Sunday, February 27, 2022

Mary Whitehouse v Doctor Who

Disgusted, Mary Whitehouse will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Saturday 5 March. Produced by me and brother Thomas, it’s presented by Samira Ahmed who has spent months researching Whitehouse’s diaries, now in the collections of the Bodleian Library in Oxford; Samira has written a blog post about it all. For our programme, we spoke to Whitehouse’s granddaughter Fiona, to critics Michael Billington and Nicholas de Jongh, and to actor / director Samuel West. Oh, and Lisa Bowerman is amazing as Mary Whitehouse.

I’ve spent weeks going through the BBC archives for suitable clips to use. The earliest surviving example is from 5 May 1964, a news report about the Clean-Up TV event held at Birmingham Town Hall, where Whitehouse was one of the speakers. The clip of Whitehouse is brief but quite well known:

“Last Thursday evening we sat as a family and we saw a programme that started at six thirty-five and it was the dirtiest programme that I have seen for a very long time.”

The consensus seems to be that this dirty programme was a Scottish sketch show, Between the Lines, starring Tom Conti and Fulton Mackay. On the edition of 30 April, Conti met an attractive woman at a dance and we then heard his internal monologue. Sadly, the episode seems to be missing from the archive, so we can’t tell how “dirty” it was. We can’t judge the language used, the tone of it, the general effect. 

Surely, one would think, a programme shown at 6.35 in the evening couldn’t be too rude. And yet there’s lots in old telly that was thought innocuous at the time but seems remarkable now. The Wheel of Fortune is an episode of Doctor Who written by David Whitaker and first broadcast at 5.40 pm on 10 April 1965. It includes a scene in which a man called Haroun helps companion Barbara Wright to hide from some soldiers. Haroun leaves Barbara with his young daughter, Safiya, while he goes to look for a safe route out of town. He gives Barbara his knife: if she thinks the soldiers will find them, she is to kill Safiya and then herself. Barbara protests, but Haroun persuades her:

You would not let them [the soldiers] take Safiya?
No, of course I wouldn’t!
Then I'll leave the knife. 

It’s an extraordinary thing to include in a family drama aimed at kids aged 8 to 14, and just one of several examples from early Doctor Who where Barbara is under threat of sexual violence.

Right from the beginning of Doctor Who, there had been questions about how suitable it was for children. Opinion on this was “strongly divided” at the executive meeting of the BBC’s Television Programme Planning Committee on 4 December 1963 - after just two episodes of the series had been broadcast. The following week it looked like the programme might be moved to a later time in the schedule, though this was over-ruled by Head of Drama (and co-creator of Doctor Who) Sydney Newman. 

Then, on 12 February 1964, at the same committee Donald Baverstock (Chief of Programmes, BBC-1, listed in minutes as “C.P.Tel”) thought one scene in The Edge of Destruction - in which the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan attacks a chair with a pair of scissors while in the grip of some kind of madness - might have breached the BBC’s own code on depictions of inimitable violence. Baverstock’s then boss, Stuart Hood, later wrote that the BBC’s code of practice on violence in television, drawn up in 1960, was.

“a remarkably sane and enlightened document, which acknowledged the fact, for instance, that subjects with unpleasant associations for adults will often be taken for granted by children and vice versa. ‘Guns … and fisticuffs may have sinister implications for adults; seldom for children. Family insecurity and marital infidelity may be commonplace to adults; to children they can be deeply disturbing.’” (Stuart Hood, A Survey of Television (1967), p. 90.)

That reference to guns is interesting in the light of Mary Whitehouse’s first-known objections to Doctor Who. Whitehouse believed that depictions of sex and violence on TV had a corrupting effect on the viewer, and led to an increase in sexual and violent crime more broadly. She gave some examples of this in an interview with the Daily Mirror on 29 November 1965:

“‘I know a 14-year-old girl who was so physically affected by a sexy play that she went out and offered herself to a 14-year-old boy. … And I know a boy who listened to a doctor expounding the virtues of of premarital sex and went out and got VD… I mean, where is it going to end? We've even got the Daleks in Dr. Who—a children's show, mind you—chanting 'Kill, kill, kill.' One day a youngster is going to go out and do just that…’ AT this point MRS. FOX said something that sounded like ‘twaddle.’”

