Call that a revolution?

It's taken 30 years to see the sitcom potential of the Sixties counterculture. At last, says David Lister
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My favourite image of the hippy era is of the American singer Tiny Tim, a cherubic, long-haired harbinger of peace and love, on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival. Before his angelic countertenor voice burst into song, he preached a hippy sermon to Britain's largest ever hippy gathering. "Share with your neighbour," he exhorted the 600,000-strong audience. My second favourite image is of Tiny Tim backstage a few moments before. His ukelele in one hand, he holds the other out demanding cash in advance or he ain't singing. In a way he was the archetypal hippy: an embryonic businessman, a wideboy with curls, bells and beads whose public platitudes and vacant hippy-drippy smile belied a pragmatic egotism.

From the multi-coloured kaftan wearers at 1967's Summer of Love to the would-be martyrs and publicity pranksters of the Oz obscenity trial in 1971, they were, in the words of Thomas Sugrue, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, "tripping and partying on their parents' subsidy. You could party and hang out and drop in and drop out in the Sixties without having to worry that much about long-term cost to economic future." Not for nothing is the best shot in the unutterably tedious Woodstock that of overweight American adolescents weeping in the mud, unable to find telephones to summon mom and pop to come and pick them up in the car.

There are many myths about the 1960s, but none beats the myth that the hippies were a force for social change. The hippy movement was always ripe for one thing, though - a sitcom. Curiously there has never been one. But that is about to be remedied. Developed by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, the creators of Father Ted, and written by Mathews, Hippies starts on BBC2 this week. It is funny and evocative. The hippies are suitably well-heeled, suitably convinced of their own place in social history, and suitably unfocused. In the opening scene one of the hippies takes all his drugs into the police station as part of a drugs amnesty and lectures the constable on the repressiveness of the state. To which the constable replies cheerfully: "What drugs amnesty?" Hippies often got the date wrong.

Linehan's and Mathews' sitcom is set in the offices of an underground magazine called Mouth, a thinly disguised version of real-life Sixties papers, among whose number was a periodical called Suck. The series culminates in the trial of the paper's owners when they try to produce a schoolkids' issue. Here again, the parallel is clear. In 1971 the Old Bailey thrilled to the sight of barrrister John Mortimer defending three publishers of Oz against charges of obscenity. Lasting six weeks, it was the longest obscenity trial in British legal history, and fanned the embers of hippiedom - a young libertarian named John Birt was among the fund-raisers.

The defendants were the Oz publishers Felix Dennis (now the owner of a successful publishing empire), Richard Neville and Jim Anderson. In the summer of 1971 they were prosecuted for putting together a special "School Kids Issue". It included a number of sado-masochistic cartoons such as Rupert Bear apparently raping the American comic character Gipsy Granny. Puerile and self-aggrandising, it was a rather feeble butterfly for the establishment to break upon a wheel.

The underground as a whole was far smaller than is now remembered. Robert Hewison, a cultural historian who has written exhaustively on the period, says: "It consisted of about 100 people. You could name them. The number of contributors to the underground press - the number of people who were actually active - was about 100."

As left-of-centre feminists Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell recalled in Sweet Freedom, their book on the women's liberation movement: "Radical politics in the 1960s provided an excellent breeding ground for feminism. Men led the marches and made the speeches and expected their female comrades to lick envelopes and listen." One of the great Sixties heroes, the black power leader Stokely Carmichael, was heard to say that the only place for a woman was "prone". And nearly everyone believes that the psychedelic record sleeve to the Beatles' Sgt Pepper sprang solely from the imagination of pop artist Peter Blake. In fact, it was co-designed with his then wife, Jann Haworth. But she has been written out of history by rock and art chroniclers.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the Sixties revolution led not to a world of free love, nor even to anarchic socialism, but to the iron grip of conservatism across the western world. The all-pervasive hostility to "the establishment" as personified by the state had a deadly legacy, confesses Tariq Ali, the student leader of 1968 and now a television programme-maker. "There were some aspects of the Sixties which need and deserve to be criticised," he has written. "Reagan and Thatcher played on crude anti-state prejudices to proclaim that true hope could be realised only in the conditions created by the free market. What was loose, laid-back and half-baked in the Sixties became a deadly and potent virus in the hands of those who followed Hayek and Friedman during the Eighties and Nineties."

Hewison agrees: "The hippies were the aunties of Thatcher. If you think about the economic libertarianism of the Eighties, it goes with some aspects of do-your- own-thing. Economically, the hippies were drones. They lived on the surplus thrown up by the Sixties economic boom. But they did have a very important symbolic function for society. They pushed the envelope of personal liberation. There was no political revolution in '68. But there was a liminal revolution."

Chris Stone, author of The Last of the Hippies, recalled wanly last week: "One day I reached enlightenment. I'd taken some LSD and had a cold. This dewdrop formed on the end of my nose. I went cross-eyed looking at it. Suddenly it caught the light, and it was like the light of all eternity beaming brilliant, shimmering messages at me. All the guys believed in free love, that we should share our women. Trouble was, I don't remember any of us ever having a girlfriend." In The Neophiliacs (1969), Christopher Booker remarked: "There seemed to be no one standing outside the bubble, and observing just how odd and shallow and egocentric and even rather horrible it was."

The Oz Three escaped their sentences on appeal, but they did not escape ignominy. While they spent a week in prison awaiting probation reports, the warders took revenge on behalf of for the establishment - and cut their hair.

`Hippies': BBC2, Friday, 9.30pm