Murder! Incest! Cannibalism!: Why 1976 was a year of TV excess

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As ITV remakes one of 1976’s lustiest TV sagas, Gerard Gilbert looks back on a year that broke every boundary

What a long journey it's been from then to now – from the deferential and stuffy British television of the 1950s to the current TV landscape, where people swear as easily as they breathe, characters do drugs as freely as they once puffed on Player's cigarettes, and discuss sex in the sort of detail once confined to the top shelf at the newsagent's – they even have sex sometimes, when they forget the cameras are watching (thank you, Big Brother). Mary Whitehouse fought a sustained rearguard action, but the forces of permissiveness had the tide of history in their favour, and if one 12-month period had to be chosen to represent the opening of the floodgates over what was deemed permissible to beam into the nation's living-rooms, then a good case could be made for 1976.

Well, OK, if we want to be pedantic, this annus mirabilis (or miserabilis, depending on your point of view), actually kicked off in the final two weeks of 1975, with Jack Gold's ground-breaking adaptation of Quentin Crisp's memoirs The Naked Civil Servant, with its defiantly unashamed depiction of homosexuality. It would be book-ended 12 months later with the Sex Pistols' infamous appearance on Thames Television's Today programme, in which Bill Grundy met his match in a group of anarchic "kids" in the most seismic five-minute filler item on any regional news magazine ever – more of which later.

But more than anything, 1976 should be in our minds this week because ITV is starting to screen its surprisingly good remake of Andrea Newman's Bouquet of Barbed Wire, a steamy saga of lust, adultery and implied incest that kept millions of (mostly female) viewers agog. "It was The Forsyte Saga of its day, only stronger," explains Mark Duguid of the British Film Institute.

Set in deepest suburban Surrey, it starred Frank Finlay as Peter Manson, a publisher with somewhat un-paternal feelings for his full-lipped daughter Prue (Susan Penhaligon in a role that was to turn her into a mid-1970s sex symbol). And in the drama's most infamous twist, Prue's boyfriend, Gavin, ends up between the sheets with Prue's mother – prompting the then-TV critic for The Observer, Clive James, to quip that "by the end everybody had been to bed with everybody else except the baby".

"I think reviewers found it a bit embarrassing because it was very intense and sort of un-British," says Newman today. "I don't think there would have been so much fuss about Bouquet had it been, say, a French film. Anyway, it was new for television. Now we're used to everybody stripping off and having compulsory sex scenes."

As for the scenes of father-daughter incest, these were totally in the minds of the viewers, says Newman. "Manson would be, and was, shocked at the very idea and would never have done anything like that – it was just in the atmosphere. People thought they'd seen more sex than they had; there was actually very little nudity and explicit sex, but there was a lot of talk about sex and love and emotion... it was all very intense. It had a very erotic atmosphere and, in the mid-1970s, television wasn't like that."

Which is not quite how Trevor Eve, who plays Manson in the ITV remake (and whose third starring role this will be in an Andrea Newman saga, following A Sense of Guilt in 1988 and Evil Streak in 1998), remembers it. "We're living now in a strange period of social history," he reckons, "a much more moral time. When I was doing television drama in the 1970s and 1980s there was a lot of nudity and sexual activity on screen."

Certainly a lot of that nudity and sexual activity could be found in another hugely popular TV drama from 1976 – one that used the greater permissiveness to give some authentic depravity to its depiction of Ancient Rome. I, Claudius, BBC2's 12-part dramatisation of two novels by Robert Graves – I, Claudius and Claudius the God – had a star-making title performance by Derek Jacobi, featured John Hurt as Caligula (as well as Christopher Biggins as Nero!), and a hugely memorable Sian Phillips as the murderous, reptilian Livia.

Infamous scenes included Caligula murdering his pregnant sister (whom he has married) before cutting the foetus out of her womb and eating it, and the Empress Messalina engaging in a sex marathon. It makes the supposedly racy modern-day history bonkbuster The Tudors look distinctly chaste in comparison, and when shown in the US on Public Service Broadcasting, I, Claudius single-handedly redefined the parameters of acceptable taste on American television.

"There was a general loosening of inhibitions and restrictions about expressing sexuality on screen," says Duguid. "It was an interesting time... there was something in the air. You've got the beginnings of that Dennis Potter stuff as well..."

Ah, yes, that Dennis Potter stuff. It wasn't quite a case of "anything goes" on TV that year, as Potter discovered with his Play for Today: Brimstone and Treacle, a darkly religious fable in which a demonic stranger worms his way into a household and rapes the mentally and physically handicapped daughter. The drama was pulled two weeks before transmission, the generally permissive BBC Head of Programmes, Alasdair Milne, banning it on the grounds that the work was "brilliantly written and made, but nauseating". It wasn't to be aired until 1987.

Meanwhile, other notable products of 1976 included Rock Follies, Howard Schuman's musical drama about an all-female rock band, which broke taboos about the depiction of prostitution and pornography, while on the lighter end of the spectrum there were Mike Leigh's classic Play for Today: Nuts in May and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, with Leonard Rossiter as the middle- manager suffering an existential crisis.

"Reggie Perrin and that dropping out thing... challenging the bourgeois lifestyle... that's also what Mike Leigh's stuff is all about around that time. It's all about the limits of bourgeois society," says Duguid. Actually, the limits of bourgeois society were about to be tested by the Sex Pistols, who, in just five minutes during teatime on 1 December 1976, propelled themselves from the fringes of the music scene to the forefront of the public consciousness. All it took was three "fucks" – not the first to be uttered on television (Kenneth Tynan and Peregrine Worsthorne had got in there first), but as Nick Hornby would later remark, "Glen Matlock (the Pistols' original bassist) is the first person without an Oxbridge degree to have used the word on television."

"Though 1976 is a long time ago," continued Hornby, "and obscenities can now be heard on British TV every day, they don't appear on early-evening news magazine shows. And in 1976, we had only three channels. Given that one of them was BBC2, nearly half the viewing audience in the London area would have thrilled to the sight and sound of a middle-aged man goading some outlandish-looking teenagers to "say something outrageous". Say something outrageous. It could almost be the mantra for television's year of living dangerously.

'A Bouquet of Barbed Wire' begins at 9pm on ITV1 tomorrow

Anything else on telly?

It wasn't all sex and swearing in 1976...

'Bionic Woman'

Six Million Dollar Man spin-off in which Steve Austin's girlfriend, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner, above) was rebuilt after a sky-diving accident, so she could now outrun a speeding car. Given some of British Leyland's makes at the time, that might not have been as impressive as it sounds.

'George and Mildred'

Man about the House spin-off in which the Ropers – man-eating Mildred (Yootha Joyce) and weedy, hen-pecked husband George (Brian Murphy) – moved up in the world, enduring petty snobbery. How we laughed – until Joyce's sudden, unexpected death, at the age of 53, in 1980.

'Multi-Coloured Swap Shop'

The BBC's answer to ITV's more popular Tiswas , and further evidence that Noel Edmonds is oddly indestructible; the broadcasting wonder held together a ragbag of cartoons, pop music, live phone-ins and the eponymous swaps. Perhaps the finest hour of Keith Chegwin.

'Rentaghost'

The future Prime Suspect writer Lynda La Plante, under her stage name Lynda Marchal, can be found in this BBC's children's series featuring a trio of hapless ghosts. Anarchic fun full of memorable characters, but don't try looking for the DVD – some of the actors are blocking the release because their contracts at the time did not include video royalties. GG

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