That’s Avril Fox, “mother and Harlow councillor”, contesting Whitehouse’s claims. I found several examples of this in the archive, too: Whitehouse claiming to represent the views of ordinary people, and then ordinary people quickly saying she didn’t speak for them. (We use one example in our documentary, from an episode of Talkback on 7 November 1967 in which Whitehouse and other members of the public responded to Stuart Hood and the claims made in his book, not least that most people who write into TV companies are “cranks”.)

I also found several examples of Whitehouse conflating what are surely different issues, such as in this case undercutting her point about protecting children from sexualised content by equating it with the supposed effects of fantasy violence. Yes, children mimic Daleks - that’s part of the Daleks’ appeal - but they don’t then go on to kill people. Suggesting they do undercuts the whole argument; the serious point about sexualised content is also dismissed as twaddle.

There’s a third characteristic: that Whitehouse may have been complaining about something she’d not actually seen. The Daily Mirror interview was published two days after the broadcast of Devil’s Planet, an especially notable episode of Doctor Who in that it killed off a companion. But Katarina is not killed by Daleks; she is ejected from a spaceship airlock. The Daleks do appear, and execute a wicked alien called Zephon, but there is no chanting of “Kill”.

Famously, the Daleks don’t chant “Kill”, but prefer the term “Exterminate”. One Dalek does repeat, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill,” in the episode Flashpoint (broadcast 26 December 1964), so either Whitehouse was remembering that untypical sequence from a year before, or she invented the thing she criticised - perhaps repeating what other people said about the Daleks, rather than what she’d observed herself. (As we detail in our documentary, she consciously chose not to see The Romans in Britain at the National Theatre, but led a private prosecution against its director for a scene in it that she considered to be grossly indecent.)

In her later criticism of Doctor Who, Whitehouse was more specific - and effective. Since m’colleague Jonathan Morris wrote about this in more depth in his 2003 feature for Doctor Who Magazine, “Sex and Violence”, a wealth of press clippings have been posted on the Doctor Who Cuttings Archive relating to Mary Whitehouse. Planet of the Spiders (1974) had, she claimed, led to an “epidemic” of “spider phobia” in children. In Genesis of the Daleks (1975),

“Cruelty, corpses, poison gas, Nazi-type stormtroopers and revolting experiments in human genetics are served up as teatime brutality for the tots.” (The Mirror, 27 March 1975)

She was concerned about specific scenes in The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin (both 1976), and could vividly recall them almost 20 years later when interviewed, on 22 November 1993, for the documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS. Director Kevin Davies kindly provided me with a longer version of that interview, though we couldn’t make it fit in our programme:

“Now, there’s one particular programme - and I can see it still in my mind’s eye - where Doctor Who, the final shot of the episode, was Doctor Who drowning. And these sort of images, the final shots of the programme, with the image that was left in the mind of the child for a whole week, not knowing whether his beloved Doctor Who or whatever would have drowned or not have drowned. And another programme finished with a girl who was with him, and she had a pincer put around her neck. And the holding of that pincer round her, again, was the last shot. And to me, I think it’s extraordinary that people with the brilliance, in many ways, in making a programme of that kind couldn’t have extended their awareness not only to their cameras or all the rest of it, but to the effect of what they were doing upon the children who were receiving it. That was almost as thought they were a bit dumb in that area.”

Back in 1976, and following her criticism, the last shot of the drowning scene was cut from the master tape of the episode by the programme’s then producer.  On the 30 Years documentary, a subsequent producer says he secretly hoped Mary Whitehouse would complain about his Doctor Who because it was always good for viewing figures; yet her complaints about violence in the series in his time overseeing the series were used as justification when the programme was then taken off the air. Today, Doctor Who isn’t shown so early in the evening and - I’d argue - is marketed much less as a show for children. I find myself wondering how much that sort of thing is in the shadow of Mary Whitehouse.

