A brief history of edgy entertainment

BBC4’s impressive Rude Britannia explored the tension between working-class fun and middle-class disapproval.

David Bowden

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I’ve already spent a significant portion of my career as a TV columnist slagging off the BBC and no doubt shall do so many times more, but credit where credit’s due for commissioning Rude Britannia, shown on BBC4 this week.

Summertime is usually when good arts programming pops off to the south of France to escape the boorish hordes with their Big Brother marathons, embarrassing displays of nationalist pride at sporting events, and other associated alcohol-fuelled vulgarities, occasionally popping its head back in to have a good sneer before nipping off to Edinburgh for the festival.

Or it used to at least. Nowadays arts programmes are just as likely to celebrate a watered-down ‘progressive’ patriotism of the masses – who don’t really hate foreigners, you know – and putting on serious documentaries about how Gazza’s tears brought us together as a nation. So it must have been with a certain sly sense of humour that the BBC decided to screen Rude Britannia, a three-part documentary tying in with a Tate Modern exhibition that celebrates the lewd and bawdy humour of Britain’s lower classes and vilifies its censorship through the ages by moralistic establishments.

This was the story of ‘rude’ Britain: the saucy and racy entertainments which provoked hand-wringing through the generations, from the bawdy ballad-singers of Georgian England through to the more recent crudity of Viz comics. Importantly, by focusing on this all-encompassing topic of ‘rude’ comedy, the programme liberated itself from talking worthily about comedy as satire, which brings out the worst in comedians and comedy critics. Comedians like to be taken seriously, you see, so it rather behoves them to overplay the value of their particular art form in shaping the world. But here we saw the simple celebration of comedy for its own sake: as cocking a snook at authority, having a good sneer, and simply laughing at the world around you. Sometimes this involved Alexander Pope and James Gillray, but also Donald McGill. Instead of being, like much arts programming these days, a frivolous show about a serious topic, this was a studiously frivolous programme about frivolity. Good fun it was, too.

What gave Rude Britannia substance, however, was that it was also the story of mass entertainment. Whenever there was an economic or technological development, there followed an explosion of human life and the pursuit of pleasure, whether it was the debauched carnival of Blackpool enjoyed by the burgeoning industrial working class in their one week of annual (unpaid) leave, or the social critique of The Beggar’s Opera.

More importantly, wherever such an explosion occurred, a moral panic was never far away. Rude Britannia told the tale of the constant negotiation between the British state wanting to let the masses blow off steam outside of the working day, while also trying to make sure they never had too much fun or went too far beyond the control of the authorities. The Licensing Act of 1737 succeeded in moving the social satirists out of the rowdy public theatres and into the more private and isolated environs of that emerging literary form, the novel. In the music halls of the Victorians, one of the few places the working class would brush shoulders with the middle classes in a teeming chaos of drunkenness, gambling and cross-dressing stars such as Lydia Thompson, government and owners conspired to regulate the atmosphere through a series of self-imposed rules, banning mockery of religion and politics, alongside appointing an army of uniformed officials to police attendees.

It was in the third episode, covering mid- to late twentieth century mores, however, that this flip-book of rudeness started to reveal its hidden depths. Programmes about satire tend to herald the permissive society of the 1960s and the rise of alternative comedy as the natural victory of free speech and liberal attitudes, freeing the public from stuffy social codes. But this documentary was about the censorship of transgressive humour, remember, and the recent record of British society on this is somewhat more shady. The programme rather neatly made the observation that the rise of political correctness of the alternative comics of the Eighties railing against Bernard Manning was, once again, the victory of a moralising middle-class elite over the rough’n’ready bawdiness of the working classes. Manning, having been shunted off TV, simply returned to the working men’s clubs: a neat circularity to the bustling theatres where we began the show. The programme ended with an agreeable uncertainty about whether or not the existence of compliance guidelines at the BBC, instigated post-‘Sachsgate’, and an increasing tendency for self-censorship represent a freedom from the more overt censoriousness of the past, or something more sinister.

Even more strikingly, a quick review of the TV schedules elsewhere offered a brief reminder that contemporary society, too, is uncomfortable with displays of unregulated rowdiness. On the traditionally more patrician and middle class BBC the coverage of the World Cup and ‘cheeky’ jokes about state censorship in totalitarian regimes such as North Korea sit alongside pious mini-documentaries about the horrors of apartheid and spoilt, young working-class footballers being humbled by the poverty of the townships. More strikingly on ITV, traditionally the more populist commercial broadcaster, James Corden’s World Cup seeks to ape the laddish appeal of blokes down the pub chatting about the footy, but is fronted by a man with significant contempt for actual football-supporting blokes, as noted by Mick Hume earlier this week on spiked.

With the TV schedules dominated by a festival of a global, mass spectator sport that we are encouraged to enjoy – whilst the British state confiscates the passports of ‘out-of-control’ football fans – Rude Britannia was a timely reminder that while the people may get distracted by what one commentator branded ‘bread and circuses’, British elites have never been that keen on letting people enjoy the circus all that much.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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