The 70s. WTF. The Channel 4 documentary series It Was Alright In the 70s that aired over the last 2 Saturdays drew on the extremes. Rape jokes galore, and X-rated child safety information films that terrified us. For those interested in following up the short comments of mine that aired, here are links to pieces I’ve written over the years.
But having watched the programmes what struck me was:
1. How the most shocking material was seeing highbrow middle class presenters Michael Parkinson and Barry Norman involved in really sexist and racist content, where it was least expected. Parky’s Sunday Times advert was a lazy and gratuitous cricket visual, worthy of Benny Hill of scoring with a younger blonde. Norman’s scripted sarcasm for an Agatha Christie remake, implied it was essentially, political correctness gone mad (in 1975!) to not use the “n” word. Something about only black people being allowed to call “a nigger a spade”. I’m guessing he wrote that himself. Remarkable and revealing of attitudes in the highbrow end of broadcasting at the time, especially when you think of the effortless talent-based diversity of many children’s programmes at the time, notably Play School which had been casting such broadcasters as Paul Danquah and Derek Griffiths for years.
2. Derek Griffiths is a God. You might not know this if you saw only the strange bus- top song about interracial love featured on It Was Alright In the 70s. If he came across as defensive in the interview, I suspect it’s because it’s so completely atypical of his work. Ask anyone who watched him on Play School or Play Away. At her British Film Institute event in February last year Joy Whitby, the former head of BBC Children’s Programmes, who launched Play School, singled him out as one of the greatest talents she’s seen. He was an incredibly important role model. Wayne Laryea on Pipkins was the same. The producer of Pipkins recently told me how much his talent stood out, but he was never given the break to develop his career. As I observed of female actors like Madeline Smith, there was a sense for actors of colour of taking what work there was or none, while the battles for fair treatment continued longterm.
3. The Goodies’ South Africa episode (one of the frustratingly few available on DVD) is admirably daring. In an unused part of my interview for the doco I mentioned a similarly daring episode (Cunning Stunts – yes that’s right) about role reversal sexual harrassment in which horrible boss Tessa Wyatt pinches Tim Brooke Taylor’s bum. When he complains she declares “If you don’t want it pinched, don’t flaunt it so.” My sister and I loved this episode and used to quote that line. In fact we still do. And watching a different clip from the episode available on the BBC website this future journalist had forgotten it was set in a newsroom.
4. There was a special art to doing the Black and White Minstrels’ makeup without smudging it into grey. A senior makeup artist at the BBC told me. Incidentally makeup artists I’ve met across British broadcasting have all witnessed or experienced a lot of sexual harassment in light ents. One told me on joining the BBC in the 70s they were told by producers, never to leave any children alone with Jimmy Savile.
5. Actually urban Britain was a lot more happily diverse than you might think. My mum, who made me turn off Love Thy Neighbour (which now, as an adult, having never watched it before, is quite fascinatingly sophisticated in intent) was at the same time presenting a weekly Indian cookery slot on the popular lunchtime BBC1 show Pebble Mill At One and hanging out with guests like Sacha Distel. She had a chat show on BBC2 called Gharbar (Oprah for first generation Asian immigrant women) where they discussed everything from domestic violence to how to cook with exotic new ingredients like broccoli. I sat in the gallery and watched recordings and experienced nothing but inclusive professional BBC camaraderie between crew, production team and presenters that made me feel welcome.
6. Those children’s safety films. I quite like Matthew Sweet’s thesis that our generation raised on The Death Line were so terrified that we are to blame for the fact that no one lets their kids out to play anymore. However I contend that the real message of those films was: there are lots of dangers and predatory adults out there and no one is going to even attempt to put in safeguards to protect you from them. This was absolutely true. In the stranger danger film I watched the smart child even says “no thankyou” to the paedeophile trying to entice him into his car. Popular culture gave them easy cover.
7. I blame the 1960s sort of. Middle class ad and broadcast executives poured their own idea of the sexual freedom of the counterculture into the punchbowl of 70s British TV. Arthur Lowe lusting over schoolgirls. John Peel’s “schoolgirl of the week” feature, say, is still overlooked as he was a champion of indie music. Or take Adrian Henri’s sexy schoolgirl poems included in my 1980s copy of the Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse. When Roger McGough came into Channel 4 News after his death to do a reading and I showed them to him he sensibly suggested we quietly set them aside.
8. So in conclusion. There was a lot that was right in the 70s. But just like in news, it’s usually more important to point out what was wrong. As the growing number of investigations into historic child abuse stemming from Operation Yewtree unfold, remembering what was considered just entertainment in mainstream 70s TV, is a useful insight into just what people in power could get away with and why.