Going through her diaries, I found a number of other things. There’s the entry in the 1985 diary where she has two concerns about recent television: her discussions with Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC-1, about violence in the recent season of Doctor Who and the legal judgment on yet another private prosecution she’d brought, this time about the broadcast on Channel 4 of a controversial film set in a borstal. So the page is headed “Dr. Who - SCUM”

"Dr. Who - SCUM" in Mary Whitehouse's diary for 2 April 1985

And another one I noted. On 18 March 1982, the legal case against The Romans in Britain was withdrawn. Mary Whitehouse was on that evening’s Newsnight to discuss the case, and spent most of her time correcting what she felt were errors in the reporting. Then, interview done, the cameras wheeled away to the other side of the studio for further discussion of the case, with Joan Bakewell speaking to Sir Peter Hall from the National Theatre and Sir Lois Blom-Cooper.

Again, Whitehouse thought what they said was wrong. In her diary, she says she asked the presenter who’d just interviewed her if she could intercede. The presenter checked with the producer who said no. So Mary Whitehouse heckled anyway.

“Whereupon the cameras came chasing across the studio, like a lot of Daleks, leaving Joan Bakewell and her guests in darkness! … I came fully onto the screen as I was saying my bit.” (Mary Whitehouse, diary entry for events of 18 March 1982, written on the page for 10 March 1982)

I was really struck by that moment - and that telling word. Alas, as the Daleks close in on Mary Whitehouse for this hero moment, she’s not clutching her lapels.

The first Doctor Who staring down the eye-stalk of a Dalek

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Doctor Who: Chronicles - 2007

The latest issue of the Doctor Who: Chronicles (from the makers of Doctor Who Magazine) is focused on the year 2007, which in a weird, sci-fi wossname is now somehow ancient history.

For his article on the Doctor Who books published that year, Mark Wright spoke to me about writing The Pirate Loop, the one with the space-pirate badgers. The Dr still thinks that book is the best thing I've ever written, so it's been 15 years all downhill.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

I've been meaning to get to this mystery novel for years. The Dr is a fan of Josephine Tey, and also of Nicola Upson's series of novels in which Tey is herself the detective. 

Some time ago, we watched the 1988 TV version of The Franchise Affair, which was the last TV work overseen by Terrance Dicks and the second of two adaptations of Tey that he produced for the BBC's "Classic Serials", effectively putting this mystery writer in the same bracket as Dickens, Bronte and Thackeray. I wonder why, of all mystery writers, Dicks chose her to make canonical... 

Robert Blair is a partner in a legal firm whose "business is mostly wills, conveyancing, and services", based in the smallish town of Milford. One morning he's rung up by Marion Sharpe he has seen around the town and asked to sit in on an interview with the police. Blair heads to the Franchise, a sizeable house now past its prime, which Sharpe and her mother have recently inherited and where they live in genteel poverty. Then the police arrive with a 16 year-old girl covered in bruises. She says the Sharpes kidnapped her, held her hostage for weeks, and inflicted ruthless beatings...

It's refreshing to have a mystery that's not a murder, and the general feel of the book is unsettling intrigue. It's as much about how the neighbourhood reacts to these two women from the Franchise, and there are plenty of shrewd observations, such as when Blair speaks to a waitress. 
"'We were all discussing that case on Friday [says the waitress]. Imagine beating her half to death like that.'
'Then you think they did?' [asks Blair.]
She looked puzzled. 'The paper says they did.'
'No, the paper reports what the girl said.'
She obviously did not follow that. This was the democracy we deified.
'They wouldn't print a story like that if it wasn't true. It would be as much as their life's worth. You a detective?'
'Part time,' Robert said.
'How much an hour do you get for that?'
'Not nearly enough.'
'No, I suppose not. Haven't got a union, I suppose. You don't get your rights in this world unless you have a union.'
'Too true,' said Robert. 'Let me have my bill, will you?'
'Your check, yes." (p. 130.)
In this, there are hints of a generational divide, and an inrush of Americanisation, perhaps the result of the recent war. The book was first published in 1948 (mine is a battered copy from the following year), but there's little on the war specifically - no mention of Blair having served, for example, or that some of people's strange behaviour may be the shadow of trauma.

