The XXX Factor: An uncensored history of swearing on TV

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The BBC is tightening up on bad language. But does public profanity actually have the power to shock any more? Peter Silverton replays the moments the airwaves went blue

It was early evening, a December Wednesday, a time of homework deferred and dinner (or tea or supper) made (or eaten or cleared). In a TV studio at the base of a glass and green-granite tower on the northern edge of central London, Steve, then 21, faced his questioner and said to him: "You dirty sod; you dirty old man." Then: "You dirty bastard." And: "You dirty fucker."

In that moment – broadcast live on the first day of the last month of 1976 – things changed. Language – bad language, filthy English – jumped out of the media shadows it had inhabited and began its journey towards the light.

It happened shortly before 6.30pm, on Thames TV's Today, a commercial channel's nightly magazine show, with all the usual local news items – weather reports, traffic updates, charity eating competitions, skateboarding ducks. It happened in a Britain in which there were only three TV channels and families did sit down together to their evening meal in front of the early evening local news.

Oh, there had been swearing on TV before. In sitcoms and kitchen sinkers, there had been bloodies and damns and randy scouse gits. And famously, in 1965, Ken Tynan had said "fuck". But he was a theatre critic, an intellectual, a great writer, a future director of the National Theatre. His appeared with forethought and deliberation. It wasn't swearing at all, really. It was a societal intervention. It was a symbol, a weapon in a war of liberation, part personal, part global.

Steve's was his own language, not a word on display like a brocade waistcoat. Steve Jones was a guitarist, in the Sex Pistols. He'd been a thief, and still was sometimes. He was from Shepherd's Bush – a short, unpleasant walk from the BBC studios in which, 11 years earlier, Ken had said the same word in front of a late-night TV audience, but a world away really. Steve wasn't making a point. This was how he talked. This was how lots of people talked. Had talked. Do talk.

The immediate fuss about the Pistols' tea-time swearing was splenetic and sweet in its details. A man named James Holmes, a 46-year-old lorry driver, kicked in his TV. Evangelical Christians marched and placarded against it. The Daily Mirror delighted in decrying it – with, of all things, a reference to the final couplet of Macbeth's despair at his wife's suicide, his own vanities, the inevitability of life's vicissitudes. "The filth and the fury" boomed the Mirror's headline.

It's impossible to imagine such a fuss today. It's a commonplace that swearing – in public anyway – has increased since the Sex Pistols' 1976 encounter with Bill Grundy. There is no real argument about that. In the middle months of 2008, I kept an informal swearing diary. On a Friday night BBC1 panel show I heard a comic, David Mitchell, refer, quite casually, to a "fuck-up" and his "pile-of-shit" week.

It was after the 9pm watershed, the time when all good little boys and girls are meant to be in bed – if only in the archaic imagination of unworldly regulators and worldly TV executives who, cynically, affect to believe what the regulators tell them about children's bed-times. It was only just after that 9pm curfew, though. Arbitrariness is always amusingly arbitrary.

As a direct reaction to last year's Ross-Brand kerfuffle, it has been reported that the BBC Trust is backtracking from this warm embrace of profanity by proposing to extend the watershed to 10pm – though it's not in the draft editorial guidelines. Meanwhile BBC Director-General Mark Thompson gave a speech to performers, telling them not to shy away from the edge. "Editorial guidelines are just guidelines," he told a gathering which included Bruce Forsyth, John Humphrys and Jeremy Clarkson. Which means? My guess is: keep on swearing, if not in front of the children. Confused? You're clearly paying attention.

The year after the Sex Pistols swore on Thames Television's Today programme, the capital's other TV station, London Weekend Television, launched It'll Be Alright On The Night, a show which offers an interesting guide to three decades of change in swearing and our attitudes to it when it's on the box in the corner of our living room.

