A long-time commentator on here pointed me in the direction of a Channel 4 programme looking back at TV from the 60s the other week; I was tempted solely by the fact that an ageing Peter Wyngarde apparently made an appearance to briefly comment on his role in a pre-Jason King drama. I watched on catch-up, which meant I could skim through the rest of the programme in the manner of a VCR fast-forward until the old man of Department S made his blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo. I wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. I doubted I could be told anything I didn’t already know about the Swinging decade, and I was right. Not that I would’ve learnt anything of any value from this kind of programme, anyway.
The fact is I have relived the decade I arrived at the arse-end of vicariously over the past thirty years, beginning with Channel 4’s excellent early production, ‘The Sixties’, perhaps the first documentary series to seriously analyse the 60s when it was still close enough to feel recent, but far enough away to be treated as history. Covering everything from pop culture and politics to architecture and innovations in technology, this enlightening and comprehensive chronicle of what made the decade so special was light years ahead of the same channel’s piss-poor 2015 excuse, which said a great deal about the diminishing ambitions not just of Channel 4, but British television in general.
I figured footage I’ve seen over and over again would be dusted down once more; you know what I’m talking about – Carnaby Street, Beatlemania, England winning the World Cup etc, etc. It was probably exhumed for the sequences I sped through, though Channel 4 can no longer present the story without a cool, sarcastic smirk anymore, lest the attention span of ‘the kids’ be lost due to all that boring talking, like. They had to intersperse the clips from TV of the era with the kind of talking heads that really should be making a date with Madame Guillotine.
Sticking numerous wrinklies who were there at the time in front of TV sets, ‘Googlebox’-style, was clearly not going to suffice for younger viewers in ignorance of the 60s, so several third division so-called comedians who never say anything funny when they make up the numbers on ‘Mock the Week’ were there to represent this ignorance – and ignorant they certainly were. A female one gasped when exposed to a scene from ‘The Saint’ as Roger Moore chased a young lady around the room. ‘Oh, I hope he’s not going to rape her!’ she exclaimed. ITC adventures were, of course, renowned for their regular rape scenes. Silly cow. These deplorable programmes are merely cheap and nasty vehicles for reinforcing ill-informed prejudices and adopt a sneering approach to the past that smugly celebrates how much more advanced we are now. In their way, however, they reflect a wider wilful ignorance where anything that predates current mores is concerned.
For example, post-Savile, the general consensus is that ‘Top of the Pops’ in the 1970s was a hot-bed of vice and debauchery; but even before that notion was hatched by people who weren’t there, the show was singled out for retrospective critiques, largely based on the presence of Pan’s People. According to the contemporary PC opinion, it was demeaning and patronising that women’s sole regular representation on TOTP was five pretty girls dancing in skimpy outfits to the hits of acts that couldn’t be present to promote them.
Lest we forget, however, Pan’s People and their successors Legs & Co were assembled and choreographed by a woman, Flick Colby, who contributed to the programme for the best part of fifteen years, longer than anyone else involved in its four decades on air. An all-female co-operative was a very 1970s/80s feminist concept, but various ground rules have to be adhered to when judging from the distance of the twenty-first century. Women coming together to deal with serious issues such as gender equality or cruise missiles is fine, but devoting themselves to the frivolity of showbiz? That means women’s bodies might be on display, and also means wicked men must have been at play behind the scenes; only, there were no men involved in the TOTP dance-troupes, not even safe gay ones.
In the brave new world of morality we now inhabit, it’s apparently forgivable that old male rock stars’ attitudes towards women were one notch below Robin Askwith’s ‘Confessions’ character; on-the-road adventures in which the main female role was to service the cock-rockers (or immortalise their assets as plaster-casts) have become part of musical mythology, and things were different then, of course; besides, the guilty parties still generate millions for the beleaguered music industry and are untouchable. Why, then, are women in the 70s who celebrated sexiness without it being a mere appendage to a male rock star now regarded as victims of exploitation or as just plain naive, as though they were oblivious little girls slapping on makeup, unaware of less innocent connotations?
That insulting summary implies they were clueless, infantilised females incapable of knowing what they were doing, when in actual fact they were a highly successful freelance business not beholden to any male Svengali figure, either at the BBC or anywhere else. Curious, though, that the criticisms levelled at the TOTP dancers don’t apply when it comes to contemporary female pop stars. Their outfits can be far skimpier than anything Pan’s People, Legs & Co or even Hot Gossip wore, but they’re perceived as (yes, that awful word again) empowering. It’s seemingly fine for the likes of Miley Cyrus, Katie Perry, Lady GaGa or Rihanna to raid the wardrobes of pole-dancers and writhe about on stage as though they’re desperate to go to the toilet; they can even sing about lurid sexual acts and it’s regarded as perfectly acceptable. These sisters are doing it for themselves – just like Pan’s People were forty years ago.
The revisionist angle when it comes to late twentieth century pop culture is an insidious product of a twenty-first century that doesn’t have a leg to stand on if it’s intent on citing its own vacuous equivalent as superior. That guardian of the nation’s moral conscience, the Daily Mail, never misses a chance to rail against the perceived crimes of the past, yet its online edition oozes with titillation, including such sexually-empowering headlines as ‘Braless Scout Willis exposes her bare bust in sheer jumpsuit’, ‘Leggy Chrissy Teigen goes braless in a sheer lace top and tiny hotpants’, ‘Elizabeth Hurley – 50 – showcases hourglass figure and plenty of cleavage’, ‘Pamela Anderson puts on a VERY leggy display in thigh-skimming tuxedo blazer’ and ‘Leggy Rihanna oozes sex appeal as she displays plenty of cleavage in plunging black number’.
It’s such a relief we’ve come a long way from those nasty, sexist 60s and 70s.