In fact, it's all rather lightly played, and straightforward. Blair remains convinced of the Sharpes' innocence and even falls for Marion. I was braced for some last twist or reversal that never came. It's a comic novel in many ways, with something of Wodehouse in the reactions of Blair's maiden aunt.
"A fortnight ago you would never have dreamed of putting a parcel of fish down on polished mahogany and forgetting all about it." (p. 162)
But I really felt for the Sharpes, facing prosecution and a violent response from their neighbours. I think that may be because I'm also deep in research at the moment about a real court case, the one brought 40 years ago by Mary Whitehouse against the director of the National Theatre production, The Romans in Britain - of which more anon.

And so I think the thing that really lingers from this is Marion Sharpe's sympathy at the end of the novel for the mother of her accuser, a connection felt across the gulf of the two sides.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay

Jean's life is a bit of a mess. She wants to be a ranger in the wildlife park where she works, but can't get her qualifications - and is secretly drinking and, worse, keeps telling visitors what the animals all say, against all the rules about anthropomorphising them. The boss of the park - who is also the mother of Jean's granddaughter - is running out of patience. And then a new kind of flu hits Australia, and suddenly all the animals talk...

This is a strange, unsettling book, initially about a pandemic (by coincidence, apparently, despite all its similarities to Covid) and then something more profound. Animals communicate in myriad ways - gesture and scent as telling as sound. Some of what they say is quite disturbing. Beloved pets turn out to be crazy, driven mad by having their wildness constrained. There's something of that, too, in the humans, Jean's wild excesses barely kept in check - and she's not alone. She has a secret drinking buddy at work, and is having an affair with an otherwise gay man. From the evidence here, we are messy creatures, all of us bad dogs and cats. People are animals, driven by hunger and lust and excreta, things of flesh and need. What follows is visceral and vivid, so the effect is like an extended dream, verging on nightmare.

To begin with, the heart of the book is Jean's relationship with her granddaughter Kim, who seems to be offer Jean her one hope of salvation - she'll be a better person for Kim. There's then a resounding awfulness when Kim goes missing, but on the quest to retrieve her that follows Jean forms a bond with one of the wildlife park's residents, a dingo called Sue. What's extraordinary is how much we get into Sue and other animals' heads, how much we understand - before the gut-punch ending when it's made plain how little we can know about what really goes on in someone else's skull. That's what this is about: our connections and lacks of connections, human or otherwise.

It's an often funny and sometimes uncomfortable read, sort of Shameless and Ridley Walker and The Road all in one, with something of the setting of Mad Max. But that tantalising sense of understanding animals makes it like nothing else. I can see why this won last years Clarke Award. 

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Starlight Days, by Cecil Madden

Cecil Madden was "the world's first television producer", according to the cover of this memoir edited by his granddaughter, Jennifer Lewis and published in 2007, 20 years after his death. Madden begins with that first broadcast: having been in BBC Radio since 1932, in 1936 he was given nine days' notice to put together the very first television programme, made at Alexandra Palace and seen on TV sets demonstrated at the Radio Show at Radiolympia from 26 August.

“I decided to put on a variety show, and there was no time to waste. I phoned a songwriter, Ronald Hill, and commissioned a new song. He came up at once with ‘Here’s Looking at You!’ a title that was an inspiration. Titles are very important and I decided that our whole show should be called ‘Here’s Looking at You’. This move intrigued the press and cheered the radio industry.” (p. 8)

There were 20 performances of this show, running until 5 September. Madden then produced the magazine programme Picture Post, broadcast on 8 October. Television began officially on 2 November, though Madden recalls of that opening night,

“Frankly, it was pretty dull.” (p. 72)

What follows is a not always chronological memoir of those early days, battling to make the new medium exciting and inventive. Staff swapped roles, taking turns to direct as,

