Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Getting Permissive With Joan

Last night the BBC Parliament Channel gave us one of its occasional Bank Holiday treats: an evening of archive programmes on the social reforms of the 1960s.
It had the rather strange title of 'Permissive Night, with Joan Bakewell.'
Many men of a certain age would like nothing better than a permissive night with Joan Bakewell, for she was famously described as "the thinking man's crumpet."

I only watched parts of it because at six hours it was quite a marathon and it would have meant time-shifting other programmes. But it contained some fascinating stuff and I hope it will be repeated with rather more pre-publicity.
It mainly covered the abolition of the death penalty and the reform of the laws on homosexuality, divorce and abortion.

People who should know better continue to credit the Wilson Governments with these reforms but they were nearly all Private Members' Bills. The Government's role, admittedly important, was to provide Parliamentary time and help with drafting. I've given up trying to correct the misrepresentation of these reforms as Government legislation because my corrections are never published. But at least Joan Bakewell made the position clear last night.

A 1966 report on capital punishment for 24 Hours (a forerunner of Newsnight) was by a young Michael Parkinson, looking, in some ways, older than he does now. His pieces to camera filmed in the street were intriguing because of the memories evoked by the background street scene. In one shot, four Triumph Heralds drove past, one after the other. For a moment, I thought it was a rally of Triumph Herald owners before remembering it was then one of the top selling cars. They were followed by a Mini Traveller and a Ford Anglia. My young boy's interest in makes of car had resurfaced after 40 years.

Then there was the High Street chemist's shop with a massive DUREX sign in the window. I'd forgotten how prominently condoms were advertised back then - oddly, more so than today.
Durex had a virtual monopoly of the market in those days and it was a brand name as familiar to us kids - even before we understood what a condom was - as McDonalds or Nike is today. We tended to use the word 'Durex' for 'condom' ( a term we'd never heard) in the same way that 'Hoover' was always used for 'vacuum cleaner'. The only other term we used was 'rubber johnny', although as far as I know there wasn't any other kind of johnny, such as plastic or, that sixties favourite, bakelite.

A Man Alive documentary on male homosexuals (the term 'gay' didn't exist then) had moments of great poignancy and was a reminder that in those days the preoccupation of every young, gay male was to meet another gay person, a quest that for many seemed as impossible as flying to the moon. It's hard to convey the sense of isolation and despair that people felt and the need to find someone - anyone - else who was gay wasn't predominantly about sex but to banish the feeling that you were the only gay person in the world.

This film, presented by someone called Jeremy James (which sounds like a music hall act) also had its amusing moments. There was much talk of 'homosexual tendencies', a common term back then. People weren't 'homosexual'. They had 'homosexual tendencies'.
The style was social anthropological, as though it were David Attenborough reporting on a tribe of people in the South Sea Islands.
"For many of us, this is revolting: men dancing with men" was the voice-over to a scene of some men in what was probably a small Soho club doing the twist.
It will surprise young gay men today to learn that, even in the 1970s after partial de-criminalisation, in London gay clubs, you could be thrown out for any form of physical contact on the dance floor. I know this because it happened to me when an arab boy did no more than put his hands on my shoulders. We were given two warnings by the management and then a final warning. I don't know why he looked so puzzled since in his own country he'd probably have been hanged in a public square.

In another scene, a distinguished middle-aged man sat in a leather armchair, smoking heavily. The voice-over said solemnly: "This man is a doctor. He is also a homosexual."
For me, that was the funniest line of the evening.
We also had this ludicrous insight into the distinguishing features of the homosexual: "Homosexuals dread getting old. They dread losing their looks." As opposed, presumably, to heterosexuals, who can't wait for old age and their hair and teeth falling out.
I also loved the bizarre phraseology of this question to a middle-aged 'clerk from a small market town': "Can you describe what it is about other men that makes you feel at home with them?"
There was the old line about most homosexuals being 'sensitive' and 'artistic', which is complete tosh - always has been and always will be. Even those gay men who start out as sensitive soon have most of the sensitivity crushed out of them. As an older man said to me when I was a teenager: "Don't worry, you'll grow about six extra skins."
And he was right. To put it bluntly, you become as hard as nails. It's the only way you survive.

The evening was rounded off with the first edition of 'Late Night Line-Up' since 1972, presented by Joan Bakewell. The guests were Peter Hitchens, Robert Winston, Margaret Drabble and Michael Howard, who chewed over the evening's programmes.
I realised why Joan Bakewell was such a good interviewer. She leaned forward and hung on people's every word. She even treated the bonkers right-winger Peter Hitchens as though he were a cross between Mahatma Ghandi and Einstein. No doubt that also explains her popularity with men. A woman who will look at them with delight and admiration even when they're describing how to drive from Oxford to Bedford using only B roads must be a pearl beyond price.
This was a reminder of how good an intelligent televison discussion programme can be. It should be re-commissioned immediately.

There were two highlights for me, both involving (Lord) Robert Winston.
Firstly, he shot Hitchens down in flames over Hitchen's mis-representation of the pre-1967 situation on abortion, based on Winston's own experience of working in obstetrics at that time. Unusually, Hitchens didn't come back at him, having decided he was in a hole and better stop digging.
Secondly, he revealed that at his London private day school (St Paul's, I've since discovered) in the 1950s, homosexuality was rife. And not just within the school. Boys would go off with older gay men in taxis. "But it was illegal then!", someone exclaimed. "I know", Winston said, "we used to joke about it being illegal." From the way he described it, it sounded as though in the 1950s some of the boys at one of London's most exclusive schools had a sideline as upmarket rent boys.
You could sense the discomfort in the studio as a stark and rather distasteful truth intruded on the fake reality of television documentaries and the misleading selectivity of the historical record.
It was the more dramatic because it came from a distinguished scientist who was raised as an orthodox Jew and is one of the contemporary 'great and good'.
There was a short silence in the studio. Joan Bakewell didn't actually say "moving swiftly on.....". But swiftly on she moved.


At 11:34 AM, Blogger Geoff said...

I wish I'd recorded it now, though our Sky + box is almost full.

Maybe a repeat on BBC4? - "A place to think."

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

geoff: this is the kind of thing BBC4 should be doing.
I find BBC4 rather disappointing.


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