Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

How dark pall has been cast forever over the classic TV of our childhoods

Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris

With the arrest of Rolf Harris – even now an amazing way to begin a sentence – the sunny era of the Seventies and Eighties finally died. I'm talking about my childhood and probably the childhoods of anyone between 35 and 45.

As we are reminded by all those 'I Love' nostalgia fests, the 1970s and early '80s were the time that taste forgot: sideburned, bell-bottomed men in tie dyes giving way to pasty faced blokes in parallels, letterman sweaters, waistcoats, which gave way to strangely bequiffed men in white suits and black shirts, which gave way to safety pins and pantomime bondage trousers, which gave way to puffy shirts and tonsorial outrages from the New Romantic movement.

As for music, the era isn't (except on BBC 4) remembered via Bowie, Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk. No, the memory montage is always the Bay City Rollers, the three Davids – Cassidy, Soul and Essex – Showaddywaddy, Abba, Matt Bianco and Modern Romance. In other words, totally "naff" (that meaningless swear-word from Porridge). Yet so naff as to come back round as amiable kitsch. Kitschy, naff and ... well ... innocent.

It was never more so than watching TV. The whole family snuggled up on the settee, dads in nylon shirts, kids in A-Team PJs, glued to Ask The Family or waiting for the heady strains of Mike Batt and the Summer Time Special theme. Or, in wintertime, Lulu or Cilla's "specials". To be followed by Starsky & Hutch (a land where two men could be really good friends and nary a sniggery innuendo – which we wouldn't have understood anyway – and where grasses don't end up dead.)

Edgy comedy was Mike Yarwood (In Persons!) doing a routine about Harold Wilson and Ted Heath arguing whether to spend an evening watching the footie or yachting highlights ...

Even as the Seventies gave way to the Eighties, the faces changed but the Horlicky quality of TV memories remained: John Noakes, Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin, then Mike Reid and Simon Groom. Swap Shop was replaced by Saturday Superstore which took on the anarchaic Tiswas.

True, this was not the best of British television but I always had a deeper affection for the flotsam and jetsam of my childhood than improving 'quality television' like World in Action, Play for Today and I, Claudius.

But now – after Jimmy Savile and the sensations of Operation Yewtree – I find myself undergoing what is euphemistically called "a painful re-evaluation" of my childhood. It goes beyond the innocence or guilt of those celebrities who have featured in the headlines. The poison is seeping and apparently endless, leaving its mark on all aspects of our childhoods. The very words 'Light Entertainment' sound sinister.

Even long-dead stars, totally innocent of any crimes and accused of none – so far – must be suffering in terms of reputation. It was always hard to laugh at the sight of Reg Varney trying to get his leg over some young clippie. Now it's impossible. The sight does nothing but remind us of the unacceptable sexual politics of the period. Reg, Benny Hill and Les Dawson's Cosmo Smallpiece no longer seem exponents of "saucy seaside humour" but more like advocates of a groper's charter.

This time it isn't just about how every age looks down its moral nose at the decades preceding it. This time it's terminal.

Those decades were the first where the mass media – TV – took over the living rooms of the whole population. It was a free-for-all, the period when all the patterns of home entertainment were experimented on and laid down, from quiz shows, to soaps, to reality shows, to big break contests and chat shows, live Saturday night extravaganzas and, crucially, the fake TV persona manufacturing trust and homeliness by the bucketful.

We should have known the truth when Jess Yates of Stars on Sunday fame was fired for an affair with a young actress; or again when Paula Yates, his daughter, was revealed to be Hughie Green's love-child. All the greats. But we didn't suspect the depth of the corruption broadcasters were sunk in up to their waistbands.

Now we know. Of course, sexual abuse and exploitation hasn't ended with the onset of satellite television. But what has ended is any sense that we will ever believe what we are told. No wonder the gossip of internet chimps almost sounds like credible news gathering.

Cruelly, whether Rolf is charged or not charged – even if he is found innocent – the damage has been done to the whole era which his warm and safe persona came to represent.

It's not just the Seventies and Eighties that were screwed. It's the death-knell of TV itself.

Pass the laptop, please.

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