I was watching an old episode of Minder the other night and was struck by announcement which preceded it: “This programme contains outdated sexual references which some viewers might find offensive”. Now, bearing in mind that the episode in question was from 1980, I would have been more surprised if it didn’t contain ‘outdated sexual references’. But apparently these days people need to be warned that the past was different from the present. Most episodes of Minder feature copious references to ‘birds’ and rampant objectification of women. Perhaps not surprisingly, bearing in mind his profession, a remarkable number of Terry’s girlfriends are strippers. But clearly what had alarmed ITV 4 sufficiently about this particular episode to the extent that it felt a warning was warranted before it was screened in the early hours of the morning, was that it involved Terry having to mind a gay antiques dealer. Now, the sexual stereotyping was hardly subtle – Terry describes the dealer as being a ‘raving iron’, not that he has anything against ‘irons’, mind, he just doesn’t want to live with one as it might affect his reputation as a ladies man – but it wasn’t the worst instance of homophobia in past popular culture I’ve seen. Sure, all the usual gags involving Terry’s discomfort at being caught naked in bed by his charge but, to be fair, the gay character is played relatively straight, so to speak. There’s none of the high camp, mincing walks and flamboyant dressing you’d usually get from gay characters around this period. He certainly wasn’t portrayed as a close cousin to Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served?, for instance.
All of which brings us to my main point – the apparent inability of many people (especially in the media) nowadays to be able to grasp the fundamental fact that the past is different to the present, that ideas, attitudes and opinions change over time. I’d like to believe that they evolve, which implies progression, but the fact is that they simply change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. One of the prime examples of this failure to comprehend the nature of time, (and one of my pet hates, into the bargain), are those TV shows with the premise of: ‘Wasn’t TV horrible in the past?’ You know the ones I mean – they are full of micro celeb millennial types looking aghast at the terrible racism and sexism on display in the carefully chosen clips of seventies TV programmes they’ve just been shown. I really don’t know why they are so shocked that nearly fifty years ago people had different, frequently less enlightened (by our standards) views on issues like race, feminism, sexual orientation and the like and that these attitudes were reflected in the popular culture of the era. They seem quite incapable of grasping the fact that these things change over time. When Dave Lee Travis was in court accused of variously groping and molesting several female co-workers in his Radio One days, (although acquitted of most of the charges, he was found guilty of at least one instance), his entire defence should have consisted of screenings of seventies sitcoms and Carry On films.
While in no way condoning sexual harassment in the workplace or anywhere else, the fact is that this sort of behaviour was regularly presented to men of the era as being the norm. Indeed, in the vernacular of the time, if you didn’t slap a bird’s arse in the office at least once a week, then you must be a ‘raving iron’. It’s easy for us now to look back on the seventies and eighties are realise just how wrong sexual and racial attitudes were then, but at the time both sexual harassment and racism were being presented as ‘harmless fun’, (just watch an episode of Love Thy Neighbour for an example of the latter). As a case in point, I recently watched an episode of Doctor in Charge from 1972 which included some extraordinary, to contemporary eyes, scenes, which most definitely wouldn’t be allowed in any modern sitcom. Most bizarrely, Dr Waring mistakes a group of stereotypically seventies horny decorators who have arrived to repaint the hospital, for a group of medical students he is meant to be taking on his rounds. Inevitably these rounds include a ward full of attractive young women, one of whom (played by the lovely Valerie Leon) is a patient of Waring’s who is awaiting an operation to remove a benign cyst from one of her breasts. You can see where this is going, can’t you? That’s right, Waring gets his ‘students’ to ‘examine’ Valerie Leon’s breasts, (after warming their hands, of course). Now, while it might, in retrospect, seem more than slightly disturbing that what is, after all, sexual assault, mass sexual assault at that, should be considered a source of comedy, what I found more incredible is that, when the mistaken identities of the ‘students’ is revealed, the patient doesn’t sue the hospital, Waring isn’t struck off and the painters aren’t arrested. But hey, it was the seventies and things were different back then, apparently.
Whilst, however, it is tempting to think that this is just another example of the lack of ‘realism’ in seventies TV, particularly sitcoms, the reality is that we still see this sort of thing in contemporary medical dramas. Jut look at the BBC’s Holby City and Casualty, for instance – how many times have regular characters in these soaps committed what, in real life, would constitute gross professional misconduct, yet face only the most minor of sanctions, returning to duty in the next episode as if nothing had happened. That said, I can’t actually recall any multiple breast gropings going on in Holby City. The odd mass shooting, yes, but no knocker grabbings. Obviously, I should be shocked and offended by what I saw in that episode of Doctor in Charge and should be calling for it to be banned. But, I’m ashamed to say, it amused me in a perverse sort of way. When you think about it, it is a remarkably dark slice of black humour to find in a seventies sitcom: the idea of some individuals happily exploiting their position as supposed ‘medical professionals’ in order to feel up strangers. It also says something about the way in which we blithely accept the ‘right’ of certain authority figures to abuse their positions – until the patient realises the mistake, she is happy to be intimately groped by a group of strange men simply because they are wearing white coats and therefore ‘must’ be doctors and trustworthy. Deep stuff for a seventies sitcom.
Ultimately, though, it is pointless being ‘shocked’ by the popular culture of another era. We can’t change the past. I’m not really sure that putting warnings in front of these sorts of programmes serves any purpose – surely as soon as someone starts watching them it should become obvious that the programmes is from another era and can’t really be judged by contemporary standards. They stand as useful reminders of how far we’ve come since they were made, as well as capturing a snap shot of a world gone by. Not necessarily a ‘better’ world (as those nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ would have you believe), just a different world.