The show was a compilation of performers' fluffed lines and cock-ups. This kind of thing had been circulating among industry professionals since the mid-1970s advent of cheapish videotape, but this was the first time that the viewing public had been let in on the joke. There were physical laughs – actors' difficulties when handling props, actresses' difficulties in keeping their tops up. There were linguistic gaffes – lines forgotten or spoonerised. And there were the performers' sudden, barely conscious reactions to such challenges. Mostly, they swore.

It debuted in 1977 and ran for 20 shows over nearly 30 years, all hosted by Denis Norden. It'll Be Alright On The Night was recorded before a live audience. The studio audience were shown the original clips, including any inadvertent swear words. The broadcast version was censored. Unwanted words were bleeped over, with the standard, electronically generated 1000hz tone.

"It went out at peak time, before the watershed," says Norden. "So it was agreed by all concerned that any swear word would be bleeped out. A bleep always brings you up short. The audience know they've been deprived of something". Even if – unless they're lip-readers – they don't know what. "So we didn't want too many bleeps. And for the first few shows, we had no trouble with that." Each show had about 100 out-takes. "To begin with, we counted relatively few in which people said 'fuck', and none where it was women. Then we began to notice a creep or surge. Whereas in the beginning someone would have said 'damn it', that became 'fuck' or 'shit'. In particular, 'fuck' gradually began to creep in. By the 1990s, we were faced with the dilemma that some of the best out-takes had performers involuntarily saying 'fuck'. If we'd used them all, the numbers of bleeps would have escalated to the point where the show would have sounded like a supermarket check-out."

Norden only knows what they would have made of Malcolm Tucker's fantastic, wild obscenity, which is the driving force of BBC2's In The Thick Of It. The show itself is freely available on iPlayer – you just have to click the button which asks if you're 16 or over.

The American cable channels of HBO can be similarly swearful. The neo-western HBO series Deadwood, which ran from 2004 to 2006, was clocked at a record-breaking 92.4 fph ("fucks" per hour). Many of them came from the mouth of Ian McShane, the former Lovejoy star who played Al Swearengen – a real historical character whose name was reflected in his language.

It was HBO's Sex and the City which introduced "cunt" to US TV viewers in 1998. Two other HBO shows, The Sopranos and The Wire, would both be lesser affairs without their constant profanity, blasphemy and obscenity. The Sopranos' New Jersey mafiosi would barely be themselves without the word "cocksucker", and the entire stoical philosophy of the Baltimore police in The Wire is contained in their loving embrace of "clusterfuck". Not just a swearword, more an entire world view.

Yet regular network TV in the US is still as swearing-unfriendly as British TV was perhaps 40 years ago – and beset by the same problems of line-drawing. As Steve Jones' swearing on tea-time TV was a turning point in British swearing – and attitudes to it – so the American equivalent took place in 1973 when a complaint was lodged by a radio listener in Florida about an uncensored lunchtime broadcast of stand-up comic George Carlin's routine, '"Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" These words were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. 'The heavy seven', he called them.

The shakedown from the complaint about Carlin's brief routine has been at the centre of modern America's debates about obscenity, language and the media ever since. More than that, the actual rules and regulations which entangle those three have been primarily shaped by the succession of court cases about George's 'heavy seven' – up to and beyond the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) case against Bono's language at the 2003 Golden Globes.

"This is really, really fucking brilliant!" the U2 singer said, live on TV, as he picked up his award. The case against this – non-sexual – use of the word took four years to make its way through various courts, with Carlin's 1973 routine always in the background.

The FCC actually based its rulings on the 'seven dirty words' until 1987, when it replaced them with a 'generic' definition of indecency. After four years of the matter being lawyered around, a federal appeals court revoked the $550,000 (£330,000) fine initially levied by the FCC.

(I can't, by the way, help finding something indicative in the fact that, in England, it was a pop guitarist who set off the three-debate over swearing – which has been conducted primarily in the media. By contrast, in the US, the debate was instigated by a comic – and a complainer in Florida – and has subsequently been played out mostly in the courts.)

