It happened on January 16, 1920 when US President Warren Harding enhanced his election prospects by introducing Prohibition. It all seemed very noble. The Bill was introduced with these stirring words: "The slums will soon be a memory, men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh." It was almost Blairite in its piety (New Labour, No Liquor), but as we discovered in Prohibition: 13 Years That Changed America (BBC 2 Sat) the ban on alcohol opened an era of brazen corruption, untrammelled sleaze, murder and mayhem.
The fundamental flaw was that the ban was on the making, selling and transportation of alcohol, not on the drinking or buying of it. The lure of the forbidden proved irresistible. Within years, the number of speakeasies in New York increased seven-fold, 800,000 gallons of sacramental wine - exempt from the new law - were sold, breweries sprang up in basements. New York was like a city on a still.
Gang bosses paid, and paid well, to keep the stills brewing, the deliveries rolling and the speakeasies open. From the cop on the street, to the judge in court, even to President Harding's own attorney general, everyone was on the take. It was so intoxicating that it seemed glamorous. Take George Remus, who spurned a career in law to brew "medicinal" whisky. He made so much money, he was able to give 50 female guests a Pontiac each at one of his parties and became the inspiration for The Great Gatsby.
The glamour was enhanced by the programme's extensive black-and-white footage, all hoods and hoofers, and the sense that crime was merely B-movie fantasy was reinforced by the breathless commentary by Ed Asner who went at the script like Eliot Ness busting a rum-runner. As one flirty, faded, flapper from the Ziegfeld Follies giggled:"We were all at it. We were in heaven."
A definite contender for prohibition: Shane Richie. He presented Wakey, Wakey, Rise and Shane! (ITV Sun), which was meant to be an affectionate look at the history of the British holiday camp. Not only did Billy Butlin and Fred Pontin transform the way we took our annual holiday in the Fifties, free from the austere gaze of the seaside landlady, but it also changed entertainment for later generations, when the acts who had struggled on those shabby seaside stages became stars. Where would British showbusiness be now without Bobby Davro, Sir Cliff, Tarbie, Gary Wilmot, Michael Barrymore, and rocker in chief, Rick Parfitt?
However, the chance for any insight into what was a significant nugget of cultural history was wrecked by Richie leaping up and down like a participant in a Butlin's apple-bobbing contest. A far better host would have been Jimmy Perry, creator of Hi-de-Hi! and a contributor to the show, since he evinced a genuine feel for the nostalgia, the post-war sweetness of it all.
Another contender for prohibition is Michael Grade - at least as far as The Daily Mail is concerned. It labelled him pornogragher in chief for all the disgustingly enjoyable programmes he showed when he headed up Channel 4. In The Works: Michael Grade - the Last Showman (BBC2 Sun), nobody had an unkind word to say about him - he apparently made no enemies. The programme was as bland as he was controversial.
The man who is credited with the success of EastEnders, Live Aid, the projection of Dennis Potter, Drop the Dead Donkey and The Big Breakfast appears to have pulled on his trademark red socks, puffed on his cigar, strapped on his braces and sailed effortlessly onward and upward. (The fact that his family ran most of showbusiness probably helped a bit.) All too easy. There should be a law against it.Reuse content