Sunday 9 August 2015

Till Death Us Do Part - a clarification

In a post yesterday I quoted a rant by Rita in a 1974 episode of Till Death Us Do Part that linked together the names of Edward Heath, Cyril Smith and Jimmy Savile. The ethics of that posting have been challenged by someone whose opinions I respect, so I thought I'd better try to explain myself.

Firstly, I don't believe the recent allegations of child abuse by Heath. They don't seem to me to be plausible at all. Like everyone else, I have heard over the years many rumours of Heath being actively homosexual - even, from one right-wing extremist that he regularly went cottaging - and I don't believe those either. More relevantly, I never heard stories about him having an interest in under-age sex. (Whereas such stories were common about both Smith and Savile.)

But I do believe that Johnny Speight, who created Till Death, knew what he was doing when he wrote that rant, putting those names together. He was an old-fashioned socialist who loathed the Conservative prime minister and was (I think) deliberately alluding to rumours he had heard with the intention of subtly smearing Heath. And as someone who writes about cultural and political history, I find this fascinating.

I didn't discuss this in my book Crisis? What Crisis?, where I used only the first half of the quote. And the reason I didn't discuss it was that two of the three men were then still alive and I would never have got it past my publisher's lawyer.

I did, however, post the quote on a previous blog last September, when the stories about Smith entered the public domain. And I did so again yesterday because the allegations against Heath have been front-page news for several days. This story is also now in the public domain and, given the wrong behaviour of the police and the extensive reporting, I don't think that a quote from a 1970s comedy show on an obscure blog is going to add to the misery of Heath's surviving relatives.

But it is fascinating that those connections were included in what was still one of the biggest sitcoms in the country, and certainly the only one that regularly featured very explicit comment on current politics. This was particularly the case in that fifth series at the beginning of 1974, the episodes of which Speight rewrote right up to the last minute, to ensure they were as fresh as possible, at a time when the political situation was changing rapidly.

Speight, of course, is long since dead and - as far as I know - never talked about this speech. But it feels deliberate, and I think it's worth noting.

There remains, though, another question: what were the rumours that Speight was alluding to?

This was written, it should be remembered, at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and when the age of consent for homosexual acts between men was still twenty-one in England and Wales. Brought before the courts, a thirty-year-old man having sex with an eighteen-year-old boy was quite likely to be dealt with as - if not more - harshly as if he had had sex with a fourteen-year-old girl. This, of course, is no longer the case.

I've written elsewhere about how sex with minors was viewed in the 1970s. Not just legally but culturally, there are some major differences between then and now. Amongst them is the fact that male homosexuality and paedophilia used to be seen as inextricably entwined; this perception was articulated in public and in popular culture in a way that would be entirely unacceptable today.

It is possible that some of this confusion is present in Speight's writing. It is equally possible that what he was mocking was hypocrisy in public figures. (Savile, though not a political figure, was at the time associated with moral campaigners such as Lord Longford and Mary Whitehouse.)

I should add that although I don't think the stories of Heath being a paedophile are going to hold water, I do believe that the bigger story has a long, long way to run yet. There were undoubtedly paedophiles in powerful positions (though not necessarily household names) and there were undoubtedly some who chose to look the other way. This was not confined to Westminster. In the same way, the pupils at many a school would know which teacher to avoid, yet somehow no one in authority did anything about it.

That habit of concealment is now looked upon as having been disgraceful. And if an example of such a covering-up had been exposed forcefully enough at the time it would also have been censured. But it wasn't exposed. Because that's just how things were. As a society (though obviously this does not apply to those involved), we simply didn't consider it to be that big a deal.

Now it is considered the biggest deal of all, and consequently this story is going to be increasingly important over the next few years. I suspect there will be many explosions to come. Perhaps literally, because I think it's such an emotive subject that it could provoke violent expressions of anger. I can envisage it becoming the primary focus for the growing mood of anti-elitism.

Which is why I've written as much as I have on the subject. (There's another piece here.) And when I come across things like the Till Death quote, I record them. But maybe I should do so with a little more commentary.

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