Not a pleasant image, I grant you, but imagine if Margaret Thatcher and Kim Jong-un had once grabbed a quickie, one that resulted in a bouncing behemoth of a baby boy inheriting the worst traits of both parents; as a means of describing the domineering and dictatorial presence of the man who ruled Britain for twenty years, it’s as close as we can probably get to picturing the personality of Robert Walpole. The first Prime Minister, even if that label was intended as mocking his utter domination of state and sovereign for two decades, wielded so much power that not only did he move an entire village because it spoiled the view from his Palladian mansion, but he was also a recurring target for playwrights who ridiculed him on stage with a savagery that made ‘Spitting Image’ resemble a party political broadcast.
Eventually, Walpole grew so incensed that he legislated against the satirists and the 1737 Licensing Act gave powers to the Lord Chamberlain (at the time a Cabinet post) to effectively control what could be seen on the British stage. One accidental, if positive, by-product of this was the sudden maturity of the English novel as many disgusted playwrights turned from stage to page; but as a means of killing the previous premier medium as an arena for the radical, it succeeded in setting back British theatre for the best part of a century or more.
Statutory control and government veto over Art is something most of us would associate with totalitarian dictatorships East of Berlin and North of Seoul. Surely not here in dear old Blighty? It certainly caught Arthur Miller by surprise in 1956, when he accompanied his new bride Marilyn Monroe as she touched down on British soil to shoot ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’. When Marilyn’s co-star Laurence Olivier invited Miller to a night out at the theatre, ‘Look Back in Anger’ intrigued the US playwright on the strength of its title alone. When it was explained to him that John Osborne’s visceral rant against the stasis British society was trapped in had been forced to delicately navigate the Lord Chamberlain’s censorious guidelines, Miller was amazed that all new plays in Britain had to be presented to an official of the Royal Household before production. In retrospect, the fact that a bill passed to curb early eighteenth century stage satire was still in operation over two-hundred years later seems as staggering to us now as it appeared to Arthur Miller sixty years ago.
Succeeded by the moderately less harsh 1843 Theatres Act, the powers given to the Lord Chamberlain nevertheless lingered until theatre censorship was finally abolished in 1968. Television, despite the best efforts of Mary Whitehouse, remained self-regulatory bar the occasional government intervention, such as the withdrawal before transmission of Peter Watkins’ contentious 1965 fictional portrayal of a nuclear attack on Britain, ‘The War Game’; twenty years later, ‘The Secret Society’, a documentary series in production, was branded a security risk following police raids on BBC Scotland offices at the behest of the Home Office. Generally, any row between government and broadcaster, such as the one provoked by the 1988 ‘This Week’ documentary, ‘Death on the Rock’, tended to explode after broadcast, not before.
With the dissolution of the ITV and ILR regulatory body the IBA in 1990, twelve years of its successor the Independent Television Commission were followed by the birth of the television and radio ‘super-regulator’, the somewhat Orwellian-sounding Office of Communications, usually abbreviated to Ofcom. Its independence from government influence isn’t as apparent as that of the IBA or the ITC was, and it would appear plans outlined in the recent Queen’s Speech suggest Ofcom could be employed as a quasi-government media watchdog in the home front ‘war on terror’. This is part of the so-called ‘Extremist Bill’ (yes, it does sound like a character from ‘Viz’), and although details are sketchy – not to mention elusive online at the moment – the general gist of the proposal seems to be that Ofcom will be given extra powers to veto any television programme before broadcast if the content is perceived as promoting extremist views.
On paper, this isn’t necessarily a new development. Anyone old enough will remember the frankly surreal 90s ban on the voices of Sinn Fein politicians so that their words had to be spoken out-of-synch by an actor, thus making every Gerry Adams TV appearance reminiscent of a scene from a badly dubbed Bruce Lee movie. What makes this different, however, is that whereas the track records of Adams and McGuinness were well-known and indisputable, the targets of this latest crack-down could encompass anyone who dares to criticise British foreign policy or the behaviour of the police and the security services at home. Any criticism of government will be perceived as treasonous and punishable, not just for the individual who airs ‘extremist’ opinions on TV or radio, but for the broadcaster as well. Does David Cameron view Vladimir Putin as his own personal cable guy?
The suggestion seems to be that the British people are only entitled to publicly express grievances with the government during a General Election, even if millions attempting to vote them out of office see their votes wasted due to the archaic flaws of our voting system. On any other occasion, such actions are verboten. Mind you, we’ve been witness to that for years via the kettling technique employed mainly by the Met during large demonstrations; but giving Ofcom free rein to dictate what the viewing public can or cannot see, surely something only the broadcasters themselves should have (if anyone is to have that right at all), is taking us all the way back to the era of the Lord Chamberlain.
Should this proposed bill become law – and the broadcasting aspect is just one small segment – it will entrench itself in the statute book and will resolutely refuse to budge, for once a government acquires a particular power, they are notoriously reluctant to relinquish it. It took 231 years for theatre censorship to be abolished, after all. Know when the last laws against witchcraft were repealed in this country? 1951. That’s right, the year of the Festival of bloody Britain!
As Minister for the Interior, Theresa May has slipped into the tried and trusted Home Secretary suit as though it had kitten heels. Go back ten, twenty, thirty or forty years and you’ll find the likes of Willie Whitelaw, Leon Brittan, Michael Howard, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, David Blunkett et al were similarly keen to flex their muscles and impose control in a manner reminiscent of the fictional holder of the post as he endorses Ludovico’s Technique in ‘A Clockwork Orange’. One could argue there’s nothing really new in politics or the way holders of high office exploit the electorate’s fear of a bogeyman – be him French, German, Irish or Muslim – by restricting their freedoms and telling them it’s for their own safety. But by branding any point of view that counteracts their own as ‘extremist’ and intercepting any radio or television broadcast before the public have been exposed to it because it may contain such a point of view, the current crop are at least excelling themselves in proudly upholding the draconian tactics pioneered three-hundred years ago.
Who says we don’t respect tradition in this country anymore?