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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'IT WAS ALRIGHT IN THE 1970s' // A Channel 4 documentary scolds the likes of Terry Wogan, Wendy Craig, Ted Rogers, Windy Miller, Benny Hill, Norman Wisdom and Leslie Phillips for being politically incorrect (says the same TV channel that gave birth to 'THE WORD' in the 90s!)

SEASON 1: EPISODE 1 (15th November, 2014/ Channel 4)
The strangest and most unsettling thing I saw on TV this weekend was Channel 4's clip-based nostalgia guilt trip - IT WAS ALRIGHT IN THE 70s, which opened with legendary broadcaster Terry Wogan KBE (who, the night before, had been hosting the BBC's Children in Need fundraiser) telling a 16 year old girl taking part in a bikini contest (and matching him in height) in a clip from a 1978 Seaside Special that she was "a big girl" for her age, and also that he wouldn't dare announce her measurements out loud as they were "already obvious to everyone".

Of course, this was pre-16 year old Sam Fox posing topless on Page 3 era telly - our Sam did her stuff way after the sanitised 70s, and not a single Sun-reading builder (with bum or without) was ever up in arms in the 80s.

One of these pictures isn't of Seaside Special!

Lynda Bellingham - oh my, Lynda! - was a talking head and revealed to the programme (shortly before her sad and untimely death this month from cancer - but at least there was a dedication to the actress after the end credits, even though it hardly felt appropriate) that Norman Wisdom once pressured the young actress to put a pencil down her top for half an hour as part of a TV show gag (saying it would be hilarious) and that he deliberately "had a good fumble". This was presumably for the 1974 episode of 'A Little Bit of Wisdom'  that the two appeared in together.

Norman, not with Lynda.

Norman, of course, had no right of reply, neither can Lynda ever now explain - further than a sixty second aside on a Saturday night TV show - in more detail what happened that day (unless it's in her autobiography - a different matter). In any case, the programme makers seem to have let down both Norman and Lynda with this item's brevity - it was a cheap shot inclusion.

Rather like the slip of the tongue of Terry Wogan before he realised a bikini contestant's age, I can't help thinking that the inclusion of Bellingham's quote was totally unfair and inappropriate with the programme being broadcast only a few weeks after her death and with the actress looking clearly unwell on screen - and it should have been edited out of the mix.

I actually felt a bit sad by this point in the programme - those 70s looked like fun, but they've recently fallen apart faster than a crack in a car windscreen from a Confessions of a Driving Instructor movie - a film Lynda Bellingham also appeared in, alongside the ubiquitous Robin Askwith, and that seemingly copied the same gag that Norman (allegedly) liked the idea of.

Lynda Bellingham learns to drive with, uh-oh - Robin Askwith!

A clip of creaky game show 321 followed (but a show that's still endearingly nostalgic with occasional glimpses of genuine cult 70's stars) that showed - actually outrageously - a St. Bernard dog as a star prize. The contestants (and if life couldn't get even more unlikely, they turned out to be a young Janice Long, the DJ, and her hubby) lost the star prize at the last minute, and were told they would have been given £30 instead had they won and not wanted a big dog, that the producers would have paid to the dog's home (presumably as an apology of sorts). One quipster in the studio could be heard saying: "I don't know how to cook dog anyway".

The St. Bernard looked suitably aloof: "Bloody hell," it actually looked to be barking inside, "trust me to end up in the decade that good taste (and animal welfare) forgot." I've never seen an especially happy looking St. Bernard, but I've never seen one looking quite as sad as this one did either.

If we can give away a dog, we can give you away too Dusty!

Still, the St. Bernard was the lucky one - Nicholas Parsons then revealed how one woman refused to take the star prize of a mink coat on Sale of the Century despite his best efforts (and after telling the producers that real fur was really so 1960 and had no place in the decade that promised free love, even to animals - a plea that had fallen on deaf ears). The contestant told the host: "No thanks, I prefer the coat my husband bought me." I only hope it wasn't made of what became of the star prize on 321 that same year.   

Also, and perhaps most significantly (to black kettles everywhere) there was Bill Oddie hiding his head in his hands at a clip of some old inappropriate 70's comedy sketches. Benny Hill and Butterflies were both shown - "I want to be raped" screamed Wendy Craig before clearly realising what she had said, putting her hand over her mouth, and negating any essence of exploitation (though comic talking head Jenny Eclair was still 'outraged from Tunbridge Wells', or something, at well known feminist writer Carla Lane's, admittedly surprising - but perhaps brilliantly confrontational, at least to how some viewers probably expected women to speak back then, because of that - 'faux pas').

BUTTERFLIES . . at breakfast.

There's a big difference between the Butterflies clip, that was actually a poignant and heartfelt 'blurting of madness' after a life lived in a sterile, thankless marriage and another (that I agree with Bill Oddie was jarring and alarming) clip shown, from mainstream sitcom The Lovers, in which Richard Beckinsale's character of Geoffrey blurts out beside a local market stall that he "just wanted to rape" Paula Wilcox's Beryl, the object of his affection, while in a fit of sexual frustration (not everyone in the 70s was having it off as easily as we may have thought).

