Sworn defender of obscenities

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The Independent Online

While browsing Kathleen Tynan's biography of her one-time husband, as a way of postponing writing about Chris Durlacher's television film about Tynan, I was delighted to be reminded of Mary Whitehouse's contribution to the national panic that followed the first utterance of the word "fuck" on British TV.

While browsing Kathleen Tynan's biography of her one-time husband, as a way of postponing writing about Chris Durlacher's television film about Tynan, I was delighted to be reminded of Mary Whitehouse's contribution to the national panic that followed the first utterance of the word "fuck" on British TV. Among other comments, Whitehouse suggested that Tynan needed to have his bottom smacked - unwittingly proposing a punishment that Tynan would have found erotically thrilling (though perhaps not if Whitehouse intended to wield the paddle herself).

Other commentators were less inclined to the view that it was mere juvenile delinquency. "The bloodiest outrage I have ever known," one wrote. And then, obedient to the usual half-life of controversy, the fuss died down and it became clear that if things had changed, they had done so imperceptibly.

These days, of course, Tynan would have to work a great deal harder to make his essential point - which was that adult conversation on air should not be a pretence that differs from adult conversation everywhere else. People may tut at Jamie Oliver's loose lips (and may genuinely feel the rasp of that grating fricative) - but his swearing has become a trope of character. It isn't taken as a marker of poverty, but as a badge of a certain kind of wealth. Swearers are rich in urgency, impulsiveness and uncensored response - all of which today's television loves. That it isn't a necessary condition of modern life is demonstrated by US network television - which, if anything, grows more timid by the month about what can be said and shown on screen. A recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's energetically scabrous comedy, made the point in typically self-referential fashion.

David is pitching the idea for a new comedy to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the actress who played Elaine in Seinfeld. The new show will be about an actress emerging from a hugely successful comedy to find that no one will cast her in anything else. "Great," says Louis-Dreyfus. "Let's pitch it to HBO!" Larry looks unenthusiastic and asks why. "I want to say 'fuck'," replies Louis-Dreyfus, "and 'cocksucker'." The expression on her face is that of a child splashing in a puddle, and the gleefully gratuitous addition of the second word reminds you that gratuitous doesn't only mean "unnecessary", it also means "free".

The current anxiety for some British broadcasters - it was expressed most recently by Jana Bennett in an Oxford lecture earlier this week - is that British television could become Americanised; increasingly subject to the assertive indignation of a people who would prefer their broadcasting to be as inoffensive as possible. The BBC held the line during the recent fuss over Jerry Springer - The Opera, when a pressure group called Christian Voice attempted some ambush-rescheduling, but the incident caused enough executive anxiety to suggest that it won't be the last time they try. And for the BBC, in particular, that could be a real problem.

HBO has a very simple answer to people who don't like its programmes - don't subscribe. But as things stand at the moment, cancelling your subscription to the BBC will get you a hefty fine. And who can doubt that the BBC Trust (which Tessa Jowell has just announced will replace the governors as the overseer of the Corporation) will become a prime target for those who believe that a minority share of the national broadcaster gives them the right to exert majority shareholder power?

It isn't just religious maniacs that we need to worry about, either, but a generally increasing mood of deference to those with delicate sensibilities. Back in 1965, when people heard or saw something they didn't like they usually announced that they were angry. But "rage" and "fury" would be seen as hopelessly crude instruments these days, when "hurt" and "distress" have proved so much more effectively coercive. It's easy to deny anger what it wants because we like to look resolute. But hurt must always be acknowledged at some level because very few of us like to look unfeeling. This is why Christian Voice activists present themselves as wounded victims, rather than the bullying enforcers that they actually are.

Offence to a few is an inescapable corollary of liberty for the many. And gratuitous offensiveness needs its defenders. Two and a half cheers for Jana Bennett for doing her bit - but I'm reserving three for the broadcaster who, when informed that a programme has caused grave offence, replies "I'm very pleased. We must be doing something right".

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