ALTHOUGH television was invented for viewing pictures, it has always been a medium in which language had to be watched, too. Kenneth Tynan, whose ambition had been to revolutionise theatre, lost more lines of his obituaries than he might have liked to the fact that he had once said 'fuck' on television.
Tynan was the pioneer - on 13 November 1965 - but was soon followed by Peregrine Worsthorne, whose use of the word precluded him from an editorship within the Telegraph group under Lord Hartwell. The presentational career of Bill Grundy never really recovered from his failure to control the oaths of the Sex Pistols during an appearance in December 1976.
These episodes seem to us the spasms of an older England. But, suddenly, our security about the sophistication/ruination (according to taste) of our age is shaken by a 'TV swearing' row that seems to be a throwback to the old dispensation.
The F-word is admittedly a different one - 'fisting', a piece of homosexual slang - but the row has the familiar lineaments. The comedian Julian Clary - a Worsthorne or Sex Pistol of his day - claimed during a live television programme, The British Comedy Awards, to have 'fisted' Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Hampstead Heath. Mr Lamont was a member of the audience and presented an award.
Clary's joke was made after the 9pm watershed, but in a programme that had started at 8pm - peak-time or, in a description invoked only at such moments, 'family viewing time'. The Sun went front-page crazy next day, showing its fists (in the old bunch-of-fives sense) to Mr Clary and ITV. Two nights ago, ITV made an on-screen apology to 'some viewers' who 'may have been offended'.
It was a strange little episode. Clary's main sin seems to have been not filth but satirical imprecision. There is always gossip about prominent politicians, but Lamont has never figured. His heterosexuality has not been questioned. There are, I think, other senior Tories for whom Clary's joke would have been closer to home. What is the point of shock-comedy if it hits random targets?
But the really fascinating aspect of the Clary blow-up is that the sudden drawing of the old censorious line alerts us to how few of the boundaries around broadcasting now survive. The depiction of violence remains contentious - and the call for more corsets seems inevitable after recent public horrors attributed to the influence of video - but some of the oldest sticking points in television have become bizarrely frictionless.
Take the recent peak-time BBC 1 serial To Play The King. There was a small public fuss over this - following a misinterpretation in some quarters of a line about the nocturnal habits of a modern King Charles - but consider what wriggled under the tabloid and governmental radars without any flak. It was a central contention of the script that some of the 'terrorist' bombs going off in the programme were the work of the British security forces, who were attempting to manipulate public sympathy or eliminate perceived enemies of the state.
A decade ago, this allegation inhabitated the wackier fringes of the British conspiracy theory movement. In 1993, however, it was being offered by the BBC in a peak-time drama, and passed almost without comment. Another prestige BBC drama - the brilliant police series Between The Lines - is also disarmingly defamatory or frank about the work of the security forces in a storyline that concludes tonight on BBC 1.
Surely, if the nation were susceptible to being undermined by television, these fantasies would be more damaging than Julian Clary's about Norman Lamont? But where is the Sun, where are the frothing backbenchers, in an arena where you would once automatically have expected them? Send in the clowns. There ought to be clowns.
But what would once have been wild paranoia is now mainstream entertainment. One reason is undoubtedly the devaluation of shame as a political commodity. The revelations of what British governments can and will do, without apparent need for resignations or apology, has fostered among the public a once-unthinkable cynicism, which is now accommodated in popular culture.
This has given television a new ideological freedom, enhanced by the fact that John Major is equipped with neither the convictions nor the majority to patrol broadcasting as Margaret Thatcher did. Mary Whitehouse - who is retiring after 30 years of campaigning to move the off switch from living rooms to the offices of television executives - claimed to have won the debate, to have achieved great advances; or, rather, retreats.
In fact - and I am glad of it - Mrs Whitehouse has spectacularly lost. Peak-time dramas are cheerfully seditious in a way that would once have prompted questions in the House. Channel 4's Brookside, Britain's finest soap, is experimenting simultaneously with lesbianism and cocaine abuse. Indeed, Brookside is a good example of the apparent removal of another ancient television rule: that behaviour shocking to the viewing majority should rapidly be seen to be punished. Liverpool's Brookside Close contains two unconvicted murderers, and the bloke on coke, Jimmy Corkhill, sniffs operatically when entering rooms but, otherwise, the scriptwriters seem free to play out the drug story over the long haul without constant health warnings.
In fact, Channel 4 now finds it hard to shock even when it wants to. The station's tradition of ironic spoilers - old Reagan movies on 1984 US election night, a Subbuteo tournament scheduled against the 1990 World Cup - supposedly continues with this year's Gay Christmas, culminating in Quentin Crisp's alternative Queen's (ho, ho) Speech opposite Elizabeth on 25 December.
But this seems merely a rather tedious piece of mischief. An alternative, after all, should specifically subvert the original. And is Christmas a predominantly heterosexual festival? I suppose that, religiously and domestically, it focuses on the products of procreation but, even so, Channel 4's line risks enforcing superstition about difference: 'They don't celebrate Christmas, you know.' If Michael Grade wanted a truly alternative Christmas, he should have run a Republican address against the Queen.
Then he might have shocked us. But the Julian Clary incident, which seemed to show that little has changed in television, in fact reminds us how much has. Clary should stick to jokes about the security forces letting off bombs, or lesbianism, murder and cocaine abuse in Liverpool, and he'll be fine.
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