‘Samantha is down in the basement getting her hands round a twelve- inch” … “Samantha is hoping to go through her entymologist friend’s flies”… Radio listeners have complained that the venerable comedy quiz show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue demeans women with its hoary double entendres about an imaginary studio assistant. Apparently the BBC initially responded by ordering the smut to be toned down and senior figures on the show were said to be thinking of walking out.
So, do the Samantha jokes demean women? They’re smutty, yes; they definitely see Samantha only in terms of her sexuality and they’re relentless – week after week they’re served up, to chortles of delight. Former chairman Humphrey Lyttelton used to deliver them in tones of uncompromising flatness, as if he didn’t understand the joke. Now it’s Jack Dee, sounding quite comprehending and rather self-loathing, and this has been going on for more than 40 years. And that’s the nub of the matter – this is humour as relic from the Sixties and Seventies, the era that also gave us the Carry On films, Benny Hill and Dick Emery. Back then, sex couldn’t be openly discussed, and certainly not openly enjoyed, in most households. Instead, innuendo was used as a safety valve – a way of acknowledging that sex was on people’s minds. Embarrassment, furtiveness, nudge-nudge jokes were staples of comedy – often broadcast at times when the whole family could enjoy them. Children could hear them without understanding, while adults shared a knowing chuckle.
Smut was also a form of sex education: “Now girls, wear a name badge saying Pat and you can expect to be groped; boys, any mention of ‘a pair’ in female company is your cue to make a suggestive remark.” Given the way that girls and women were routinely touched up in those days, these were top tips.
Nowadays things are different: girls expect their bodies to be respected. Yet they’re also aware of huge pressures to sexualise them. My straw poll on smut found a generational divide: those who remembered the Sixties and Seventies would generally dissolve into giggles, recalling the enjoyment of complicity and titillation, and appreciating a subversive element. The Julian and Sandy sketches on the radio show Round the Horne, for example, which began when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, were entirely based on the gay slang polari. The under-35s, however, were boot-faced about Samantha: they saw a bunch of middle-aged men fantasising about a young woman performing sex acts, and who needs that in 2014?
Perhaps it is time for Samantha to quit the airwaves. But she’ll take a slice of social history with her, so I’d like to propose a conservation area: a preserve where smut and those who have loved it can roam, harmlessly and sentimentally stimulating each other. We could give it a jokey name and air it occasionally on Radio 4.