In recent years, some US radio stations have taken to self-censorship by, for example, banning the Black-Eyed Peas' "Don't Phunk with My Heart". In May 2007, the satellite radio network XM suspended a pair of 'shock jocks' for a segment in which a character named Homeless Charlie said of Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Queen Elizabeth, in turn, "I'd love to fuck that bitch." As a satellite station, XM isn't subject to FCC regulation or punishment, but it wasn't taking any chances. It needed FCC approval for its proposed merger with its competitor, Sirius. Which it did eventually get more than a year later, in July 2008, when the FCC approved it by a scant 3–2 vote in favour.

In late 2004, John Crigler, a lawyer for the Pacifica network, flew down from Los Angeles to give a talk to staff at its Houston affiliate, KPFT, about the current state of the FCC guidelines. He handed them a sheet outlining what they could and couldn't do on air. Among other things, it told them they couldn't refer to oral or non-heterosexual sex in any manner – that would be "patently offensive". They couldn't make dirty jokes or puns – "Liberace was great on the piano but sucked on the organ" is the example he gave. They couldn't play "popular songs which contain repeated references to sex or sexual organs". In particular, it told them they couldn't play "Jet Boy, Jet Girl" – a minor 1978 UK hit for Captain Sensible of the punk group The Damned. And, yes, Carlin's 'heavy seven' were still forbidden.

In November 2008, Carlin was posthumously awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. The event featured his riff on seven words that will "infect your soul, curve your spine and lose the war for the Allies". Only the actual words were all bleeped out – "a veritable censorious symphony", The Washington Post reported. Why? Either because the event would later be shown on public television, or as an ironic dig at broadcast censorship by the producers. The piece in the Post, of course, didn't give the words themselves: fuck became "word that rhymes with buck".

As most people – everywhere and throughout history – have sworn, so some people have always tried to stop them swearing and cursing. Or conceal the fact. Or attempt to conceal the fact while retaining part of it, with asterisks or dashes, or the mere imagination of it – a bleep, a circumlocution, a rhyme.

The anti-swearing lobby is venerable and inexorable. Leviticus, the ever-grumpy and dictatorial third book of the Old Testament and the Torah, not only banned pork, lobster and cheeseburgers but also informed its readers: "He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord shall be put to death."

These days, in Britain, we have the watershed. In the US, indecent speech is protected by the First Amendment, so it can't actually be banned only what is called "channeled" into the "safe harbour" of 10pm to 6am. In the UK, we have the TV watershed of 9pm to 5.30am.

The idea – okay, yes, I agree, it's a laughable one – is that under-15s won't be watching TV in that period. Exactly what are under-15s not allowed to see, then? Drug-taking, smoking, drinking, violence – all should be minimised and definitely not "glamorised". There must be no exorcisms or occult practice. And "the most offensive language" is not allowed. Which is? The words that the British found most offensive when Ofcom surveyed them, as detailed in its 2005 publication, the fashionably titled Language and Sexual Imagery in Broadcasting: A Contextual Investigation.

It's actually an interesting and subtle piece of work, relativist rather than absolutist, an interesting barometer of changes in both word-usage and attitudes to particular words. One of the programmes it showed to its focus groups was Only Fools and Horses, the wide-boy sitcom set in south London. To my surprise, there are three uses of "paki" in the first few minutes of one episode. It's an old episode from a time when, in the words of the report, "casual uses of racist language were habitual, and this would not be tolerated now".

That is, language that harks back to the period of TV sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour, which debuted in April 1972. The 'hero' of the show was Eddie Booth, a white socialist. The 'neighbour' was Bill Reynolds, a black work colleague. Eddie referred to him as a "nig-nog", a "Sambo", a "choc-ice". The show ran until January 1977 – six months after the Sex Pistols swore on TV. Another clip shown to the Ofcom focus groups, from My Parents Are Aliens, a children's programme, featured the word "retard". This evoked strong reactions. "Just like saying you are a 'paki'," said a British Asian mother of young children. "Well out-of-order," said a childless younger male. "The most offensive thing I saw on the clips tonight. I was slightly less offended by 'mong' in Only Fools and Horses – but I still think it was unnecessary."

