Sunday, October 12, 2008

How a German sex education film and Vatican II ruined my taste for Maltesers

(This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday 7th October 2008):

The Malteser is, I think you will agree, a jewel of the confectioner's art.

But thanks to Pope John XXIII and a movie called Helga, I can't look at a Malteser.

My tale illustrates the dangers of liberal Catholicism and of sex education - for the latter is what Helga purveyed - particularly when both conjoin.

Let me explain. The other day, a friend confided that she cannot face a Fry's Chocolate Cream. This product is another confectioner's jewel, a shining light of sophistication in a coarse world. I know this because one of my grandmothers, a sophisticated lady if ever there was one, used to give Fry's Chocolate Cream bars to myself and my sister when we were children, after she had corrected our grammar.

Anyway my friend, at the age of five, was handed an entire box of Fry's Chocolate Cream. She did what any intelligent five year old might be expected to do - she faded into the background and scoffed the lot.

The results were as you might expect. That's why she can no longer experience the joy of eating Fry's Chocolate Cream.

In psychology this is called the Garcia Effect after an experiment in, let's not go there.

Anyway, her sad tale reminded me of my Maltesers issue.

In the 1960s, a West German health minister called Käte Strobel decided to promote sex education. One of the fruits of her endeavours was a 1967 sex education movie called Helga.

Helga was special in its day because it was a mainstream sex education movie and because it featured a childbirth scene. It was also special because the film censor allowed it to be shown here.

And the Pope? Even before Ms Strobel got going, Pople John XXIII had convened the Second Vatican Council. This had the effect of liberalising the church and making us all think we lived in a new era.

A cohort of liberal priests emerged from Vatican Two and these priests were convinced that it would be a good thing for the young people of Ireland to be exposed to Helga.

Buses were organised to bring young people up to, I think, the Savoy in Dublin to see the film and be educated.

A have a dim memory of an earnest priest flitting about a bus in Naas that had been organised for the young people of the town and environs.

A major attraction of the Helga movie was that people were reputed to get sick during the childbirth scene. So we didn't go to it so much for the sex education - we knew bloody well there'd be no sex left in it by the time the censor was through - as to see if we could get through the childbirth scene without throwing up.

On the way into the movie, you will have guessed, I treated myself to an entire box of Maltesers. I'm talking about 1960s boxes here, big boxes - the sort of boxes you're meant to share.

I remember absolutely nothing about the movie. A Canadian contributer to the Internet Movie Database says that "I remember naked girls in a school shower," but it's a safe bet that the version we saw omitted this key scene.

What I remember is that I ate all the Maltesers myself while wondering if the childbirth scene was going to make me sick. It didn't but the experience created assocations in my mind with Maltesers which have prevented me from ever again eating one of those wonderful (as I recall) taste bombs.

So in the end, Helga was a let down. The church went on to implode and we all became heathens and went to hell in a handcart.

It wasn't worth it, not at the price of putting me off my favourite chocs.

The star of Helga, Ruth Gassmann, went on to make a number of movies including the 1972 Robinson und seine wilden Sklavinnen shown in the UK as Robinson and His Tempestuous Slaves and in France as Trois filles nues dans l'île de Robinson.

Now. why couldn't they have bussed us up to that one? I'd even have chanced another box of Maltesers.

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