Rude Britannia

How a 1960s cartoon showing the PM naked unlocked the floodgates of filth

Blog: posh vs poor programming

In the last of its three episodes, Rude Britannia (BBC4) offered a final squint at filthy GB. "It was in 1963 that modern rude, like sex, began," panted narrator Julian Rhind-Tutt, clambering over the script like a tipsy sociology graduate in an adventure playground. After some exuberantly insubstantial episodes on the anarchic satirists of the 18th century, and the bosomy ribaldry of the Victorian music hall, it was back aboard the reductionist express for a gander at the last half century of anti-establishment filth.

So: 1963. Scones. The Queen. Men with umbrellas at bus stops. Then Gerald Scarfe drew Harold Macmillan with his bum out and Britain's monocle popped like a champagne cork. "I made his breasts as fleshy and round as possible," said Scarfe of the offending illustration: a blissful Private Eye parody of Lewis Morley's iconic "backwards chair" snap of Christine Keeler, complete with bouncing DDs and prime-ministerial buttocks that oozed like unleavened bloomer loaves.

Brilliant. And audacious. Not since the early 19th century had anyone dared to depict a leading politician without his cravat on. The floodgates had been opened. Bye-bye bowler-hatted deference and quivering rectitude; hello Winston Churchill's penis being swung like a lasso in What the Butler Saw. Rude Britannia revelled in the ensuing torrent: Kenneth Horne saying "bona" (as in boner) to whoops of mirth on Radio 2; Margaret Thatcher standing at a urinal on Spitting Image.

But it wasn't all fun and frolics. John Sutherland talked of the "hurt" and "genuine fear" generated by the 1967 arrival of Oz, the underground hippy propaganda rag. Cue footage of marching middle-aged women in triangular raincoats and lumpy support hose, their "Down with Oz" placards mourning not just the death of decency but a perceived lack of respect for a generation that had recently emerged from war.

It was a genuinely touching moment that provided a welcome respite from the constant vuvuzela-like paaaaarrrrrp of smirking frivolity. Alas, like so many other excellent points, Sutherland's observation was all but ignored by the narrative. Would it have been too much to ask for a little elaboration? And surely, when Natalie Haynes talked of the relentless "nastiness" that Little Britain directs at its female characters, it wouldn't have been that difficult to find someone else to agree, or disagree, or even just acknowledge her point?

Worse still was the documentary's insistence on superimposing its contributors on to illustrated "comic" backdrops. All looked either bewildered or mortified. It made for a frustratingly flippant whole, with a penchant for relentless carbonated jollity that suggested the series was almost embarrassed by its more intellectual components.

"How posh are they?" asked a wary participant on Peckham Finishing School for Girls (BBC3), the latest series to dump privileged people in areas of deprivation in the hope that it will either a) all kick off; b) partially kick off, with a grudging emphasis on "mutual understanding"; or c) not kick off at all – but trigger sobbing personal epiphanies that result in zoom-shots of reddened noses and quivering bottom lips, and excessive use of the word "journey".

The answer was "quite posh". Here, four "privately educated" young women spend four days living on a council estate in Peckham. During their stay, they are each paired off with a local girl who will, presumably, open their eyes to the "real world". But the idea was stuffed from the off. All involved seem far keener on getting on with one another than pouring scorn on their opposite's lifestyle.

There were more vexing problems. Why, given Peckham's multicultural population, was the toff contingent all white? And why were only the Peckham participants invited to register their disgust/derision of their privileged counterparts by marking them out of 10? Could it be because watching the working class sneering at oblivious poshos is considered less offensive than watching rich people harrumphing about unemployed single mothers? There were layers and layers of questions here, but all this first episode seemed bothered about was who would be first to start a fight. Disingenuous isn't the word.


Sarah Dempster

The GuardianTramp

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