s the uncomfortable coupling at the heart of Land Of Sex And Sinners, a doco which begins this week on SBS.

On paper, this is distracting stuff. The two-part program is about the history of sexuality in Ireland, covering the lives of the first settlers through to the Norman invasion in the 12th century and onward to the present day.

The show is a blancmange of talking heads and dramatic re-creations of sexual encounters, resulting in a social history in which attitudes to sexuality are disturbingly cyclical.

It’s the dramatic re-creations that let the team down. While it’s fascinating to learn about a ritual in which a forest king mates with a hag (who is transformed into a nubile nymph, in the ultimate Extreme Makeover), the soft porn staging complete with slow-mo breast-tossing seemed inappropriate.

It’s possible to portray liberated female sex-uality in a feminist age, and putting the head and boobs in the same shot is a good start.

Not surprisingly the show is mostly heterosexual, although there is mention of a butch homosexual threesome of Celtic warriors and a refreshing openness about shagging in parks. And if you’re one of the army of readers who’ve recently devoured Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, then the subject matter should already appeal (but we’ll spoil no more).

For everybody else, Land Of Sex And Sinners is diverting enough. It’s filled with trivia, like the fact masturbation was once referred to as a hand festival, and features a remarkably damning assessment of contemporary Ireland as a deeply abusive society.

It also illustrates clearly that sexual liberation does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with living in an enlightened age. If you want the right to stand in a circle wearing animal masks while initiates fellate to the music of Clannad, you’ve got to fight for it, my brethren.

Land Of Sex And Sinners screens in two parts, on Friday 30 July and Friday 6 August, at 10pm on SBS TV.

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