April 30, 2012 7:49 am Published by Leave your thoughts

By common consent (at least among those like me who lived through it), the ‘golden age’ of broadcasting – at the BBC especially – was that which spanned the 1960s. The St George of this age was the BBC Director-General for very nearly the duration of the decade, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, younger brother of the novelist Graham. It was Greene’s determination to “open the windows and dissipate the ivory tower stuffiness which still clung to some parts of the BBC” [Greene’s memoir The Third Floor Front, 1969] that characterized the period. The effect lingered into the 1970s.

But Greene’s mission attracted a dragon. Riding out of the West Midlands came Mary Whitehouse, leading the Clean-Up TV Campaign (CUTVC, in those days, only people outside television ever used the expression ‘TV’) and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVLA). Schooled in the righteous tradition of the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) movement, she was fearless and formidable and she meant business.

Sir Hugh appreciated that this was a tricky one to play. He was not about to close the windows again, but to accommodate this force at any level would look as if he were considering it. So he resolutely refused to meet any representative of the CUTVC or the NVLA – in truth, there was only ever the one campaigner who had the gumption to stick her head above the parapet – and, on the rare occasion when he publicly acknowledged the movement’s existence, he scorned it: “These ‘new Populists’ [Prof Richard Hoggart’s term] will attack whatever does not underwrite a set of prior assumptions, assumptions which are anti-intellectual and unimaginative. Superficially this seems like a ‘grass-roots’ movement. In practice it can threaten a dangerous form of censorship – censorship which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks, not to undertake those adventures of the spirit which must be at the heart of every truly creative work”.

The great struggle over ‘censorship’ that engulfed British television in the late 20th century, a struggle that set producers and writers against managers and controllers as well as against the evangelical forces from without, may well now look like a comprehensive rout for the censors. There can be few programmes on any current channel that, were she alive, the woman TC Worsley dubbed Queen Canute would be able to sit through without smelling salts and a standard letter of complaint to hand, just needing the offending title to be inked into the blank space.

And the programmes that she would cordially detest are – and this is what irony truly means – exactly the programmes that Greene would detest too, were he alive. And (I am happily available to attest to it) they are also indeed the programmes that I detest, for all that I set my face even more firmly against Mrs Mighty Warhorse and her destructive campaign. Each of the three of us would squirm at the gratuitous vulgarity that passes for entertainment everywhere on the ‘TV’ today.

One of the first targets of the movement that called itself The Festival of Light, an evangelical attempt to purify the culture, was my own television play Circle Line, which was transmitted in the first season of ‘Play for Today’ in 1971. Arising from this connection, I had lunch at the home of one of the group’s organizers, Peter Hill I think he was called. He and his wife said grace before the food and played Jim Reeves LPs throughout (it was hard going) but we found quite a bit to agree on about the state of television. It was the remedy that divided us.

In her 1967 book Cleaning Up TV, Mrs Warhorse quotes Gibbon: “When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they most wished for was the freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again”. She and Greene and I might find quite different uses for the sentiment, but it is one we could all recognize.

Those who say that television can be a force for good in society must also accept the corollary, that it may just as well be a force for ill. Producers and writers are entitled to defend their freedom of expression but they also need to take responsibility for the effects that their expression has. The line between reflecting society (what the programme-makers claim to do and use as a front-line defence against their critics) and shaping society (what their critics claim that they do, as they would say to society’s detriment) is a narrow one. It’s clear that Greene believed that television did shape society and he wanted it to do so. Offering a confrontation with the received ideas of the time can certainly be a constructive role for television, and I believe it was Greene’s genius to create an environment in which that confrontation could be played out constructively.

Greene’s aperçu about art being (self-)suppressed in a censorious climate alerts us to the nature of the assault launched on the culture generally at this time. For Mrs Warhorse had an inspiration even more formidable than her own sense of disgust: she had ‘the Lord’.

Remember the MRA connection and the evangelical nature of The Festival of Light (of which Warhorse was a co-founder). Her agenda was explicitly Christian. She conducted two high-profile campaigns that were nothing to do with television: her suit against Gay News for publishing what she deemed a ‘blasphemous’ poem, and another against the National Theatre for mounting Howard Brenton’s play, The Romans in Britain. Both these actions were undoubtedly motivated by her righteous homophobia; though, had she actually seen the Brenton instead of merely sending her lackeys, she might have understood that the anal penetration of an Ancient Briton by a Roman centurion enacted in the play was a metaphorical act of rapine rather than anything remotely (homo)sexual. No doubt she and her allies saw ‘perversion’ in Circle Line also. To drive homosexuality back underground was clearly one of the missions of the ‘clean-up’.

