Respectable actors would talk about where they drew the line on foody scenes ("I'm prepared to chew if I feel it's integral to the plot, but I won't get involved in gratuitous munching"), and hardcore porn, complete with three-to-a-plate meals and unsimulated swallowing, would be available in Soho backstreets. And when Channel 4 dared to broadcast Babette's Feast, that joyous hymn to the pleasures of the table, Paul Johnson would thunder in the Daily Mail about the unbridled scenes of gluttony that were being inflicted on innocent members of the public. Mark my words, he would foam, melted butter will run in the gutters and children's innocent minds be corrupted by this depraved display of French sauce.
Of course, we have no such problem with our appetite for food, no shame in the pleasures it delivers. So when Paul Johnson called for the sacking of Michael Grade last week, it was, yet again, sex that was at the heart of the matter. Britain's Pornographer-in-Chief should be dismissed, he raged, for turning Channel 4 into a "haven of filth". The immediate provocation was some of the seamier stunts performed by The Word, but the real burden of his complaint was the channel's recent Red Light Zone (described as a "series of pornography programmes") and its forthcoming series Dyke TV, 15 hours of late-night programming aimed at lesbians and anyone else who might find lesbianism interesting. Both series, incidentally, are confined to television's top shelf, the late-hours schedules. If even red-blooded rugby fans find it difficult to stay up past half-eleven, as evidenced by the recent fuss over World Cup coverage, then it seems unlikely that the elderly church-goers and patriots Johnson is so worried about will stumble over such material by chance.
They will have to set their videos in order to be corrupted, like the shocked correspondent who wrote to me earlier this week claiming to have detected a single frame of hardcore pornography in Eurotrash, after some laborious work with the freeze-frame button.
They would be disappointed anyway. In contrast to Paul Johnson, I take the view that there is nothing like enough sex on British television, that our attitudes to sexual material are depressingly adolescent in their uncertainty and bad faith. As a result, I looked forward to Red Light Zone with some anticipation. In the event I was defeated by the combination of the hour and the responsible sobriety of the material shown - a selection of intelligent documentaries, untimorous and open-minded. They varied widely in quality, but they were united by the immensely refreshing assumption that the audience wasn't going to faint at the drop of a pair of pants.
This would not, I suspect, placate Paul Johnson, whose real anxiety centres not on outraged old-age pensioners but on a perceived breakdown of state control. The authority of the system was being challenged by Grade, who has rightly denounced the tyranny of the prig, exercised through the broadcaster's switchboard and unrepresentative regulatory bodies. Johnson should calm down and reflect on the words of Milos Forman, the Czech director and a man with an intimate acquaintance with repression of all kinds.
Explaining to Variety why he was filming a movie about the paralysed pornographer Larry Flynt, he said this: "I can tell you, the first thing the Communists attacked was pornography, before they attacked anything else, and it gave them a foot in the door because nobody stood up for pornography." I'm not sure even I want real pornography on Channel 4, but it would be nice to think we might one day be grown up enough to take Babette's Bedtime.Reuse content