Thank goodness Britain is such a different country from that in which Jimmy Savile got away with it

This is not a country that lightly yields its rose-tinted spectacles. So we should be grateful to this scandal for illuminating how far we've come

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The Independent Online

We await Aung San Suu Kyi’s official response with mounting impatience, but for now the silence from Rangoon remains deafening. When, if ever, will The Lady pitch her twopennorth into the Savile debate? Now you might contend that she has graver concerns than developments arising from the posthumous downfall of Jimmy Savile, what with leading Burma’s opposition leaving little time and energy to contemplate from afar a parochial and relatively ancient scandal obsessing us here.

Until yesterday I would have agreed with you. But then came fresh allegations about Wonderful Radio 1 – and since they concern Dave Lee Travis, whose World Service musicfest A Jolly Good Show she so startlingly cited last year as a sustaining influence through the dark, lonely years of house arrest, they will profoundly distress the democracy campaigner.

In the gruesome Savilean scheme of things, the Hairy Cornflake accusations may seem comparatively trivial. Neither involves paedophilia, though the alleged victims are entitled to be less sanguine themselves. One woman, the newsreader Vivien Creeger, relates how he once popped into a Radio 4 studio and “jiggled my breasts” as she was broadcasting live to the nation. Another, unnamed at the time of writing, has given a police statement in which she unfondly recalls how, in 1977 when she was 17, he cordially invited her into his own studio and put his hand up her skirt.

Far be it from me to offer damage limitation advice after the event, but Mr Travis’s denial would not, I think, impress Max Clifford or Malcolm Tucker. Having stoutly dismissed the claims as “ utter bollocks”, DLT – whom a female interviewer recently alleged that he touched many parts of her body unbidden – would have done well to leave it at that. Instead, before bolstering the denial with a steadfast “I refute any impropriety”, he arguably compromised his own wholly gonadic analysis with a reflection on the prevailing sexual mores of the era. “It was a different world in the 70s,” said Mr Travis. “All institutions were the same back then.”

If by “institutions” he intended to refer to the minimum-security psychiatric hospital for terminally delusional self-perceived sex gods which Radio 1 increasingly appears to have been, hats off for letting that shard of insightfulness pierce the protective bubble of righteous indignation. God knows what further allegations will ensue, and which of the station’s pool of superannuated Smashies and Nicies will next be cited as a serial groper, or worse. But with the sewer floodgates now opened, it feels safe to assume that there is more effluent on the way, and that none of it will inspire a new range of scented candles from Jo Malone.

The 1970s was a different world; an intolerant, callous and often brutal one

Stink abominably though all of this does, Mr Travis makes a sound point. It no more excuses any misdemeanours than Edwardian sensibilities justify the casual racism of a Winston Churchill. But the Seventies were a different world, and we should thank this scandal for illuminating, by contrast, the progress made since on the path towards a less blatantly uncivilised society.

It takes a perspective of about 20 years for a clear perception of a previous decade to take hold, and, by the mid-1990s, the retrospective take on the Seventies identified it as the last age of innocence. It was laden with industrial strife and social unrest, of course, of the sort that tempted Jimmy Goldsmith and his chums at the Aspinall’s gaming tables to ponder a Francoist military coup. Large sections of the Met and other police forces were monstrously corrupt, while homosexuality was almost universally regarded as “unnatural”. The most popular TV show for a few years was Love Thy Neighbour, in which a white man’s tireless use of the appellations “nig-nog” and “sambo” was supposedly justified because the West Indian guy next door occasionally retaliated with a pallid “honky”.

But however much it required the cocking of deaf ’uns to IRA bombs and the fitting up of those who never planted them, and the turning of blind eyes to other poisonous undercurrents eddying away in national life, we eventually came to reflect on the 70s as the dog days of harmless, eccentric fun before Mrs Thatcher popped along, like a scoldier Poppins, to tell Britain to grow up.

Nothing so effectively misdefines an era as its cheap music, and in this case the DJs who played it. The Beatles gave way first to the hedonistic idiocy of glam rock, and then to the engaging high camp sexuality of disco. The pompous concept album and punk had their place, too – but with the exception of John Peel (himself less sainted today than a fortnight ago) – not so much on Radio 1. Ask someone of my generation, a few years either side of 50, for one vignette to capture the Seventies, and there’s a decent chance it would feature Savile or the allegedly Horny Fruitcake playing The Sweet or Donna Summer to a sun-baked Roadshow beachful of inexplicably delirious adolescents.

A decade to forget

This is not a country that lightly yields its rose-tinted spectacles. Some generations remain convinced they were never happier than when shielding from the Luftwaffe on Underground platforms, others that the drab, sepia struggles of the gang-infested 1950s was a halcyon age. Only in the past few years, in the aftermath of the Iraq misadventure, have we begun to be free of the pernicious muscle memory of an imperial past, though such atrocities as the persecution of the Mau Mau remain widely and blithely ignored. In these historical terms, 40-odd years seems a blink of the eye removed from a time when grabbing women’s breasts and pinching passing bums was, as suggested by a DLT who restricted himself to kissing Suu Kyi’s hand when they met on her visit to London, the dominant workplace male’s droit de seigneur.

The 1970s was a different world – an intolerant, callous, often brutal world in which a myriad of nasteries were hidden in almost plain sight behind the demented, infantile forced jollity of a bunch of look-at-me-I’m-raving-bonkers-I-am grotesques whose extraordinary hold over mainstream youth culture stood in directly inverse proportion to their wit, talent and charm.

So all the weary revulsion at these allegations comes leavened by a dash of relief for the reminder that, while these are by no means easy times, they are infinitely better than the supposedly sweet and uncomplicated decade that taste forgot. For once, even the biggest sucker for nostalgia, even here in its global citadel, can hardly make the ritual observation that things ain’t what they used to be without appending a heartfelt “and thank the good Lord for that”.