But a passing reference in her book inadvertently reveals the true nature of her crusade: “There is nothing particularly revolutionary about the idea of viewers’ and listeners’ participation in Broadcasting Services. Other countries have set up associations similar to ours, some more successful than others…In Italy, there are two bodies, one of which is a left-wing pressure group. The other is the Italian Association of Viewers and Listeners (AIART). This broadly based association which is well supported financially conducts public opinion polls, the results of which it publishes from time to time. It runs a quarterly news letter which carries a good deal of correspondence from its members. It organizes meetings at which influential people express their views on television. Each year it holds a three-day conference at which its work and objectives are publicly discussed”.

I am sure that AIART is (or was) an admirable body of upstanding citizens who were industrious to a fault and aired useful arguments. I have no doubt the “Left-wing pressure group” was quite as admirable. Mary Whitehouse had no idea whether it was because she didn’t bother to find out. Despite awarding it a capital L for Left-wing, she dismissed it out of hand. It was ‘Left-wing’ and so of no account, either to her or (she was not an imaginative woman) to her readers.

Whitehouse’s agenda was Christian and right-wing. She did not wish merely to drive libertarian thinking from broadcasting, her aim was to drive all thinking from broadcasting. Thinking and reasoning are repugnant to right-wing religious zealots, who require blind devotion and obedience, not the danger of individuality, dispute and questioning that thought leads to.

And by that measure, she has certainly won the war. Television almost entirely and radio to a degree are intellect-free zones. True, they are largely religion-free zones, taste-free zones and genuine uplift-free zones. The survivors of the “National VALA” (as Whitehouse always self-importantly called it) will bitterly regret that. But they can feel that the crusade has achieved its purpose. It has destroyed television as a reputable cultural and intellectual force.

In my single-channel childhood, the BBC showed programmes of a cultural and intellectual content that would now be deemed too rarefied for BBC4, let alone BBC2 (to which such material was ‘relegated’ after the BBC went twin-channeled in 1964). Academics routinely appeared on the box. Now you search in vain for weighty opinions from the seats of learning, save for those like Mary Beard and David Starkey who have learned how to project themselves as ‘personalities’ or Brian Cox who has the rare advantage in academe of being thought sexy.

Of course, professors appear on science and other soi-disant serious documentaries, but their contributions often suggest that there has been a steep falling-off even at Oxbridge. Take a figure like Professor Mick Aston, he of the West Midlands accent, streaming white hair and perpetual pullover of horizontal, strobing, candy stripes that reinforce his resemblance to a beach ball. His vehicle, Time Team, home of bad hair and worse clothes (or is it bad clothes and worse hair? I can never be sure), is an archaeological dig show of a diverting and nifty kind. But you can’t help feeling that, sat down for a wide-ranging discussion with the likes of AJ Ayer, CEM Joad, Alan Bullock and Jacob Bronowski, Prof Mick would soon flounder. There are few real intellectuals on television now. Teleworld is a place where Stephen Fry passes for a brainbox. Sir Freddie Ayer would have eaten him for breakfast.

If one were looking for a programme that perfectly demonstrated the precipitate decline of British television since 1970, one could hardly have asked for a more complete example than Derek. I do not, of course, refer to Isaac Julien’s rapturous film of that name of 2008, a portrait of Derek Jarman. Rather I mean the 24-minute comedy drama shown on Channel 4 recently. There can be no doubt to whom the responsibility for this programme attaches: writer, director, executive producer and leading actor were all Ricky Gervais, and the credited production company was styled Derek Productions, so we may assume that Gervais conducted the deal that led to C4 bankrolling this – let us call a spade a spade – vanity project.

The eponym was a worker in a residential home for the elderly. The residents barely registered, save in relation to Derek and then in over-familiar and demeaning terms. The plotting, such as it was, merely served to construct a portrait of Derek’s persona. Unhappily, though, Derek himself was a hand-me-down sketch, a largely unexplored type of inadequacy. Gervais’ preoccupation with inadequacy as a subject is a matter for him and his analyst, but insofar as it dominates his output it is a more serious matter for commissioning editors – it is well past the time when they should be asking more of this talent who appears more interested in revealing his antic spirit in personal appearances than in the more substantial business of hard creative work.

I do not take this line out of any antagonism to Gervais’ work to date or to his handling of his fame. Never knowingly having set eyes on him before, I was completely in tune with The Office from its opening seconds. Its cod-documentary style has become pretty much the default position for television comedy (Come Fly with Me, Modern Family), though this is not to suggest that Gervais invented it: Orson Welles, Woody Allen and Christopher Guest (among others) were there long before.

But just imagine what might have been done with this basic premise by a politically engaged writer or director working in the 1960s or ’70s: Jeremy Sandford, Nell Dunn, Jim Allen, Trevor Griffiths, Dennis Potter, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, Ken Loach, Alan Clarke, Roy Battersby. What struck me most forcibly about Derek was its lack of what psychologists call affect. To achieve affect – the impact on emotion of ideas – you need ideas. And Derek had none. It was no more than a half-arsed attempt to be simultaneously funny and poignant, saleable purely by being a star vehicle. It exquisitely fulfilled the aim of Mary Whitehouse: it entirely eschewed thought. And that’s just where British television is at.

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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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