Aidan Smith: '˜Dear Sir .. has the BBC gone SEX mad?'
The American wit David Sedaris told a funny story in Edinburgh last Saturday about a neighbour’s experiences of online dating. She’d dropped a clanger during the soup course and the evening never really recovered. “Oh dear, what happened?” Sedaris asked her. “My date told me: ‘I’m scared of the c-word’,” she explained. “I said: ‘****?’ He said: ‘Er, no, commitment’.”
The Usher Hall chortled loudly at that. Now, a favourite song in my school playground would go: “Hitler has only got one ball/The other is in the Usher Hall.” Funny as that was, we never believed it. The Usher Hall was too respectable a place to be housing a stray goolie belonging to Der Fuhrer. Changed days when it can receive a joke like that without the roof blowing off.
In 1965 I can only imagine the risk to the whole of Britain of spontaneous combustion when Ken Tynan uttered the f-word on television. Although I was singing the Hitler/Usher Hall song by that point, I was still too young for late-night deference-trashing satire as the Sixties began to swing. That was the decade (that was) when our TV set blew up. The imitation teak simply couldn’t withstand the white heat of cultural revolution. The valves may have popped on another night entirely, but I’ve always wanted to believe Tynan was to blame.
We are now in a post-f*** world. The last time it shocked was 1976 when the Sex Pistols were goaded by Bill Grundy. Then, the programme’s 12 telephone lines were jammed with complaints and a 47-year-old lorry driver kicked in his screen. Back in ’65, moved to comment on something they’d just watched, the viewing nation got out the Basildon Bond.
A hilarious new book, I Am Sure I Speak for Many Others, collects letters sent to the BBC. Some offer warm thanks and praise but most of the correspondents are outraged and appalled. The bulk of the letters date from the 60s and the fattest chapter concerns Tynan who was speaking for the National Theatre when he notoriously declared he would permit sex on stage. You can have a pang of sympathy for the viewer in Rotherham who writes: “We have no desire to be ‘modern’ or ‘with-it’.” But when he asks in the next sentence “Has the BBC gone completely SEX mad?” you might wonder how much he enjoyed shifting up to capitals for the key word. Then there’s the complainer from Dorset who writes by way of introduction: “Heaven knows I’m not a prude or even an ardent church-goer.” He goes on to relate how, travelling on a bus earlier in the day of the Tynan explosion, he’d been required to administer a “light cuff to the ear” to swearing teenagers. At last he gets round to the issue: “It won’t be long before we shall enjoy a programme of sexual intercourse in all positions, I presume.” Presume or devoutly hope?
Most letters, though, are unequivocal. The world was spinning too fast and “kinky literary and theatrical types” were only part of the problem. There was Alf bleedin’ Garnett and there was dirty old Albert Steptoe. Pre-1960s, the BBC banned jokes about “lavatories, effeminacy in men, honeymoon couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, prostitution, ladies underwear (eg ‘winter draws on’), rabbits and commercial travellers”. Then Steptoe and Son and Till Death Us Do Part ripped up the rulebook with their inter-generational hammer-and-tongs.
Small boys - including me - begged to be allowed to stay up late to thrill to truly Olympian name-calling. Tragically many of the letter-writers didn’t get the joke about Garnett - racist and every other kind of -ist - that you were supposed to laugh at him, not along with him. For many, though, even if they didn’t call their own wives a “silly old moo”, Garnett’s concerns about immigration and the new sexual mores mirrored their own. A sad reverend in Derby wondered why the BBC couldn’t go back to making “such wonderful programmes as The Black & White Minstrel Show”. Ministers wrote lots of the letters, so too headmasters and teachers. Men spoke for their wives - maybe they enjoyed the ever-racier Plays for Today - their peer group, their sailing club, their entire county.
Where was Scotland’s voice in this tumultuous debate? Colin Shindler’s book cannot include every letter - not when they were received at the rate of 13,000 a month, and this was the figure in 1958, before TV became properly “puerile, weirdy, debased, idiotic, smutty, obscene” and the rest. But there aren’t many from Scotland and you might wonder if this is because we had fewer Home Counties, fewer retired colonels, fewer crystal decanters which discoloured to warn about impending televisual decadence and fewer slim-legged writing bureaux in danger of snapping from the pressure exerted by so many angry Parker fountain pens. Amid all the calls for David Frost to be sacked after his latest satirical outrage, Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, there was support from Edinburgh. Two women write of their “emptiness” that the show had ended and would no longer be bashing the Establishment. Meanwhile from Renfrewshire, shouting into the gale of condemnation against Tynan, at least one viewer reckoned he’d chosen “the best possible word in the context”, adding: “He forced me to realise more sharply than anyone before what is involved in rejecting censorship.” Mary Whitehouse, on the other hand, reckoned Tynan “should have his bottom smacked”. This was long before his memoirs revealed spanking to be his fetish.