Grace Dent: Punk Britannia, BBC4

Lydon to Rotten is as Coogan to Partridge and Gervais to Brent – the sum of their flaws

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The Independent Culture

The Punk Britannia season, currently running on BBC4, has enjoyed a longer lifespan than several of the Braintree-based clusters of phlegm-hurlers it has name-checked.

I've loved these gorgeous, clever, muso-centred but deeply socio-political films. The season, ironically, has been screened at a time when the BBC is under attack for both "kissing establishment arse with wall-to-wall Jubilee coverage" and "snubbing the establishment with woeful coverage". That's a neat trick, if you think about it. Especially the second section. Who knew so many people could have a long, free, four-day public holiday ruined by Anneka Rice's insufficiently fact-laden spiel about royal maritime history? "Brenda, dismantle the gazebo, kids fetch your quadratic equation coursework, that woman is hazy on Naval frigates. Jubilee is SCUPPERED".

In truth, we Brits adore dissatisfaction. Umbrage forever bubbles in our arteries. In the Seventies, it's small wonder our youth reacted to the dizzy joy of disco by donning knee-chained PVC pants, penning ditties called "Septic Arse Warts" then wading about in the shallow end of the 100 Club ankle-deep in throat-clearings and Skol.

Part three of Punk Britannia moved past Subway Sect, The Vibrators, the Sex Pistols etc. on to the post-punk era of 1978-81. That stage when the blood-rush and bravado of your common and garden safety-pin Sid Snot punk disappeared, leaving gangs of kids in Manchester more bored than ever before. At this point, the north was still playing in black and white. I remember the big changeover. "It'll never catch on," I sighed, shoving another dead kestrel into a bin.

On Punk Britannia, we saw Howard Devoto talking about Magazine, a band with ambitions to reach past punk and hone songs, gasp, involving different speeds, a plethora of chords and officially scheduled endings.

I love Devoto. There's a category of British people just below goody-two-shoes National Treasures (Fry, Lipman, Corbett) that I'm terming National Bric-a-Brac (Devoto, Mark E Smith, Phil Oakey): worthless to most but priceless and worshipped by some. Devoto's appearance playing himself as a toilet janitor in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, stood beside impostor biopic Devoto, pouring scorn on the veracity of the script, is sheer joy. Punk Britannia also caught up with Mark E Smith, slumped on a sofa nursing a can of Foster's, delivering marginally less audible sense than he did when booked for Newsnight. But Smith has always been this contradiction of medium and message, Smith rankles, grunts and squints through the interviews, resembling a roughly stuffed scarecrow, intercut with footage of diligent beat poetry.

The show attempts to pinpoint how such northern dandies sprung from bleak surroundings. We see Phil Oakey performing "The Path of Least Resistance" for the BBC in 1979, resplendent in a neat suit, a half-head of luscious feminine locks washing over one shoulder. Presumably, Oakey returned to Seventies Yorkshire, where a beating would be readily on offer to anyone who vaguely meandered from the norm.

Punk Britannia paints these characters as cultural soldiers, bravely battling convention so that future generations of New Romantics, shoegazers and ravers would hold the right to swan about looking like bloody clowns. The re-emergence of John Lydon during this period with PIL is fascinating, due to the sheer amount of footage we have of him kicking off in BBC pop-circuit interviews, weary of talk of the Sex Pistols, weary of being treated like a badly behaved rhesus monkey by nimrods with bubble perms and lemon dungarees.

Lydon is, and ever was, a smart cookie. Punk Britannia documents this post-punk time where creatively he is in his stride, yet punk has painted him into a corner where media fascination still lies in the legend of Johnny Rotten. Lydon to Rotten is like Coogan to Partridge and Gervais to Brent; the sum of their greatest flaws honed into a successful brand.

Glorious footage ensues of Lydon ripping out his mic mid-interview followed by a black-toothed Jah Wobble raining swears. We move through Gang of Four (the penny finally dropping, personally, on how many subsequent bands, cough, "lovingly commemorated" the posture and strut of Andy Gill and Jon King), then on to very British anarchists Crass, featuring Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine.

Not that we saw much of them or, indeed, any women during Punk Britannia: a tiny glimpse of Siouxsie here, Viv Albertine and The Slits there, some discussion on Gaye Advert during the sublime doc We Who Wait: TV Smith and The Adverts. I'm never quite certain in this genre of muso shows whether women have simply not been asked, are impossible to trace as their stage names may have shifted to married names (yes, even punk women fall for that daftness), or they've refused to appear and show the march of time upon their faces.

Perhaps they simply can't wax lyrically about their youthful art-school daftness, and rewriting it now as "a movement" with clear, intelligent aims.

One of the best things about BBC4's music strand is that they can ransack their Whistle Test, TOTP, miscellaneous pop archive for nuggets of joy like early Dexy's, the first gasps of Two Tone and the unforgettable Billy Mackenzie of Associates doing "Party Fears Two". Obviously, the BBC today records hardly any live music at all which would be handy to illustrate future socio-political docs.

But don't fret – when our children try to look back on 2012 and want to extrapolate some meaning, the researcher can buy in "content" from Channel 4 of Rizzle Kicks doing T4 on the Beach sponsored by Toyota. It won't be ideal, but I think that will sum things up nicely.

Grace's marmalade dropper

Sharon "Pulling" Horgan's newest delivery, the prison comedy Dead Boss features a terrifying cast of female cellmates, including a sighting of the former She Devil Julie T Wallace.