The researchers also showed former Sex Pistol John Lydon informing his fellow jungle bunnies on I'm A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here that they were "fucking cunts". While some were offended, a male, non-parent, in the age range 25–34, said: "I wasn't offended because a) it was spontaneous, b) it was Johnny Rotten and you know he's going to do that, and c) kids have got to learn these words at some time, so they might as well learn from the master."

So what were the actual words and phrases that the report marked as very offensive?

In the religious category there was "Jesus Fucking Christ" and "Jesus Shitting Christ". The simple "Jesus Christ" only offended the religious, otherwise it was "mild, everyday". In the body part and function section, there was only cunt – "never really acceptable" and "particularly disliked by women". Intriguingly, cock was seen as more offensive than dick or prick or knob, particularly by British Asian females. Faggot and queer were more offensive than poof, and batty boy was seen as "mild slang by African-Caribbean and British Asian groups". Motherfucker and cocksucker were both very offensive. Fuck was offensive "but occasional toe-stubbing use appears tolerated".

Fuck off was seen as worse than fuck alone. Shag was quite offensive, particularly to British Asians. Bugger was the "least offensive" slang word for sex. Paki and nigger were both very offensive. Other racial and cultural words were too – if the viewers knew them. Very few had previously heard kike, papist, pikey, spade or yid. So, in essence cunt, fuck, motherfucker, cocksucker, nigger, paki – those are the words not allowed on TV before the 9pm watershed.

What about the rest of the world? I guess I'd always assumed that the watershed was a British, slightly puritanical thing; but it's not, far from it. Its boundaries do vary quite a bit around the world, though. In Argentina, it's 10pm–8am. In Australia, there is an effective 8.30pm. limit on what they call MA15+ programming – and R18+ stuff is not allowed at all. In Austria and Germany, the safe harbour is 11pm to 5.30am. Greece has a 7pm–6am watershed with coloured blobs shown at the start of programmes to indicate what's offensive about them – a white triangle on an orange field means mild violence and a bit of bad language, while a white X on a red background means 'adults only'.

And now, the BBC Trust is perhaps reconsidering the watershed. The odd thing – the very odd thing – about this is that it's being done in reaction to the Ross-Brand kerfuffle, which demonstrated that few people are, in fact, offended by broadcast swearing. Jonathan Ross, in the company of Russell Brand, was heard leaving a message on the answerphone of Andrew Sachs, the comic actor who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Ross's message was that Brand had "fucked" Mr Sachs' granddaughter.

There were, initially, just two complaints, one from Mr Sachs (via his agent), one from a listener. A week or so later, though, following media reports, the complainants totalled 37,000. Even the Prime Minister and the Attorney General both found time in their busy schedules to register their disgust. The final total was 44,790, – just over 2,000 short of the UK all-comers record, for Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2005.

The complaints weren't about language, though, or even sexuality. They weren't concerned about words or acts. The regulator's final judgment on the affair was handed down last April. The BBC's wrists were slapped and slapped again. It was fined £150,000 – a very serious fine, the maximum being £250,000. It was criticised for all kinds of things, right down to the fact that the show's executive producer had failed to attend a BBC Safeguarding Trust training course. The swear word itself, though, is quite clearly not the issue. It is referred to just once in the 37-page report.

"Fuck" was the word that didn't bark. When a Sex Pistol said it, a man kicked in his TV. Now, no one cared about Ross's "fuck" – or Brand's. Not even Ofcom.

Peter Silverton is the author of 'Filthy English: The How, Why, When and What of Everyday Swearing', published in hardback by Portobello Books (£14.99). To order a copy at the special price of £13.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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