Daily Mail, September 7, 2017
Back in November 1965, writer Kenneth Tynan, then the literary manager of the National Theatre, was asked during a late-night BBC television discussion if he would allow sexual intercourse to take place on stage.
It was a deliberately provocative question, and, slightly side-stepping it, Tynan gave the qualified answer of ‘yes’, before adding that those involved would, of course, have to answer to the courts.
In the normal course of things this reply would have been inflammatory enough. But it was the language of the response that brought the world tumbling about Tynan’s and the BBC’s ears. Because in it he chose to use the forbidden F word to describe the sex act.
In the entire history of British radio and television no-one had ever used that word in a broadcast before. It was forbidden, beyond the pale, and, in theory at least, almost universally held to be obscene, dirty and vulgar. But it had now been heard in possibly millions of homes across the nation.
Within seconds, viewers were dialling the BBC. With only one phone line in those days to answer the cascade of anger that the word had unleashed, very few callers would have got through. But, for those who did, the duty officer, to whom all calls of this nature were routinely diverted, would have written down the nature of the complaint and promised to pass it on to the relevant department the following day.
By that time, however, the verbal crime was causing consternation in the morning papers, and outraged letter writers all across the country, were pouring out their disgust at what they had heard.
“Last night in the privacy of my sitting room,’ a man from Swansea wrote to the BBC, ‘a man employed by your Corporation uttered through the medium of a television broadcast…a foul obscenity which has never before been heard in my home, and I trust will never be heard again.’
Other letter writers blamed the whole BBC establishment. Poor Huw Weldon, who many of us had grown up considering him to be a friendly uncle figure when he’d presented the children’s programme All Your Own, and who was unlikely to have even been in the building when the vile word had been spoken, really got it in the neck in his new job. He was now the Controller of Programmes.
‘After seeing you on television many times, I formed the opinion that you were a decent, honourable and fair minded intellectual,’ wrote another viewer. ‘I now put you in the same class as some of the other sex mad intellectuals who infest and seem to control the BBC.’
And so it went on, with questions asked in the House of Commons and a telegram of protest sent to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Mary Whitehouse, the founder of a campaign called Clean Up TV, even wrote to the Queen to protest, only to see her letter forwarded to the Postmaster General, Anthony Wedgewood Benn (as Tony Benn was then known), who said he didn’t think it was his job to interfere with the BBC.
‘I think Kenneth Tynan should have his bottom smacked,’ said Mrs Whitehouse crossly, blithely unaware that such disciplining of what she saw as a potty-mouthed arty-type might not have been altogether unwelcome. After his death, it was revealed that bottom spanking, and being spanked, had been Mr Tynan’s favourite fetish.
In today’s world, the national uproar that the broadcast provoked seems totally incomprehensible, when, with one vowel change, ‘fecking this’ and ‘fecking that’ are heard routinely on the lips of Brendan O’Carroll playing a woman on the BBC’s Mrs Brown’s Boys.
But in 1965 it really did upset a great many people, as a new book, I Am Sure I Speak For Many Others… by former television producer, and now Cambridge lecturer, Colin Shindler vividly reveals.
In those days we used to think of television as a new and exciting window on the world. But from Shindler’s research into the vast BBC archive of viewers’ letters from that period, what we find is a battlefield. As producers wished to engage with new ideas and attitudes, they were met with stiff resistance from mainly older viewers who complained loudly at the way their world was changing.
And how they complained! They didn’t like the new Hollywood cowboy series like Bronco, and they didn’t like plays with violence. They didn’t enjoy the fashionable kitchen sink dramas either like Up The Junction and they weren’t at all sure about those tough talking contemporary police in Z-Cars.
And, oh yes, they didn’t like anything vaguely alluding to sex, and in those days virtually all sex on TV was pretty vague. Quite what the gentleman from Bristol was watching when he wrote in 1964 that ‘obscenity, bestiality, smut and sex appears to be the current BBC “bull market”’, I can’t imagine. None of that was on our telly.
You see what you want to see, I suppose. When in 1968 a lady from Birmingham saw a ‘menacing man with a fixed stare and bared teeth’ in Dr Who she decided it ‘came all too close to the psychological horror of Orwell, Huxley or the Marat/Sade’ – before suggesting that it would be nice to hear the Children’s Hour recordings of Winnie The Pooh again.
Meanwhile a mother from Taunton considered the Daleks represented ‘the very dregs of children’s television’ and thought a programme for boys about ‘railways or aeroplanes’, and one for girls ‘about ballet or nursing’, would be more suitable – those being the days of gender reinforcement from the beginning.
Then there was Grange Hill. One letter writer spotted an anti-war CND poster on the wall of a school in one episode, and accused the BBC of trying to brainwash children. While, from the opposite point of view, the pacifist Peace Pledge Union considered a Blue Peter programme about the RAF to be a recruiting tool for warmongers.
It seems Blue Peter just couldn’t get it right. In 1964 a letter from a temperance organisation, the Band of Hope Union, warned with much alarm that the programme’s recipe for children to make homemade ginger beer would also, in its brewing process, produce alcohol.
The new comedy of the Sixties was a particularly difficult area for many viewers. Traditionally British sit coms had been cosy, middle class affairs, promoting wholesome family values. But the new young producers who were coming out of the universities to take jobs in TV, wanted to portray the world around them as they saw it, not as their parents had imagined it.
