Pete Martin: Be wary of laughing off BBC bans

The BBC's decision to censor a song from the Wizard of Oz this week is the latest in a line of interventions from 'Auntie'. Picture: Getty
The BBC's decision to censor a song from the Wizard of Oz this week is the latest in a line of interventions from 'Auntie'. Picture: Getty
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Many acts have fallen foul of the corporation’s prim code, but we must be wary of laughing off the latest attempt to suppress public dissent, writes Pete Martin.

The BBC is a hotbed of radicalism, isn’t it? The licence-fee funded broadcaster is full of lefties, anarchists and unbelievers, all committed to the downfall of civilisation and right-thinking religiosity. Or so you might think, if you listened to the persistent propaganda from this country’s right-wing politicians and press. Yet, a simple glance at the corporation’s history reveals a different truth, and a darker agenda.

In its broadcasting, the Beeb has always been as conservative and as primly proper as any “Aunty” could be, often hilariously so.

One of the weirdest BBC prejudices was against records which simply riffed off classical music. “The jazzing by dance bands of classical tunes is unacceptable,” opined the Green Book, the BBC variety programmes policy guide for writers and producers, which was first disseminated throughout the corporation in 1949, but its existence was only revealed to the world in a book by writer Barry Cryer in 1976. Tracks which fell foul of the ruling included Frank Sinatra’s The Cradle Song from 1944 where Ol’ Blues Eyes intoned Brahms’ Lullaby, and the Cougar’s Saturday Nite at the Duckpond from 1961, a Shadows-esque pop instrumental of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Dangerous and subversive stuff from which we all need to be protected, surely?

But Auntie’s snobbery barely shows an ankle compared to her full-frontal prudery. The BBC’s dance music policy committee, which appears to have been set up in the 1930s, vetted the lyrics of every musical number with a mindset harking back to the Victorian era.

George Formby was a regular and seemingly unrepentant offender, described by the committee as “our old friend”. The northern comic twanged his banjolele with his tongue firmly in his cheek and the southern softie censors were not amused. But what twisted minds, we ask ourselves, could possibly misinterpret this lovely ballad from 1937 about an innocent jaunt to the seaside? “With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll/ In the ballroom I went dancing each night/ No wonder every girl that danced with me, stuck to me tight.” For some reason, the committee insisted “that certain lines in the lyric must not be broadcast”.

In more recent history, you may remember Radio 1 DJ Mike Read crusading against Relax by Liverpool band Frankie Goes To Hollywood in 1984. Now a member of Ukip and a former campaigner for Boris Johnson, Read’s liberal credentials are obviously unimpeachable. He’s been declared bankrupt twice, too – once for unpaid council bills and once for unpaid taxes – so probity and fairness are surely central to his decision-making. Yet, halfway through Holly Johnson’s vocal, Read felt forced to lift the needle and declare the record “obscene”.

With typical resoluteness, R1 also refused to play the track, except on the Top 40. Predictably, the record-buying public backed the sanctimonious DJ and his employers to such an extent that the song was propelled from No6 in the charts to No1, becoming the seventh best-selling single of all time.

How ironic that a DJ could be so shocked by something as simple as a pop song while working for an organisation that seemingly turned a blind eye to Jimmy Savile’s real-life wrong-doing.

Besides pastiche overtures and sexual undertones (including “effeminacy in men”), there are four classic ways to get yourself banned by the BBC. As Read’s own musical career testifies, making bad records isn’t one of them.

Traditionally, making religious references, no matter how sincere or fleeting, were sure to be banned. Even the genuine hokum of the Deck of Cards by T Tex Tyler in 1948 was left in broadcasting limbo. This is not because the BBC is a secular body. Quite the reverse. The organisation is overly-fond of religion, even though audiences aren’t.

Last year, the BBC’s head of religion, Aaqil Ahmed, reviewed Radio 4’s Thought for the Day – a slot from which humanist thinkers are banned. Unsurprisingly, his faith in the religiously-biased format proved unshakeable.

Drugs, too, will be sniffed out by the BBC, even if the songs have cunningly constructed titles such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles, allegedly about the hallucinogenic effects of LSD. That’s somewhat more subtle than the Shamen’s efforts with Ebeneezer Goode, banned in 1992. Their No1 hit paid homage to the dance drug Ecstasy (E for short) with the repeated refrain “Es are good”.

Since the Second World War, the BBC also has a track record of banning tracks that might undermine wartime morale, raise questions in the public mind or, indeed, be interpreted as promoting peace. For example, unimaginable as it sounds, John Lennon’s Imagine was banned during the first Gulf War.

The BBC also targeted Phil Collins’s highly political, highly philosophical work In the Air Tonight. Although based on the novel L’Etranger by Albert Camus, the Cure’s 1979 number Killing an Arab was also forbidden airplay. All of which seems a strange mindset in an open democracy. Can we really consider killing people in the Middle East less distasteful than singing about it?

What such censorship points to is that the BBC is a highly political organisation. And not necessarily in the liberal, leftie, free-speech-loving way you might expect by tuning in to Conservative Central Office. As a mainstay of the British Establishment, the BBC may have struggled for impartiality at the best – and worst – of times. For the final way to get banned by the BBC is by political dissent. Paul McCartney’s 1972 song Give Ireland Back to the Irish reached No16 in the UK charts, despite being barred from broadcast. Even the popular Pinky and Perky show, featuring two high-pitched puppet pigs, was banned briefly in 1966 for an episode which dared to suggest Anyone Can Be Prime Minister.

But, as you know, that’s not really true. To get into No10, it helps to be privately educated and, as in the case of David Cameron, a fifth cousin of the Queen. And also, as Lord Justice Leveson observed in last year’s inquiry, if you go “to great lengths” to curry favour with Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Which just happens to own pay-TV broadcaster Sky. Which just happens to be the arch competitor of the BBC.

Right now, for all its faults, there’s a genuinely dangerous political and plutocratic backwash to the relentless pressure on the BBC. It’s a cynical attempt to suppress dissent and shift the centre of public debate to the right.

If you find that hard to believe, just wait for the next ding-dong.