“it brought endless new ideas and trained everybody” (p. 71)

There's lots here I'd already gleaned from The Intimate Screen about the intimacy that TV provided between programme maker and viewer, but this is a first-hand account, much of it listing productions and the people involved, some of it not listed on IMDB. Madden says that,

“Planning the television schedule there was never any doubt in my mind that the emphasis should be on drama.” (p. 74)

‘A play a day’ was the target we set ourselves at the outset, and so it turned out. The process nearly killed everyone. But this was something I was particularly proud of.” (p. 104)

He says the first TV drama was Marigold (featuring John Bailey), and the first whole play - rather than just an excerpt - was Priestly's When We Were Married in 1938. The regular Sunday-Night Play began that same year and was still running in 1963. The first weekly drama was Ann and Harold.  

There's a little on what makes a good drama, such as this observation from GK Chesterton in a letter he wrote to Madden:

“Those who despise detective stories are so stupid they do no even see what is wrong with detective stories. There is no reason why a shocker should not deal with the highest spiritual problem; where it will always, perhaps, fall short of the first rank is in this, that in a great story the characters make the story: in a detective story the story makes the characters. It is made up backwards. Many police novels are quite good, the characters real, the conversation convincing. But the characters have been created to do something, preferably something atrocious, and the convincing talk leads up up to a conviction.” (p. 63)

By the time war started - and the television service stopped - there were 30,000 sets in viewers' homes (p. 117). During the war, Madden returned to radio, broadcasting to the world from the underground Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly, where he was also air-raid warden. There, Madden discovered 10 year-old Petula Clark (p. 158), discovered and named the Beverley Sisters (p. 232) and was the last civilian to see Glenn Miller alive (p. 236). (In other firsts, he was also responsible for the first signature tune used on radio, which he devised as a way to hide the cough with which an unnamed presenter always started (p. 57)).

There are plenty of insights about wartime London: the social mix of people in the shelters, the poor laying down beside those in fur coats (p. 145); the stables near the Windmill Theatre in the centre of town, with horses that needed rescuing during a raid (p. 169); the incongruous image of Vera Lynn bedding down on a mattress in the makeshift underground studio for a nap ahead of a 2am broadcast (p. 155).

Madden tells his own "bomb story", of being caught in a raid in south London where, with hat, umbrella and gas mask, he hurled himself over a garden fence and thus survived. But, he says, everyone had such bomb stories - and he collected them from people he worked with and shares them here. It's a remarkable collection of first-hand accounts of strange, scary moments - but it occurs to me that people looking up family history or doing other research wouldn't think to check a memoir of TV production, which doesn't have an index. So here is a list of those people whose bomb stories Madden gives from p. 165 onwards, in the hope this blog post then turns up in searches:

Margaret McGrath (showgirl and actress); Charmian Innes (comedienne); Joan Jay (soubrette and dancer); Valerie Tandy (dancer and comedienne); Bob Lecardo (acrobat); Frank Dei (organist); Alan Bixter (pianist and accompanist); Sandy Rowan (comedian); Nick Tanner and Norah Crawford (veterans of wartime entertainment touring with BEF); Fred Wildon (“old-timer” and concert party manager); Gaby Rogers (composer, arranger, pianist); Vicki Powell (actress, dancer, singer); Penniston Miles (musician); Jack May (comedian); Nat Allen (band leader, accordion and bass player); Mary Barlow (revue singer); Jack Warman (character comedian).

After the war, Madden returned to TV. He had a short stint on children's television, working at the newly acquired Lime Grove Studios, and was then from 1951 Assistant to the Controller of Television Programmes - he describes this as being "kicked upstairs". He was still talent spotting: it's not listed here, but I know from other research that he got Delphi Lawrence her first work in TV. His memoir says he was the first person to suggest that TV should cover sport, leading to Sportsview (p. 283); he was also directly involved in the televising of an excerpt from Look Back in Anger, despite the trepidation of the play's writer and director, and this was just one of a number of stage productions that were "made" by TV. For more on this, see John Wyver's piece on Cecil Madden's memoir for Screen Plays - Theatre Plays on British Television.