Consequently, Till Death Us Do Part became the regular target for the most vituperative criticism. Despite its lead character, Alf Garnett, being, for comic effect, a wildly exaggerated, sexist, vulgar, bigoted, hateful, racist prat whose prejudiced opinions were constantly being laughed at by his daughter and her husband, its detractors just didn’t get the joke – which was always on him and people who thought like him.
‘It is quite impossible to classify this programme as entertainment,’ wrote a headmaster from Surrey. ‘I contend that it can only be classified as degradation in the extreme.’
Headmasters and headmistresses were always keen complainers, but no more so than priests, vicars and rabbis. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who in 1957 didn’t even own a television set, wrote in, having been told that an Oxford don had described ‘the Creed as mumbo-jumbo’ on a programme.
In our modern secular world, when very few people go the church, such a statement would hardly cause the blink of an eye, but sixty years ago it was serious enough for the head of the Church of England to put pen to paper.
The Church of Scotland, for its part, had, in 1963, a different problem. An educational programme was being shown on television on Sunday mornings when the elders would rather their flock was at church. So they politely wondered if that bit of education could be moved in the BBC timetable, for instance, to a later slot where home dressmaking was scheduled.
Other complaints about television’s treatment of religion, especially in comedy shows, were more serious and a great many viewers were angered about a conversation in Till Death Us Do Part which joked about whether Mary went on the Pill after Jesus was born – the Pill being new and much discussed in the Sixties.
Having been brought up in a home where Catholicism played a central part in my life, I felt a slight wince of sympathy as I read the letters describing the conversation as blasphemous, and imagined what my mother must have felt if she saw the show. For the first time, Christianity was becoming a subject for mockery, and, though she didn’t write and complain, she didn’t like it. Like many others, her religion was important to her.
Were there jokes on TV about Islam then? Probably not, as there weren’t many Moslems in the country. There aren’t so many anti-Islamic jokes now, either, come to think of it. But that’s for another reason.
For modern television humour the great turning point, and probably the greatest generator of letters of complaint, was That Was The Week That Was in 1962, when Ned Sherrin, David Frost and their team rediscovered satire. I was a student at the time, and for my generation it was absolutely liberating to see deference outlawed and all political parties and establishment figures being ridiculed. No-one was safe.
Until then the BBC’s policy for writers and producers had been to exclude all jokes concerning: ‘lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind; as well as suggestive references to honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitution, ladies underwear (eg ‘winter draws on’), animal habits (eg rabbits) and commercial travellers.’
There hardly seemed anything left to laugh about, so TW3, as the show came to be called, got round the rules by simply ignoring them. Soon Millicent Martin was singing a song about contraception (‘sickening’, wrote someone from Britain’s Bible Magazine), while another ditty called Virgins Anonymous was ‘an incitement to promiscuity’ according to a correspondent from Sevenoaks.
Was it? I would hardly have thought so. Sexual mores were beginning to change at that point for reasons quite divorced from television. Besides, more details about about sexual shenanigans were broadcast in the evening news bulletins during the trial of Stephen Ward, the procurer involved in what he now remember as the Profumo Affair, than was ever sung about on TW3.
Looking back over sixty years and more of television we can see now that all the attempts to stop and reverse what was deemed offensive in the Sixties were ultimately unsuccessful. That was inevitable. The letter writers believed that new young producers were the enemy. But they were wrong. In my opinion, the producers were responding to a social revolution that was taking place, driven by many, many different factors, from the Pill, to a better educated generation, to greater prosperity and so on.
The letter writers couldn’t stop the sweep of history, nor the great mass of viewers who didn’t write letters but who enjoyed the programmes that the complainers despised so much. Generally speaking, only the dissatisfied put pen to paper.
‘People look to the television as they would to a senior member of the family,’ was one of Mary Whitehouse’s favourite sayings. That may have been true for some people, perhaps particularly so in the decade after the war when the country was finding its feet again.
But it wasn’t a role television could go on playing for ever – not even ‘Auntie’ BBC.
So where are we now, when the television set is no longer only in our sitting rooms, but is also in our kitchens and our bedrooms, on our computers and even in our pockets, and where several members of the same family can watch different programmes at different times?
Has it corrupted us, as some once feared it might. Has it ruined family life? Has it set bad examples for us all?
I don’t believe so. I don’t like everything that is available 24 hours a day on the two hundred plus channels that are on my set, any more than you do. But then I don’t watch a hundred and ninety of them.
I wish some things were different, of course. Back in the Sixties, when we thought some of Millicent Martin’s songs were a bit risqué, I would never have imagined that a Channel 4 programme like Naked Attraction, in which men and women view the naked bodies of members of the opposite sex before deciding whether to go out with them, would ever have been shown on mainstream television.
But there we are, it is.
As is so much more that is brilliant, illuminating, educating, entertaining and worthwhile.
Nearly half a century ago a documentary film called the Royal Family was made which showed the Queen, Prince Philip and their children in as domestic a setting as was possible. The Coronation in 1953 had been a great success, spurring the growth in television ownership across the country, and there were in 1969 worries that seeing the Queen close-up, as it were, would take away some of her majesty, wash away some of the magic of royalty.
The fears were unfounded. The Queen’s popularity only grew with the showing of the film, and, despite a couple of wobbles, it has continued to grow.
The doom-mongers who wanted to put the clock back had been wrong again.
I Am Sure I Speak For Many Others… (Unpublished Letters To The BBC) by Colin Shindler is published by BBC Books.