Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

First Savile and now Harris. But has abuse tarnished a TV generation?

Jimmy Savile
Rolf Harris with daughter Bindi arrive at court during his trial
Dave Lee Travis

The Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile sex scandals have cast a long shadow over 1970s' and 80s' television, but that isn't how it seemed at the time to a generation growing up with Peter Powell, 'Kid' Jensen and the Radio One Roadshow. You had to be there, says Una Brankin.

Summers seemed longer and hotter when BBC Radio One from London ruled the airwaves. DJs, from Dave Lee Travis to Steve Wright, provided the soundtrack for long, sunny afternoons lounging by tinny radios in backyards and lawns – sheer bliss after having crammed for end-of-term exams.

Then there was Top of The Pops to look forward to on TV at 7.30pm on Thursdays – and Swap Shop and Jim'll Fix It at the weekends. With the internet yet to be invented, Radio One and the three big television channels – BBC One, BBC Two and UTV – dominated popular culture. And their presenters were idols.

My oldest school-friend was particularly fond of the toothy DJ Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart and decided one day to draw a picture of him and buy a first-class stamp to post it to him in London.

It was a typically wooden, adolescent, two-dimensional effort, making him look like something out of Planet of the Apes, But, lo and behold, a few weeks later, the BBC sent her a thank you note and a glossy signed photo of her hero.

I was hugely impressed – I'd previously sent a terrible joke to the Beano and had been rewarded with a 'consolation' pen when they didn't publish it.

How innocent we were. We'd never heard of porn and later, when some new arrivals from the Big Smoke of Belfast arrived in our culchie world and sat sniggering over some dirty magazines during one of our first encounters with them, we were absolutely disgusted.

They teased us for being green, claiming all the girls in Belfast were 'at it'. We would have been absolutely horrified if we thought our BBC idols were as fixated on sex as these spotty creeps.

Radio One DJs were gods and hundreds of us flocked to see Peter Powell and 'Kid' Jensen at week-long summer roadshows in hot-spots like Portrush and Bangor. Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile were avuncular figures, on the other hand; not as trendy, but equally famous and well-liked.

We used to think Rolf Harris was an artistic genius and loved his nature shows. I remember giggling at the jokes about him playing with his didgeridoo and was very surprised when they didn't resurface after he was charged with child-sex offences.

There were some dreadful ones going around about Jimmy Savile (left), unimaginable back in the days of Swap Shop and Jim'll Fix It, with its jaunty, feelgood jingle. Jimmy made dreams come true and we were transfixed. To this day, that breezy tune is evocative of more carefree times.

And, although BBC Radio veteran Tony Blackburn recently claimed on Today FM that Savile – whom he disliked – was "simply not a good presenter", many maintained Savile's selections for Top Of The Pops made the best editions. It may have been just the timing of the charts, but he always had Abba on, for a start.

His tacky training-suits, big cigars and gaudy bling – including knuckle-duster rings allegedly made with glass eyes he took from corpses while working as a morgue attendant – made him appear all the more asexual and harmless.

Until, that is, we all got a bit older and saw him showing documentary-maker Louis Theroux the wardrobe he kept of his late mother's dresses. Norman Bates, anyone?

But there was never a hint, among the wider public, of anything odd about Harris. He may have worn garish, multi-coloured shirts and made strange animal sounds, but he always seemed soft and kind. Even after his conviction and jailing for five years and nine months yesterday, it doesn't seem right to lump him into the same category as the monstrous Savile.

Harris's assaults on girls as young as seven and 13 were utterly despicable, but they're on the lower end of the sexual offences scale. He wasn't quite as depraved as Savile.

During the week, an initially incredulous friend and neighbour of the Australian's, from Berkshire, wrote that he was being treated for depression during the time of his assaults on his daughter, Bindi's, friend and speculated that that his conscience was gnawing at him.

If so, he should have been brave enough to face it and receive treatment for his urges, rather than giving in to them and scarring young girls for years to come.

Bindi is of a similar vintage as my schoolfriends and I can well imagine her thinking 'laughable' her friend's claim that Rolf molested her in the bedroom shared by the girls. But they were more innocent and less politically-correct times.

Many of us knew the 'odd' adult, who seemed to enjoy tickling too much, but no one thought anything of it. I had another schoolfriend with an uncle in his 60s, who used to do tickle us while pinning us up against the hall wall, or wherever.

His hand never 'slipped' and I thought he was just an old eejit, until my friend confessed to me, only recently, that he'd once crept up behind her while she was ironing, with his privates exposed. She froze initially; then scarpered. The incident was never repeated, or mentioned again.

Such unspeakable carry-on was always swept swiftly under the carpet. But, yes, the '70s and early '80s was a golden era to grow up in. There were no pop tarts thrusting their crotches in our faces, or thinly-veiled songs about rape featuring nude models in the accompanying videos.

There was no readily available online porn and dozens of satellite TV channels showing risque drama series and blue movies.

The closest we ever got to hanky-panky on screen was sneaking into the cinema to see John Travolta kerfuffling in the back of a car in Saturday Night Fever. Any real perverted goings-on were kept secret.

It's only years afterwards that I heard that two sisters who lived up the road were systematically abused by their seemingly harmless uncle (whom they eventually bought to court, after receiving counselling for his behaviour).

Another fella I know well is haunted by the image of a local girl being raped behind a hedge by her father – yes, her father – in the meadows. It all comes out after he has sunk a bottle of Bacardi. It makes you thank God for decent parents.

The Met's Operation Yewtree investigation has so far convicted only two of some 17 celebrities, including naff It's A Knock Out presenter Stuart Hall, and their hangers-on for sex offences.

To this day, many refuse to believe the complainants, accusing them of jumping on the compensation wagon. "They're after money," is a frequent refrain – even by mothers.

Maybe so, such as in the case of Coronation Street's Bill Roache, who was cleared of all charges. It begs the question of repressed memories and the falsification of such by some accusers.

But I knew a mother, so tortured by her secret past abuse by her father, that she hanged herself on a tree in her garden. We used to steal apples in her family's orchard, around the time when my sisters and I used to wait on the bread man bringing the Judy and Debbie comics every Friday.

We moved on to the Jackie and Smash Hits magazines and tore out pages with John Travolta and Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers.

And, a little later, we ran around in cars with Citizens' Band radios, giving ourselves naive 'handles'.

Mine was UXB, after my initials (and for 'Unexploded bomb'). When some wag added 'Sex' to the middle of that, I was mortified.

But, looking back, I wouldn't swap those innocent, carefree days with the sexually pressurised era of today's adolescents.

Whatever comes out in the dirty washing of the Yewtree investigation, the unharmed of my generation will always remember the catchy songs and daytime TV shows where innocent dreams came without a judging panel killing them for laughs and viewing figures.

Those were the days, my friend.

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