My memories of watching television in the 1970s are so precious to me that in 2009 I wrote a book about them. It was called Nice to See It, to See It Nice: The 1970s in Front of the Telly, and it celebrated an era of only three television channels, an era when the week’s highlights, just to raise a couple of random images, might have included Jimmy Savile introducing Gary Glitter on Top of the Pops, and my family sitting around our rented TV set (everyone I knew rented their telly in those days) laughing our heads off at Stuart Hall laughing his head off on It’s a Knockout. To paraphrase another TV favourite of that halcyon decade, Rolf Harris, can you see what my point is yet?
For my generation, the revelations that Savile and Glitter were paedophiles, and Hall a “predatory opportunist” who groped the nine-year-old daughter of some family friends, are not just sickening, not just unsettling, but also deeply disorientating.
After all, happy memories are meant to be inviolate, sacrosanct. We all have a private mental showreel of favourite childhood memories, through which we cheerfully whizz from time to time, and many of mine involve sitting in front of the telly. But some acid has leaked into my showreel. It’s not as enjoyable to play as it used to be. Which is the very least of Savile’s crimes, and Hall’s, and Glitter’s, but it should nonetheless be added to their rap sheets. When they stole their victims’ innocence, they went and nicked something of mine, too.
Speaking of innocence, Rolf Harris is still entitled to the presumption of it. So is Bill Roache, another man who, as Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow, loomed large over my childhood and adolescence. But the mere arrests of those two octogenarians just add to the general discombobulation. On long car journeys when my children were young, we used to play a Rolf Harris tape for hours on end, all of us learning the words to “Two Little Boys”, “Jake the Peg” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”. So if he does turn out to be guilty of sex offences, their memories will be tarnished too. I fervently hope that he’s not, that it all turns out to be a gigantic mistake. But if it isn’t, then no amount of didgeridoo jokes will make up for the sense of betrayal.
For now, all that is best left alone. Stuart Hall, though, owned up. And on Thursday evening, not long after news had broken of his guilty plea, I met up with a bunch of old university friends. We discussed the disgrace of some of these icons of our formative years, and concluded that the era of their crimes, the 1960s and in particular the 1970s, is central to the impact these grubby revelations have had.
After all, part of what made television so magical back then was the dearth of choice, which enabled a collective viewing experience that my own children will never know. For millions upon millions of us, the quality of Christmas itself could be determined by how good the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show was that year. And similarly, Saturday teatime meant Jim’ll Fix It as inexorably as it meant spaghetti hoops on toast. It was the collective viewing then that has produced such a collective shudder now. If, heaven forbid, a present star of children’s telly turns out in 30 years’ time to have been a sex offender, it will not have the same devastating effect.
In the meantime, even those of us who like to champion television in the 1970s should remember that it was itself guilty of institutionalising not just sexism but downright misogyny, as well as homophobia, xenophobia and not a few other phobias. It is too glib to say that it simply reflected society; it led more than it followed. Looking at situation comedy, for example, I’m not just going to cite those stock whipping boys, Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and On the Buses. Consider too Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part, often hailed as a classic, and of course Speight’s idea was for us to laugh at rather than with the monstrous Alf Garnett. Yet I recall the actress Meera Syal once telling me that in the playground of her school, near Wolverhampton, the casual racism was always ramped up on the days after Alf’s latest rant on Till Death Us Do Part. So, perhaps it was an era always bound to yield idols with feet of clay.
One of those university friends I met up with is a talented mimic, whose repertoire of impressions for years focused mainly on Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris and Gary Glitter singing “Leader of the Gang”. Mercifully, he’s not a professional entertainer. Far from it; he’s an accountant. But I am reminded of a man called Vaughn Meader, who enjoyed glittering celebrity in early 1960s America thanks to his uncanny ability to impersonate President Kennedy. After Kennedy was assassinated, the notoriously sacrilegious comedian Lenny Bruce even worked Meader into his stand-up routine, opening his act by saying, “Boy, did Vaughn Meader get f***ed!”
Like Meader, my friend Davey must now search for new material, though, like me, he hopes he can get back to safely doing Rolf, at least. As for the rest of us, we should get on and celebrate the childhood heroes we have left. Also on Thursday, around the time the Stuart Hall news was breaking, there was a lovely Radio 4 programme about Bernard Cribbins. The voice of all The Wombles came across not just as prodigiously talented but also exceptionally nice. It could not have been more timely.
Brian Viner’s ‘Nice to See It, to See It Nice: The 1970s in Front of the Telly’ is published by Simon & Schuster
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