John Walsh: 'Taboo word? It depends on whether you mean the human bits, or rubbish'

Tales of the City: How instructive to find out what's unacceptable to the BBC
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After a year off the air, the Radio 4 literary quiz show, The Write Stuff, is back tomorrow evening. I'm very happy about this, since I'm one of the team captains, and have been since 1988, when Sebastian Faulks and I took our first faltering steps in answering the blizzard of arcane questions set by James Walton, the show's deviser and presenter. But 12 series later I still enjoy it hugely, despite the weekends spent trying to writing a hilarious pastiche of George Eliot. I've always been impressed by my friend Walton's research into the minutiae of writers' lives (did you know Harold Pinter once wrote a comedy sketch for The Benny Hill Show?) but recently he's come up with some astonishing stuff from the archives.

On a recording from some forgotten American book festival, 35 years ago, he found Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, performing a bouncy little folk song. He played it on the show along with a recording of Jessica Mitford, youngest and left-wingest of the famous sisters, singing "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." The audience was in stitches. Then, as a surreal bonus, he played a duet of Angelou and Mitford singing "Right Said Fred", the Bernard Cribbins novelty song of the 1950s. Listening to the African-American human rights diva and the pitilessly aristocrat both attempting to pull off a Cockney accent was, as Mark Billingham, one of the guests, remarked, mental.

Anyway, on one of the shows in the new series, the author of the week was Irvine Welsh, the Edinburgh-born ex-junkie catapulted to stardom by Trainspotting in 1993, all of whose work is crammed, like currants in a fruitcake, with effing and blinding. It's hard to find a page, even a paragraph, that doesn't feature one character explaining to another that he's a bucking front or something similar. The BBC is, of course, taking few chances with the sensibilities of its licence-payers these days, so we were told by Sam, our charming producer, to go easy on the swearing when creating the pastiches; think, he said, what the Compliance people would say.

So I wrote my hilarious attempt at Irvine-Welsh-rewrites-Jane-Austen and was seized by a sudden concern. "Sam," I said on the phone, "is bollocks okay? There's a bollocks in my pastiche, and I thought I'd better check."

I heard a sharp intake of breath. "It's on the list of words to be avoided," he said. "Just behind arsehole."

"Do I have to take it out?"

"It's a borderline case," he said. "Depending on whether you mean the human bits, or rubbish."

"I mean rubbish."

"Hmmm. That may be all right."

We all met at the BBC studio in Maida Vale. I read my pastiche – and Sam's brow furrowed.

"You can't say that," he said, "You'll have to rewrite it."

"But you said you thought bollocks was okay."

"It's not the bollocks. It's the bitches. You've got 'bitch' twice, and they'll both have to come out."

I sadly removed one whole sentence and changed the last "bitch" to "hoor", which apparently is acceptable in polite BBC circles. How instructive, though, to find out what's unacceptable to the Corporation and, by extension, to the British people. And how interesting that a popular, non-taboo word meaning "lady dog" is just as heinous on the airwaves as the C-word.


How exciting to discover that Eric Cantona, the film actor who used to do something or other at Manchester United, will be wowing live theatre crowds for the first time tonight, in the Marigny Theatre, Paris. In Face au Paradis, he plays a dying man half-buried in the debris of his life, like Winnie in Beckett's Happy Days, who spends the play discussing mortality with a female co-star. I think it's important that theatregoing Parisians, especially the ones in the first five rows of the stalls, are told to keep their mobile phones switched off throughout the show, or they'll find the half-dead figure on stage miraculously restored to life and flying horizontally towards them, feet first. But is he actually anticipating trouble? "If you don't expose yourself to danger," he said recently, "you can never know who you are. People booing, screaming and throwing things is nothing new to me." Blimey. Is this how theatre audiences behave in the Champs-Élysées? I think I may nip over there, just in time to witness the first flung loo roll.