In the olden days (around about eighteen months ago), if you wanted some hardcore pornography you would have to go to a seedy shop, hover a few minutes with the soft core and then sidle up to the man behind the counter and whisper “Got anything a bit stronger, mate?”
Now, you can walk down Old Compton Street, or into any licensed sex shop around the country, and get filth to suit all tastes quite legally and on demand.
Those who like it think it’s a good thing, those who don’t, want it banned again. The question then becomes: should there be any restraint on free speech in a democratic society, or should everyone be able to say, do, publish and film whatever they like, so long as it isn’t harming anyone? After all, one man’s protection of public morals is another man’s intolerable censorship.
On the continent and in the USA “XXX entertainment”, as it is euphemistically called, has been available for decades to adults who wanted it. Yet we in Britain have not, until recently, been trusted to make our own choices. Those in need of the occasional voyeuristic thrill provided by mucky movies had either to break the law by buying them on the black market, or risk humiliation at HM Customs by trying to smuggle stuff in from Amsterdam.
But could our new access to no-holds-barred erotica be in danger of a premature demise?
I only ask, because our new film-censor-in-chief (or, to give him his correct title, President of the British Board of Film Classification) is making Bowdlerish noises that might have implications for movies of all kinds, not just of the R18 variety. Mainstream films, too, might find themselves subjected to more and more restraint as a non-film buff takes over the reins at the BBFC.
The name of this man is Sir Quentin Thomas, and he is described in an interview with The Sunday Times as “the brainiest civil servant of his generation”. But reading the interview, what comes across is an individual who knows little about film, and has hardly thought through a coherent policy in relation to the increasing amount of sex and violence that is being presented as entertainment.
Unlike his predecessor, the worldly Andreas Whittam Smith (who has jumped from one cesspit to another by becoming a Church Commissioner), Sir Quentin sounds positively naïve.
He admits that despite being up at Cambridge during the sixties, the “permissive society” completely passed him by. Indeed, The Sunday Times’ interviewer, Jasper Gerard, admits that there is “a whiff of Pooter” about Sir Quentin and that he has a “conservative agenda”.
It may be “conservative” with a small “c” but he also has an aura of blue rinse about him, too. He has, for instance, a Whitehousian aversion to “bad language” in films.
Jasper Gerard comments that such an objection immediately puts anyone trying to enforce “good taste” into a quandary. “If you purge films of swearing where do you stop?” asks Mr Gerard. “Four Weddings and a Funeral was expletive-rich, but loved by 90-year old Grannies.”
Sir Quentin makes worrying noises about “principles of taste” and “notions of what is decent and what is offensive” and most worryingly of all says he might seek legislation to define what is acceptable.
One wonders whether the present choices will remain open once the House of Commons and, particularly, the House of Lords, are invited to get on their righteous high horses about it. There’s nothing our legislators like to do better than to present themselves as opposers of the “tide of filth”.
Sir Quentin Thomas asserts in his interview that violent videos “desensitise” people and therefore increase violence. This is a popular and widely held opinion, but there is no cut and dried evidence to support it. And, indeed, it was this lack of evidence that “opened the floodgates” to hard core porn.
Three years ago, porn-makers successfully appealed against the BBFC’s decision to refuse certificates to seven hard-core videos. The Board had decided that the films were unsuitable to receive even an “R18” classification. But it was overruled by the Video Appeals Committee, a statutory body to which film makers can appeal. The following year, the BBFC tried to challenge the ruling in court, but failed.
The ruling forced the BBFC, which is independent of the government and funded by the film industry, to liberalise its own guidelines—effectively opening the way for the fellatio and fucking extravaganzas that we can enjoy today.
The Video Appeals Committee had said that the ban on the films could be justified only if the BBFC could produce evidence that they caused harm. The BBFC was unable to do so.
Sir Quentin told The Sunday Telegraph: “The nature of the research in this field is complex, If this test was vigorously applied, the board would have its hands tied. I think it may need legislation to prevent our discretionary powers being eaten into.”
One person who certainly thinks art and entertainment can provoke copy-cat crimes is Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape, the child protection charity. She was commenting in The Daily Telegraph, following a court case involving a sex attack on a nine-year old boy by another boy of 12.
During the hearing, a recording of Enimen’s track Ken Kaniff (skit) was played to the jury. The song is basically about cock-sucking (the full, senseless lyrics can be read on http://www.enimenworld.com/mmlp12.html). After the unpleasant noise which Enimen makes had been played in court, the prosecution lawyer said: “One possibility is that the 12-year old boy in adolescence heard the track and thought it would be a good idea to make someone do that to him.”
