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Not everything is “black and white” (if I’m allowed to use that phrase)

My piece today is set in the context of reviewing the “state of the nation” at this stage in the pandemic, i.e. as we approach what appears to be the expected and much-trailed announcement on Monday that the Government will be postponing its previously-announced road map’s “21st June/Final Let-Out” of the public by a minimum of four weeks.

As I begin it occurs to me that the pandemic – coupled possibly with developments in the 21st Century generally – has caused an attitude to arise whereby every issue facing us is reduced to a case of “one thing or the other” and/or “are you with me or against me?”

Specifically, since the Covid-19 crisis began – encouraged by the media’s endless and simplistic “What is today’s big news story/outrage?” approach – we’re constantly being asked to take sides on everything – not least  the “Public heath first” versus the “Enough is enough, we must return to normal or else face oblivion” debate.

I’ve mentioned before on this organ a situation that arose at Thames Television as long ago as the late 1980s over a broadcast of a version of the Jack Nicholson comedy-drama movie The Last Detail (1973, directed by Hal Ashby) which had been “rendered more acceptable for television viewing” by having a proportion of its swearwords removed – and perhaps inevitably, as a representation of a story in which a young US Navy serviceman was being taken by a military escort (comprised of two “old lags”, one of them played by Nicholson) on a long train journey to serve time in gaol for a petty offence – there was a large number of them in the original movie as seen in cinemas.

Inevitably, the broadcast concerned produced a significant viewer response.

Some of it seemed to be complaining [it might be worth registering here that Mrs Mary Whitehouse was still a force in the land at the time] that there had been swearwords in it at all, even though it had been shown after the 9.00pm watershed, a stance that some at Thames (like myself) felt was a bit rich, given the aforementioned storyline – what were they expecting?

However, the vast bulk of the complaints about the transmission were from fans of the movie (and/or movie buffs generally) who were outraged that so many of its four-letter words had been “cut”. They had clearly settled in front of their TVs to watch the film “warts and all”  and were deeply disappointed at the watered-down version with which they’d been presented.

The truth is that, in those days for commercial reasons as well as others, “television versions” of movies were routinely produced in order to comply with any codes or guidelines that might then be relevant in countries to which the television rights might sold – in the UK some of which were those administered by the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority), later the Independent Television Commission (ITC), which had jurisdiction over ITV, of which Thames was leading franchise holder.

As it happened, as a Thames executive, my remit included liaising with the IBA/ITC on our compliance with their guidelines. Three days into the kerfuffle over our viewers’ reactions to The Last Detail I summoned the head of our “programme content” department to my office to update me how things were going.

As an example, he read out to me a representative viewer’s lengthy and strident letter complaining about the number of four-letter words that had been “excised” from the movie as broadcast, in his view an act that had been both a travesty and also terminally affected his enjoyment of the movie.

Having listened to its entirety I told my colleague that it seemed that we couldn’t win.

We would have received “incoming” from the anti-swearword brigade [which incidentally was a far bigger and more vociferous section of the public than the anti-nudity one] if the movie had been broadcast as made – and yet now we were receiving “incoming” because we hadn’t.

Had he (my colleague) replied to this letter – and if so, how?

He responded in the affirmative and read me his letter. I cannot here quote directly from it, but the gist was as follows:

Dear Mr Smith [name invented],

Thank you for your letter of complaint about our recent broadcast of the film The Last Detail.

You say that you fundamentally object to the number of four-letter words that had been “taken out” and I do appreciate that this may have impaired your enjoyment of this important film. However, as an ITV broadcaster we have to comply with certain conditions imposed upon us by the IBA which – in this case – covered the amount of swearing contained in any movie we show.

That said, I should add that I have now taken the trouble to count the number of “fucks” in the movie as originally made [and here he listed the number – I cannot recall it, but it was close to, if not in excess, of three figures].

Exactly how many “fucks” would you have liked to have been put back in?” …

(I have to admit that, at the time – and with due respect to both the complainant and the IBA guideline then in place – it did make me laugh).

Which is a long way around to getting to the point of this post.

I don’t personally have a dog in the clash between the “Public health safety must come first” brigade (on the one hand) and its “Let us out before we all go bust and/or normal life is lost forever” counterpart on the other.

However, to a degree – in weighing up those two supposed irreconcilables and also taking into account the fact that some people are going to die of something as a result of whichever decision the Government takes regarding 21st June – I’d like to ask those in the “We must be let out now, or else!” camp exactly how many more tens (or hundreds) of thousands of deaths from Covid-19 would be acceptable in their view, just as long as their “businesses” (and/or ways of life as they used to be) can be resumed.

Or is it a case of them not caring a row of beans how many more people die?



About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts