Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Seventies Sitcoms: A Corrupting Influence?

I'm glad to see that the spirit of seventies British sitcoms lives on in the UK, if not on TV, then in real life.  I was reading a local news story today about women in Southampton complaining about a series of bus-related gropings.  Apparently they were happening at bus stops and even on buses.  Sadly, it apparently had nothing to do with On the Buses-style sex offenders who work on the side as bus drivers and conductors.  Police have reportedly arrested a seventy year old man in connection with the incidents.  Which means that I had to lay to rest my imagined scenario of Inspector Blake gleefully announcing 'I'm going to have you this time Butler', as he catches Stan in the act of feeling up an entire queue of 'seventies crumpet' style female passengers.  Except, of course, that back in the day, Stan and Jack didn't molest the passengers, they instead focused on the female staff at the depot.  Which, these days, would result in complaints of sexual harassment, disciplinary action and probable dismissal.  Not to mention lurid stories in the tabloids.  To be fair, even in 1972 it would probably have resulted in some kind of disciplinary action (although probably not dismissal) and lurid stories in the tabloids. 

In the current climate, I'm sure that we'll have various sections of the media claiming that the Southampton bus groper's behaviour was the result of having watched too many repeats of those seventies sitcoms on ITV4.  I know that every time I see a an episode of Man About the House I'm gripped by the desire to engage in a flat share with two female friends in order to continually bombard them with sexual innuendo, not to mention smoke forty cigarettes a day and discuss pornography with my dodgy landlord.  Yes indeed, they are obviously a corrupting influence.  One of the most striking things about seventies sitcoms is the way they treat as subjects for humour things which today might be considered comic taboos.  And I don't just mean sexual molestation and the objectification of women.  The other day I was watching an episode of Doctor in Charge from 1972, in which a depressed and overworked Dr Collier's presumed suicidal tendencies are used as the jumping off point (almost literally) for an hilarious slapstick climax with him and Dr Waring clinging to some scaffolding while Dr Bingham loses his footing on the roof and is left swinging by his ankles from a climbing rope.  Let's be honest, these days you would only attempt humour about mental illness and suicide in the context of some 'edgy' BBC Three sitcom written by and starring obscure 'alternative' comedians.  Oh and there definitely wouldn't be a laughter track.

Yet Doctor in Charge was one of ITV's most popular prime time sitcoms (as were the other 'Doctor' series).  There is a case to made that some seventies sitcoms were actually pretty progressive in their willingness to tackle difficult issues head on.  Perhaps their willingness to laugh at these issues should be seen as commendable.  Not that I'm trying to say that things like the harassment and sexual assault of women, let alone mental illness and suicide, aren't bloody serious serious subjects.  They are and they should be taken seriously.  But at the same time, there is something to be said for laughing at these terrible things - in a way it helps defeat them, it shows a refusal to be cowed.  Ridicule is often the best answer to evil.  Not that I'm making a case for every seventies sitcom here - I'm afraid that the likes of Love Thy Neighbour are indefensible. It takes a degree of skill and subtlety to tackle racism via the use of a bigot as your main character.  'Til Death Us Do Part, by and large, managed it, but Love Thy Neighbour, with its endless steams of racial abuse uttered by its 'hero', failed miserably. 

But some seventies sitcoms showed a surprising awareness of the issues surrounding the conservative social views of their main characters.  The long running Sid James vehicle, Bless This House, might have seemed a pretty regular example of the 'generation gap' comedy with Sid exhibiting the sort of knee-jerk, sexist and racist attitudes many of its viewers could identify with, but many episodes were written by Carla Lane, who frequently subverted these assumptions.  In one episode, for instance, Sid is shocked when a colleague points out that the young secretary he has just been bombarding with sexual innuendo and objectifying in front of the whole office, is barely older than the teenage daughter he has been shocked to learn both knows about sex and has boyfriends.  Our hero is not only revealed as a dirty old man, but also forced into an uncomfortable moment of self awareness.  Pretty sophisticated stuff for a seventies sitcom.



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