Michele Elliott commented: “There is something disturbing about a record or video egging people on to act outside social parameters. I personally find them disgusting and don’t think we should give them a platform. If you are already disturbed, listening to something particularly unpleasant could give you the rationale that it is okay.”
So there we have the same argument taken a stage further. If people who are already on the verge of violence or sexual misdemeanour are exposed to violent art or disturbing erotica, it could push them over the edge into doing something criminal or anti-social that they might not otherwise have done. No evidence required, it just “sounds right”.
But should our entertainment be censored because there are some suggestible and unstable people in our society?
I think most of us would accept that young children need to be protected from images and ideas that would frighten or disturb them, and the fact that hard core movies are only available in sex shops offers some kind of barrier. But what about television?
Last month, a gay story line was featured in the police soap The Bill. At one point, PC Luke Ashton (unaccountably described as a “heart throb” in The Daily Mirror) and Sergeant Craig Gilmore were seen sharing a “lingering kiss” in the locker room – while in uniform (cor! phwoar! etc.).
Immediately the “switchboards were jammed” as they say, with a reported 300 calls from angry viewers. The main complaint was that the kiss was featured before the 9pm watershed that is supposed to protect children from exposure to “adult” themes.
So will schoolboys up and down the country now be snogging each other in the playground lavs because they’ve seen two rozzers doing it on the telly? I think not. It’s much more likely that at this very moment they’ve got the school poof in the bog sticking his head down the toilet and flushing it. So where might they have got that idea from? They used to do that at my school, and videos weren’t even invented then.
The Bill’s kiss, however, might have given that poor, persecuted school poof a little bit of reassurance that other people are sharing his feelings – albeit problematically.
Next up for the “we’re being corrupted by the telly” brigade will be the new BBC costume drama (or “romp” as the tabloids would have it) Tipping the Velvet. This is being hyped as an erotic exploration of Victorian lesbianism and prostitution. It is based on the book by Sarah Waters and The Sunday Times quoted from the blurb of that volume to tell us that the story is: “Pulsating with highly charged and explicitly presented erotic heat.”
Looking at the way the BBC is promoting this show, one can’t help wondering whether lesbianism is being exploited as a ratings winner.
The drama itself could be excellent (and it should be, having been adapted by Andrew Davies who brought us the marvellous Pride and Prejudice), and the whole thing could be a wonderful work of art. But it is being sold by the Beeb as pornography.
“Yes, it’s a very rude show,” Andrew Davies is quoted as saying in The Sunday Times, and the paper then goes on to mention leather dildos, four-letter words and lesbian sex slaves.
This was too much for The Daily Mail, which went into Daily Mail mode. “BBC faces obscenity row over ‘shocking’ new lesbian drama,” it screamed.
It managed to find someone called Miranda Suit from a previously unheard of organisation called Mediamarch, which apparently “wants tougher obscenity laws”. Ms Suit said: “This is catering for a minority audience when the BBC is supposed to be catering for the mainstream audience that pays its licence fee. The gay sex scenes in Queer as Folk provoked huge numbers of complaints and I expect this will too.”
Well, excuse me, Ms Suit, but the BBC is supposed to cater for the whole nation, not just the church-going prudes. We’ve all got minority interests of some kind – you can have Songs of Praise, we’ll have Queer as Folk, is that a deal?
And finally we come to one of Mrs Whitehouse’s official disciples, John Miltom Whatmore of the Mediawatch organisation (which used to be the National Viewers and Listeners Association). He told the Mail: “What worries me is that someone within the BBC sat there and realised it was going to be controversial and upset some viewers and went ahead with it anyway. Why? Are swearing and sex scenes really part of the BBC’s public service remit?”
The BBC hits back by saying it will be “dazzling and provocative drama” and the sex scenes “will not be gratuitous. It is erotic and it is like a lesbian version of Moll Flanders.”
The funny thing is that Tipping the Velvet sounds like it wouldn’t be amiss on the shelves of wank-fodder in the local Private Shop. Lesbian tongue-and-titty films are very popular with straight men, so who is this drama supposed to be appealing to?
Then the question becomes – does a drama have to be “artistic” and “worthy” to earn its place on the Beeb, or is smut and titillation (or erotica as it’s known at TV Centre) a legitimate subject for exploration?
It all boils down to whether we, as a nation, are grown-up enough to make our own decisions about what we want to see, read and hear. In R18 movies, surely any sexual activity that is consenting and doesn’t involve force or exploitation should be OK. On telly, where kiddies have easier access, it obviously needs to be more strictly controlled, but not entirely screened out.
And let’s not forget, when the get-this-filth-off-the-telly brigade are in the ascendant, it’s always gay images that are first to go.