Sadly, Madden's account rather tails off towards the end. There's alas no assessment of his achievements or the changes in television - or culture more generally - which I'd hoped for. There's little on the transformation in the medium brought by ITV (though it does get a mention), or in BBC drama under Sydney Newman (who is not mentioned at all). I'd hoped for something on how the old guard responded to or felt about these seismic shifts. Oh well.

Madden left the BBC in late 1964 at the same time as controller Stuart Hood. An obituary included as a coda says he then set up BAFTA. A postscript from Madden's daughter adds that the Beverley Sisters continued to visit him in old age - and that they always dressed the same.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Sad Little Men, by Richard Beard

This very timely memoir is about the damage done by public schools, especially to boarding pupils separated from their parents at an impressionable age, and how that traumatic damage might explain some of what's happening in Downing Street at the moment.

As an adoptive father, I've read quite a lot of stuff to do with attachment and its lasting effects - how not having basic needs met at an early age can affect a child's physical development, their brain chemistry, their whole future. Beard's thesis is more about ideology, the institution shaping an outlook. 

First, there's the long-term damage done by hiding how upsetting it was/is to be separated from parents and home; tears - his own or his mother's - were likely to be mocked. The result is more than empathy being seen as weakness.

"Don't make a fuss about nothing, and by refusing to fuss we turned the concerns of others into nothing. Everything could be nothing, up could be down, right could be wrong. The truth could be a lie and one thing could always be another." (p. 96)

Beard refers (after Andrew Motion) to the "skin" or outer later projecting what the child thinks others want to hear: letters home saying school is "fine" and "nice", perhaps even that it is better than being at home. This is a kind of masking, and I'm aware how damaging that can be. Masking takes effort and cannot be sustained; meltdowns and explosions often follow, apparently from nowhere. By encouraging masking, you encourage the eruptions.

Beard joins that idea of the "skin" to the way he was taught. It's telling that he feels such affinity with accounts of public school by George Orwell and Roald Dahl, the same experience and culture persisting over decades, whereas my brothers and I all had different experiences of being at the same school. One explanation for this is that few of Beard's teachers had qualifications; several had been through the same system and merely passed on what had been meted out to them. And what Beard was taught was a way to project himself, with confidence and long words. He was taught rhetoric, vocabulary, the primacy of Latin:.

"Aged thirteen, my diary reads as the prime minister speaks now, in his mid-fifties." (p. 101)

The ideas being taught were just as much about posture: history lessons that saw only confidence and glory in Empire; debates that "bravely" argued in favour of racism. These boys flirted with - even embraced - such ideas, because to say the supposedly unsayable is a show of strength.

I'm struck by what happens to those who flout the rules in these strict institutions. A young David Cameron went through a rebellious phase and was caught smoking spliffs.

"With drugs, as Cameron discovered, if the school caught us first we were beyond the reach of the law. In these instances the police were rarely involved, and therefore in the bigger picture we learned that for people like us the law was negotiable." (p. 165)

Right there, the indoctrination of "us" and "them".

It's a memoir, a personal take, and Beard admits that lockdown has restricted his ability to research the subject more widely. I'd have liked a bit more thoroughness in the presentation - page references for the books and papers he cites, interviews with the current staff rather than chance encounters as he walks the grounds, and a bit more science. But I'm really taken by his idea of how to measure a good school: not (just) in examination results but in the longer term, looking at later-life breakdowns, divorces and suicide, and damage inflicted on others.

The sense, I think, is of more than sad little men. The feeling is of an institutional hollowing out. There's an abysmal emptiness here, all mask and nothing within.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Doctor Who Magazine #574

After some time off to make room for the Christmas quiz (and answers), the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features another Sufficient Data infographic, written by me and illustrated by Ben Morris. 

This one marks 50 years of Day of the Daleks and owes a little to the blog post I wrote a while ago on the economics of the Daleks.