Taking this line out of context; as a snippet of dialogue from a half hour sitcom episode, probably made it sound even worse than it already was - but it still feels impossible to defend. Maybe it was a script typo - maybe Geoffrey actually wanted to 'ravish' Beryl. There, see - not so impossible to defend after all.

Oddie, after being shown all these politically incorrect clips, shook his head in disbelief and looked like he was about to literally sob (or at least sing us the chorus of Funky Gibbon) just a few minutes before another clip of the 1971 sitcom Doctor at Large (starring the always brilliant Barry Evans) was played, in which the doctor character was chased by lots of sixth form girls after holding a sex education class at school for the episode 'Doctor Dish'. Who co-wrote it, along with Graeme Garden? Bill Oddie of course! They didn't mention that.

Oddie (as much as I love him - and I'm a huge fan of the often totally politically incorrect The Goodies) spends all his time on telly these days looking indignant about those miscreants he used to hang around with back in the day. I was starting to think this programme was taking advantage of our Bill as well now - he was the one man they seemed to have persuaded to look ashamed of the decade that brought him fame, and clearly made him look a bit silly in the process. I don't care - I still love that man. Kitten Kong forever!


Thanks Channel 4 for broadcasting IT WAS ALRIGHT IN THE 70s - it was as patchwork and random as old 70's wallpaper, but kind of fascinating in its own way; a bit like having Mary Whitehouse on hindsight acid in your living room, telling you about old telly and how Windy Miller was drunk on cider all the time. But hey - at least they had the TV clip to prove that Windy was pissed and unconscious while in charge of a windmill to present in a court of law, should they ever need to! Although seeing as most of the stars standing accused are now mostly dead or unwell, it seemed a bit of a hatchet job all round.

Perhaps Nicholas Parsons made the best point: even if a star (the public face of any later retrospective clip show shame) did protest at what they were being made to do - if the show's format was working, then their producer wouldn't dare change a thing. Parsons also mentioned that on Sale of the Century they did try adding male models to drape over the star prizes, but there was a viewer backlash and the idea quickly dropped. Hey, but at least they tried!

Don't forget that TV isn't so politically correct even today - in last night's ITV reality show 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here', respected ex-BBC newsreader Michael Buerk voted for a woman to join him in jungle camp because "she might be able to do the cooking". The producers of the upcoming 'It Was Alright in 2014', should have been watching.

So the 1970s were made to feel pretty dirty on Channel 4 last night. But I guess it's partly a knee jerk reaction - still jerking, not just at the BBC but all over - to the dirty Jimmy (and friends) affair, that wasn't so much a part of the 70s as a bad part of just about every decade in which that genuinely repulsive man lived in. But at least they didn't pick on Leslie Phillips whose lustiness was only ever on the right side of good taste. Oh hang on . .

Clips were shown of Leslie Phillips's lothario-about-London character Henry Newhouse, from the BBC's short-lived 'Casanova '73' ogling women while driving (I reckon it's a case of 'wink and drive') and, most scandalously - in one episode - lusting after his 20-something virginal (hey, it wasn't all free sex in the 70s you know - virgins did still exist) goddaughter Tessa (played by the phenomenal Madeline Smith, who seemed more nostalgic and wistful about the 70's sexplots she often starred in, than critical).

When Tessa turned the tables on Henry and tried to seduce him by sitting on his lap (in a pre-watershed writhing that probably did a lot to ensure the series went post-watershed the following week), Henry ran a mile. Or at least to the other end of the room.

Dirty old (and especially young) men didn't often get their end away in 70's sitcoms or sketch shows, but they sure as hell tried. A clip of Benny Hill chasing a young woman across the park to silly music (that supposedly negated the shock value, we were told - a fact most of us clearly already know, because that was clearly the whole point) had a sting in the tale when the chased woman enjoyed her peck on the cheek and chased Benny all the way back through the trees and up to the end credits.

There was a lot of talk too about how women going braless in the 70s was clearly objectification when used by male comedians as a plot device. But I saw a lot less flesh in those 70's sitcoms than I get to see today in a Miley Cyrus selfie. Even a prime time TV show like the X Factor gets away with bondage themed dance routines these days (thanks, Christina Aguilera) - although admittedly they offer record contracts to the winner, not an orphaned St. Bernard. Maybe times have changed after all.

Were the 70s really that dirty? If you want to be prudish, I reckon there's still no time like the present. I reckon you could say that about pretty much every decade in living memory that suffered shock and outrage. Just ask Clara Bow and Josephine Baker. And the bedroom fantasies erupting across Middle England for 50 Shades of Grey - the book, the movie and the expensive range of bestselling sex toys - right now would make even the likes of Bill Oddie blush.



Note to self: Buy DVD box sets of Doctor at Large, Casanova '73 and, err . . Butterflies.

words: mark gordon palmer

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