Adult Material, written by Lucy Kirkwood, is Channel 4’s explosive adult drama that shines a spotlight on the comings-and-goings (bad pun) of the porn industry, exposed from the perspective of legendary porn star Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires). But we don’t just peak into the secrets of this lucrative world, we dive headfirst into it, and what we find is almost certainly not what you’d expect. Over the course of its four episodes, the series makes you think and question some very uncomfortable truths. The series opener packed a punch and gripped me in a way that didn’t let me go until the very end. It’s clear that Kirkwood wants to explore a lot of big themes, including consent and power, in a short space of time but she does it and she does it well.
Hayley Squires, in a career-best performance, plays the hot-headed and sensitive Hayley Burrows, a 33-year-old mother of three who has done pretty well for herself; you can’t miss her shockingly bright pink Audi! She is a force of nature and an exceptional multi-tasker; she cooks, cleans, has time for the kids, and oh, just so happens to be a successful porn star under her alias of Jolene Dollar. It would be far too easy to dedicate the rest of this review to Squires’ performance alone, but instead, I will leave you just with one word – phenomenal.
The story begins on a typical workday for Jolene where she meets new girl Amy, a 19-year-old ex-dancer eager to start her career in the porn industry. Jolene ultimately takes Amy under her wing and is always on hand to offer sound advice – she should really think twice about doing anal on her first day! Amy (Siena Kelly) is sweet, naïve and apparently has a lot learn – during her consent interview she laughs when asked: “did it feel like you were raped during the shoot?” As we progress through the series we quickly realise that Amy is complex and not who she appears to be; Kelly convincingly shows vulnerability and complexity as Amy and I found myself disliking her while also feeling sorry for her.
Jolene’s home life is just as lively and fast-paced as her work life; her husband (Joe Dempsie) is sort of her manager and her oldest child, Phoebe, sadly bears the brunt of her mother’s famous name the most out of her siblings. Alex Jarrett does a stellar job as conflicted teenager Phoebe struggling with her own issues and her complex relationship with her mum. Kirkwood really weaves in realistic themes of childhood experiences and how specific events can have such a profound and lasting effect. I also appreciated the running theme of the fake-vs-reality type world we all know that, if anything, highlights how sad and damaging this sort of lifestyle and mind-set can be.
An unrecognisable Rupert Everett brings to life Jolene’s friend and porn producer Carroll Quinn who is keen to do business with US porn kingpin Tom Pain, played by Julian Ovenden. Ovenden is great as the American businessman with a sleazy reputation for using underage performers in is videos; he is in equal measure slick and creepy. We conclude the first episode with a shocking turn of events that sets us up to witness an unravelling of Jolene’s life in epic proportion.
Most of the laugh-out-loud moments for me were in the first episode, from the shameless opening scene of Jolene filming herself faking an orgasm (in the car wash of all places) to the assistant casually discarding all the used condoms at the porn shoot, I was immediately addicted and drawn into the light-heartedness. But this consequently left me completely unprepared for the shocking twists and turns to come throughout the rest of the series. Basically, whatever you think you might expect, you’d probably be wrong.
What follows over the remainder episodes is an intense exploration of the aftermath of the events in episode 1 and the ripple effect it has on Jolene’s life, along with some traumatic revelations. With the addition of Kerry Godliman as disgraced MP Stella Maitland, we are gifted with an extraordinary pairing as Stella helps Hayley navigate through her current legal troubles and also deal with her past issues. Godliman is brilliant casting, she brings the right amount of seriousness, passion and wit providing a good balance to Hayley’s impulsive and characterful nature. The series conclusion is best described as bittersweet, and it wasn’t until I’d finished all four episodes that I realised just how many ranges of emotion I’d travelled through to get to the end – I’d laughed, felt intense sadness and even squirmed in my seat but most importantly I felt that this was real and a fresh approach to issues that shouldn’t be ignored.
Hayley is feisty, stubborn and proud but at almost the same time she can be exceptionally caring, sensitive and passionate. For her, it was almost natural to take Amy under her wing, a girl not much older than her teenage daughter, and much of the story is powered by Jolene’s fierce protectiveness of this younger girl and her natural instinct to do the right thing. You can’t help but root for Hayley as she takes on this mammoth task of exposing the seedy wrongdoings going on behind closed doors, and refusing to let the ‘liars’ win. The deeper we go into the story the more it becomes abundantly clear that Hayley is far from perfect and at times it is difficult to root for her.
There are numerous dark undertones throughout this series, arguably the most important being consent and rape. Fearless Hayley is terrified of Tom Paine after she was sexually assaulted years prior in LA, an experience that she herself struggles to condemn as ‘rape’. But as Maitland repeatedly tells her, that’s exactly what it was. With Paine now in England, she starts on a slippery slope of excessive drinking and erratic behaviour as she struggles to be around the man who assaulted her. Squires’ emotional range is truly fantastic as she recalls her traumatic experience with Paine; she also attempts to explain her lack of understanding when it comes to consent and harassment, which was evident from her dismissal of her daughter’s unsettling experience with consent earlier in the series. Hayley’s revelation only reinforces the serious nature of this series, yes there are some really humorous parts and witty dialogue but above all that this story is hardcore and shocking.
I really thought that Kirkwood approached these subjects in the way that they needed to be approached, through a lot of questions and focus on those areas that are essentially the grey areas of these issues. I felt the way these subjects were handled gave a better understanding of Hayley as a person and an explanation to where her rage and determination stems from. Yes, perhaps it is uncomfortable viewing at times, but it is so important and if the questions aren’t asked then there’s no room for learning and improvement. Hats off to Kirkword for tackling sensitive matters in a ground-breaking and memorable way.
Adult Material really is a lot of things and I mean that in the best way. It is superbly dark and very often uncomfortable but it also has raw emotion, poignancy and goes under the surface of many complex issues. With a brilliant cast and powerful writing, it proves itself as a smart, thought-provoking drama that asks the tough questions but has enough laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout to make it a highly entertaining show. It’s safe to say that I rode this emotional rollercoaster willingly and gladly. Now it’s your turn!
Contributed by Imogen Flack
All episodes of Adult Material are available to watch on All4.