Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Doomwatch: Sex and Violence

I wanted to devote a separate point to this episode of Doomwatch alone, being probably the best-known purely for the fact of having never been seen on television before. That story is one which is well told HERE and I don’t propose to revisit it except to comment that I find it hilarious that pornographers of the 1970s were shocked at the idea of soft porn being broadcast on television and so a mock-up porn film had to be made.
The wonder is that I don’t think the subject matter of this episode has really come up in this blog before, at least in any great length. I was amused to read recently that despite a drumming by the critics Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the highest-grossing UK film of its year. The account I was reading described it as ‘low-brow’, but the contemporary concern for the effect of the media on people’s morals and the simple fact that a smutty film could be both highly-criticised and extremely popular, indicates a certain ambivalent attitude.
The root of the question here is what is pornographic and what is indecent? Well, my own answer would have to be that both of those things are in the eye, or the mind, of the beholder. To me the human sexual impulse is so strong that society actually becomes frightened of it (rightly at times) and tries to limit it to certain safe parameters. Then what happens is that the things people are frightened of become demonised and tend to go underground. The link in many people’s minds between sex and dirt is very clearly brought out in this episode, albeit in a rather simplistic way where the censors see sex as dirty and the libertarians don’t. There is a strange irony that the censor may always be onto a losing game: I am writing about an episode of a show which was banned at the time, but the DVD set now has a 15 certificate. As so often Doomwatch does a very good job of laying out the issues and expanding the conflicting arguments, then leaving the viewer to make up his own mind.
The wonder for me personally is that I am aware of the sheer sexiness of much of the television I write about here. The early Avengers were incredibly sexy, full of innuendo between Mrs Gale and Steed, and some of the most popular posts on this blog are ones about the kinkier episodes of The Avengers. Most of the TV I write about is placed firmly after the sexual revolution and yet displays an ambivalent attitude similar to that displayed to science. Sex is both the fascinating lovely thing that we are now free to obsess about, but is also something that is in danger of engulfing society. I can only think that the contemporary concern about the perceived negative effect of the depiction of sex in the media is largely absent from the TV of the time, is that the argument was completely polarised and there is always a tendency to egg on the opposition by pushing things as far as you can.
Doomwatch muddies the waters and in fact explodes the dichotomy completely, by making one of the anti-filth protesters assault a member of the public, thereby making a m the ‘good’ side do something wrong. ‘Morals are not a question of mathematics’ is a quote from this episode which very clearly sums up its conclusions, that while the science-types of the Doomwatch team are used to dealing with hard evidence and statistics, when it comes to morals matters are much less clear. It is significant from an empirical point of view that what the moral crusaders largely have to support their arguments are their own opinions only. This makes this an odd one out in Doomwatch terms, because it is dealing with things which were already happening rather than the show’s usual knack of prophetically broadcasting about something which subsequently happens. An aura of scientific respectability is given to the discussion by the use of Freud’s now- (and surely already then-) discredited theories, which remain far from the normal statistical solidity represented by Doomwatch’s research. That said, I suspect that probably more weight would have been given to the psychologists’ ideas at the time as cold facts, than would be the case now.
The mocked-up porn film made in a hotel near Heathrow is absolutely hilarious, to my mind, and this is also the reaction of the pop star on the committee. This is the heart of the issue that you could see that either as filthy or hilarious. In fact it is one of the best bits of this episode, because to my eyes it gives exactly the right impression of what would now be considered the very soft porn of the past. To me personally the footage of an execution is much more shocking.
This is something which has genuinely come as a surprise to me. Perhaps I’m getting old but I’m not really surprised at the prurient interest in seeing someone killed. The last public execution just up the road from where I am writing this was as recently as 1806. I’m rather more surprised at the notion of making a violent film and sitting children in front of it to see their response! The execution footage is very cleverly preceded by June Brown’s character saying how terrible blacks are, producing a contrast with the sympathy felt for the executed men.
Normally I would criticise the way there are some very familiar faces in the cast, however in this case I am so amused by the anti-smut protester being played by my beloved June Brown, best known for playing Dot Cotton in Eastenders, who makes a suitably hysterical character. She is in clear contrast with Dr Quist’s inability to decide what the point of all this is, or what Doomwatch’s function should be. In fact this is an exercise in contrasts across the board, leaders and followers, the privileged and poor, and at every step knocks down the stark contrasts it has set up to install a nuanced view of the issues involved, and as such I would commend it as intelligent television, well worthy of its banning at the time of production.

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