Getting up at my usual unearthly hour today, I was mildly amused by Radio Five Live’s coverage of the Ofcom and BBC Trust rebuke for the amount of swearing let loose on air during the coverage of the BBC Big Weekend Event – see here for a report on the website of THE GUARDIAN
In about 1980, when I was working for an ITV company, my duties included overseeing the department that specifically dealt with the then regulator Independent Broadcasting Authority (‘IBA’) on matters of programme content, which were ostensibly governed by the IBA Programme Guidelines.
This involved regular, sometimes daily contact with those responsible within the IBA for such things, as well as occasional industry meetings and lunches at which we entertained our IBA colleagues and discussed policy matters. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but we came to a passable good working understanding of how we might ‘operate’ the aforementioned IBA Programme Guidelines in making our programmes and/or dealing with the public over their content.
One day, during the course of one of our regular catch-up meetings, the head of my liaison department mentioned in passing an exchange of correspondence he had recently conducted with a complaining member of the public.
They had locked horns over our transmission of one of my favourite Jack Nicholson movies The Last Detail (1973 – director Hal Ashby, screenplay by Robert Towne, also starring Randy Quiad and Otis Young).
For those unfamiliar with it, it concerned a US Navy detail comprising veterans Nicholson and Otis Young tasked with taking a young matelot (Quaid) across America to a detention centre to be incarcerated for committing some relatively minor misdemeanour.
On the way, taking pity on him because of his youth and relative inexperience of life, they decide to give him a crash-course in the kind of experiences (not least booze and women) that he is about to be denied whilst he serves his harsh-in-the-circumstances sentence.
It all goes wrong in a poignant ending when, emboldened by his odyssey, the kid makes a half-hearted break for freedom and Nicholson, a lifelong servicemen, sensing that he’ll get into serious trouble for letting the kid get away, recaptures him and in the process beats the crap out of him.
When it was first released The Final Detail was famous for the preponderance of its swearing and four-letter words – it was perhaps one of the first mainstream movies to contain so many. Personally, I felt that the setting and context of the story justified the bad language. It was just reflecting how Naval servicemen – all servicemen – talk.
This was, in effect, the substance behind the complaint received from our viewer.
He had tuned in to watch the late-night transmission of this iconic film, expecting to experience it again in all its glory, and was dismayed to discover that many of the swearwords had been removed and/or ‘airbrushed’ out. This much was true. We, the ITV company, had not done this – we had simply bought an ‘adapted for TV’ version of the movie from the company that owned the distribution rights.
Our complainant’s thrust was simple. The incessant swearing and rudery in The Last Detail was an integral part of what made it the great movie it was. For us to transmit an emasculated version – whether we ourselves had done the ‘editing’ or alternatively we’d bought a ‘made for TV’ version didn’t matter to him or his argument – was a travesty. More to the point, it had completely destroyed his enjoyment of the transmission … and so on (for the best part of three pages).
My colleague reported that he had spent the previous day watching both (an unabridged video version of) the original movie and then a copy of the movie as we had transmitted it.
He then mentioned to me in passing – reflecting my own view as it happened – that personally he completely agreed with the complainant: the removing of so many of the swearwords had indeed severely limited the film’s impact and context.
Then – partly by way of information, in case there were repercussions, e.g. should the IBA become involved – he read out the text of his letter, sent that morning, in reply to the complainant. In it he had pointed out that, under the IBA Guidelines, we were only permitted to transmit ‘made for TV’ versions of X-rated movies and went on to develop a fairly reasoned case for this being the prevailing situation. However, well known for his humour and his waspish ability to score points, he had finished with a final paragraph in which he asked the complainant to place himself in our shoes.
He stated that he had counted 47 ‘fucks’ or ‘fuckings’ in the dialogue of the ‘made for TV’ version of The Last Detail that we had transmitted.
If the complainant had been responsible for taste and decency in ITV programmes transmitted in the UK, just how many would he have found acceptable – 70? … 95?
This didn’t actually answer the complainant’s main point (i.e. that any censorship at all spoiled the TV broadcast of this particular movie), but it did convey some the difficulties and complications that we – ‘the authorities responsible’ – faced in trying to comply with what effectively amounted to strict guidelines backed by UK broadcasting legislation.
And, in addition, it did make the two of us laugh over our morning coffees.