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Thursday, January 06, 2005

 

A rummage in my ganderbag

The 1960s continue to come in for a lot of stick, being blamed by conservatives (including Tony Blair) for all our society's ills. But just what were 'the sixties' and when did they happen?

Philip Larkin had an exact view in his poem Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Other witnesses were less precise. Paul Kantner of the rock band Jefferson Airplane famously said, "If you can remember anything about the Sixties, you weren't really there."

Over the recent holidays, I found an answer in an unlikely place. Several long motorway journeys provided an opportunity to listen to archive recordings of
Round the Horne (which, for those of you too young to remember, was a hugely popular BBC radio comedy show originally broadcast between 1965 and 1968, and still being repeated today - listen online on BBC Radio 7, or catch the stage play Round The Horne Revisited if you get the chance).

The BBC had randomly released some of the old shows on vinyl in the 1970s and cassette tapes during the 1990s, but now all four series have been reissued in chronological order on
four boxed sets of CDs. This makes it possible to listen to all the programmes in the order they first appeared, and experience the show evolve and hit its stride.

To listen to these programmes now is as close as you'll get to hearing the sound of the sixties happen. Not the Woodstock, peace 'n' love, LSD-drenched sixties of myth and legend, but the sixties of real-life Britain, emerging from the grey cocoon of the post-war era. Round the Horne was not a cause of the social revolution of the 1960s, but reflects perfectly the sense of liberation people were beginning to enjoy.

Parts of Round the Horne still evoke an earlier era, notably the sleazy character 'J. Peasemould Gruntfuttock' with his references to the horsemeat shop in the Balls Pond Road, conjuring up a lost world of bomb sites and pea soupers. And there are the occasional contemporary references to Alma Cogan and pre-decimal currency.

But, for the most part, the humour sounds utterly fresh and it never ceases to amaze that such ground-breaking comedy, not to mention such smut and innuendo, was regularly broadcast at Sunday lunchtimes to a mass audience. Recall that Round the Horne's camp duo
Julian and Sandy were first aired in 1965, two years before homosexuality was legalised in Britain. Even today, these sketches might be considered too risqué for prime time listening.

In stark contrast, over the holidays I also happened to catch an old episode of
The Clitheroe Kid on BBC Radio 7. Made around the same time as Round the Horne and originally broadcast in the same Sunday lunchtime slot, this show now sounds utterly dated, an unfunny exemplar of the "where's me washboard" style of wartime humour. Astonishingly, The Clitheroe Kid outlasted Round the Horne and the final shows were made as recently as 1972.

Just as comedy can become unfunny by belonging to a bygone era, so it can be rendered defunct by trying too hard to be hip. Consider
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, an American TV comedy show of the late sixties. Regarded at the time as the acme of modern humour, it is now so dated as to be embarrassing to watch.

The key to innovative comedy enduring is that it is trend-setting rather than self-consciously trendy. While Round the Horne was ground-breaking, it also satirised contemporary entertainment fads. It enables us to enjoy the best of the sixties while mocking the worst.

Critics of the sixties invariably base their criticisms on an idealised version of the fifties. They would be well advised to see Mike Leigh's new movie
Vera Drake for a less romantic view.

Next time you encounter such critics, challenge them. How many people really wish to turn the clock back to a drab world of backstreet abortions, demob suits, hanging, rationing, outside toilets, horsemeat shops in the Balls Pond Road and The Clitheroe Kid?

On the whole, individual liberation is a good thing. Liberals should celebrate it, not apologise. As Round the Horne's
Rambling Syd Rumpo might say, "Now let us all burst forth together, so grundle your parts and away we go..."

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