BBC-bashers love the Savile furore

Right-wingers are enjoying the discomfort of the corporation, but, even damaged, it is a treasure. Plus, young voters and ageing rockers
  • @djtaylorwriter

It was on about the Tuesday of last week that one began to realise that the furore about Jimmy Savile's career at the BBC in the 1970s might have less to do with whatever he got up to there than with generic hostility towards the organisation that employed him. After all, there is nothing that certain newspapers (and certain Conservative MPs) like more than administering a good kicking to that fabled resort of herbivore liberal-lefties, and on this battlefield any ammunition will do. The Sun's complaints about the sexist culture that supposedly prevailed at Broadcasting House in the 1970s were particularly amusing, for what, you might wonder, did The Sun ever do for female empowerment in that era, beyond urging a vote for Mrs Thatcher?

But there is one crucial piece of material that this debate has so far ignored – crucial, in that it offers evidence for both the prosecution and the defence. I refer, of course, to Smashie and Nicey: The End of an Era, the spoof documentary first screened by the BBC in 1994, starring Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield as, respectively, the DJs Mike Smash and Dave Nice, and constituting a kind of satirical panorama of Radio 1 during the first quarter-century of its existence. Practically all the events so cruelly burlesqued had some grounding in historical reality, and the deeply equivocal attitudes to women of which modern critics now complain are comprehensively laid bare.

Thus we watch the boys bantering through The Breakfast Show handover ("Seen any good crumpet out there, Smashie?") and jointly compèring Top of the Pops, during which Smashie turns to the nymphet standing next to him to enquire: "And how old are you, m'darling?" I remember at the time being astonished at the BBC's effrontery in screening this send-up, for its message was that the corporation's coverage of popular music between 1967 and 1992 was an unrepentant squandering of taxpayers' money. On the other hand, it takes a programme like Smashie and Nicey – historical and at the same time prophetic – to confirm the BBC's enduring value to the society it serves. If it really were the sinister, over-powerful satrapy evoked in Rupert Murdoch's recent Twitter posts, it would be less inclined to laugh at itself.


The media discussions that began to unwind in the wake of the Government's decision to allow 16- and 17-year-olds the vote in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence were just the tiniest bit predictable. In the progressive corner sat yoof advocates talking up the perspicacity and intelligence of today's teenagers and their right to determine their destinies, while on the other side of the room an equal number of reactionary nay-sayers canvassed such fatal disadvantages as a lack of maturity and ignorance of the political process. The Scottish sixth-formers interviewed on the BBC news seemed cheeringly modest about their capacities and spoke of their need for further information.

Naturally, the suffrage line has to be drawn somewhere, but I always feel that those keen to deny 17-year-olds the vote on the grounds of immaturity and ignorance are missing the point. After all, if adult electors were required to demonstrate their awareness of the issues at stake, a percentage of them would presumably be disenfranchised on the spot. A teenager who takes an interest in current affairs will surely cast a more effective vote than the octogenarian who last watched a party political broadcast in 1974.

In any case, intelligence, strong conviction and engagement in the political process – or lack of it – are immaterial. The bracing thing about democracy, as we should continue to remind ourselves, is that you can vote how you like, however flawed or prejudiced the reasoning may be.

My father once asked a newly enfranchised friend why she had voted for Winston Churchill in 1951. Her reply, never elaborated, was: "Because he stood out for the wossname." Similarly, the Labour MP Eric Heffer wrote in 1983 of a doorstep encounter with an elderly woman who declined to support him because the Labour candidate of 1931 had promised the children of his constituents a party and then had reneged on the deal. Puritanically appalled at the time, I can now appreciate her solid good sense. A promise had been made, and then abandoned. Surely this is what political divisions are all  about?


The late George Melly's theory of the "revolt into style", by which even the most outrageous artistic manifestations are eventually corralled and sanitised by the Biz, seemed borne out by last Tuesday's Radio 4 feature about Siouxsie and the Banshees. Thirty-five years ago, Ms Sioux was appearing on the Today show, presented by Bill Grundy, with the Sex Pistols and singing songs about butchers who fell in love with the carcasses hung up in their freezers. Now here she is apprising Middle England of the LSD trips that went into the making of the band's fifth album, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse.

There is something faintly depressing about the tendency of nearly all left-field music to end up squarely in the mainstream, on the basis that there ought to be some art capable of existing beyond the Sunday supplements and annoying its audience rather than conciliating them. No doubt – to go back to the 1970s avant-garde racket – even Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and his COUM Transmissions are now available in a deluxe boxed set with a foreword by Paul Morley.