And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
My name is James, and I’m an historian.
Having studied the discipline for three years at Lancaster University, emerging at the end with an honours degree, in my wide ranging jack of many trades master of few existence, it is perhaps the one thing I can legitimately claim to be qualified to do.
Hence I’m in the process of writing publications which will form a history of popular music in modern times. In doing so I’m entirely reliant on the accuracy of my primary sources – the documented events of the time and interviews which have been published with the people making the music. I’m honour bound to be accurate. Maybe one day my writings will form part of someone else’s research, any errors or inaccuracies they contain will flow down to others, the mistakes only spotted if someone does what I did, and goes back to the primary source.
It is why the George Orwell quote above resonates so powerfully. We cannot and should not change history just to appease a contemporary view or to cast figures from the past in new light thanks to our own social revisionism. You will note that this never happens to what might be considered high art. Caravaggio was a notorious murderer yet his paintings still hang in galleries worldwide and his talent acclaimed at the highest level. Meanwhile the family of sculptor and designer Eric Gill have been open about his history deviant sexual behaviour and the incest he committed yet his work still adorns the walls of the BBC’s headquarters and their corporate logo is rendered in the font he designed. Their place in history is immovable, regardless of their own personal failings. And rightly so.
Yet where popular culture is concerned this tolerance does not seem to apply. According to the orthodoxy of our times if you are an entertainer or public figure who has been convicted, or even just accused in absentia, of a particular type of crime, you are to be wiped from the record. Your history removed, your contribution ignored. Unless of course you are a successful rock musician and still in a position to make people money. That goes without saying.
This should be self-evidently wrong. As Professor Jeffrey Richards noted when I studied under him in the 1990s, it is all too tempting to look down on the popular culture of the past and sneer at that which our forebears found entertaining. He further noted that he was saying those words in an age where Noel’s House Party, You’ve Been Framed and Blind Date represented the apotheosis of popular tastes and invited us to draw our own conclusions accordingly.
The first signs of a desire for society to start sanitising its past came a decade and a half ago. Famed 1970s pop star Gary Glitter suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the late 1990s when his more dubious recreational tastes online resulted in a period of incarceration and eternal tabloid vilification. As he was already an ageing figure of fun whose body of creative work had not yet been deemed ready for post-modern reappraisal his inevitable absence from the airwaves passed with little comment, his removal from a cameo role in the Spice Girls’ movie Spiceworld the only notably obvious public statement of his pariah status. Nonetheless back in 2005 I produced a radio show which aired Another Rock And Roll Christmas as part of a feature on the biggest hits of Christmas 1984. Mountains failed to crumble, tides remained turned and not one complaint resulted. Perhaps back then it was a more mature and sensible age, who knows.
Since 2011 however it has been the enormously popular 35 year old repeats of Top Of The Pops shows on BBC4 which have become a lightning rod for what appears to be the insane desire of some to purge popular culture from those of whom we No Longer Approve. Early in the repeat run it did not pass without comment that a performance by Jonathan King of his 1976 Top 10 remake of It Only Takes A Minute was hamfistedly edited out of the 35th anniversary repeat, its absence from the show only made more apparent thanks to the fact that the man himself had uploaded that very performance to YouTube some years earlier.
King to his credit took up cudgels immediately, writing directly to then Director-General Mark Thompson to protest about his removal from the repeat. To the joy of everyone interested, Mr Thompson took the matter up and wrote back noting:
We accept that [the editing] should not have happened and we would like to apologise for any upset this caused.
We can assure Mr King that there is no policy in place requiring any of his appearances, or those of any one else, to be removed from repeats we show on the channel. We can also assure Mr King that his performance will not be edited out of any future repeat of this particular episode of Top of the Pops.
It was almost certainly this policy which led to 1977 performances by Gary Glitter remaining intact in subsequent editions, thus shattering once and for all the unannounced de-facto ban on his work that had been in place since the Spice Girls movie. It is almost as if this comes from a different age, given what has transpired since.
Then in October 2012 came the broadcast of what have since turned out to be entirely spurious allegations surrounding the private life of Sir Jimmy Savile and the resultant hysterical trashing of his life’s work, achievements and popular legacy. This also regrettably included the removal from the schedules of any and all editions of Top Of The Pops which he hosted, ending forever the prospect of a complete and uninterrupted run of these valuable archive programmes. Yes, this is to be deeply regretted and is in itself a disgrace, but given the level of hysteria that seems to rise with even the mention of the legendary Yorkshireman’s name and the fact that even a parodying representation of him in an old show can result in Daily Mail front pages and craven apologies from the BBC for even suggesting that he once walked the earth it seems hardly surprising that the path of least resistance has been taken and his shows confined to the salt mines. Whilst I may personally regret and oppose this censorship, for the same reasons that I will articulate below, were I to be in charge of deciding what should and should not be broadcast on BBC4 I would almost certainly be taking the same decision. There are some battles which for now are just not winnable. It will be left instead to future generations to re-evaluate his work and put it in its proper context.
Sadly it would not be long before even more planned repeated editions of Top Of The Pops were removed from public view. The arrest of veteran radio presenter Dave Lee Travis on charges of sexual assault led to the editions that he hosted also being tossed from the schedules, a situation which seemed only set to persist as he was sent for trial on a number of charges dating back over several decades. In truth this was a prudent move, and indeed at his first trial at the start of this year it was revealed that one of the charges related to an alleged incident that took place at the taping of one of the shows removed from broadcast. Although he was acquitted of this (and indeed virtually all the charges laid against him) the workings of the law mean that one edition of Top Of The Pops in particular can theoretically never be viewed by the public again as the footage it contains would serve to identify the complainant in question and violate her eternal right to anonymity.
When DLT’s legal ordeal was finally over and he was formally cleared of any wrongdoing, save for one extremely shaky minor conviction over an incident which took place in the 1990s (and long after he had ceased any association with Top Of The Pops) it was fervently hoped that the moratorium on his appearances could be lifted and we could finally watch the show without the endlessly frustrating skips that resulted from the absence of his and Savile-hosted editions. Alas these hopes were in vain. Shortly after his sentencing, the BBC took the extraordinary step of publicly announcing that Dave Lee Travis editions of the show would not be returning to the airwaves, and that this was to be the end of the matter.
Just about everyone I have spoken to is utterly baffled by this. There is no possible regulatory reason why the work of a man sentenced to a brief and ultimately suspended prison term for an incident 20 years ago cannot be shown on national television. Nowhere in the Ofcom Programme Code does it debar any convicted criminal, regardless of the offence from appearing on television or radio. Nor are there any legal grounds to prevent them from doing so.
It should be further noted that the BBC themselves have no blanket ban in place on airing the work of convicted criminals –as the Glitter and King examples above illustrate only too clearly. The Corporation has been happy in the past to stand by the decision of Eastenders to feature actor Leslie Grantham (a convicted murderer), for Hustle to star Ashley Walters (imprisoned in the past for firearms offences) and will regularly feature the work of Boy George, despite his conviction for falsely imprisoning a visitor to his New York flat. Not to mention one notoriously convicted drug dealer who hosted his own chat show for the channel. Nobody would seriously suggest that these men should carry a permanent bar on their work for mistakes they made in the past. Yet Dave Lee Travis it seems is different. And that is hypocritical and wrong.
Furthermore the BBC are happy to defend the right of convicted criminals to feature in documentary material should they deem it “editorially relevant”. Hence an attempted furore about the appearance of comment from Jonathan King (yes, him again) in a recent documentary about the rock group Genesis came to nothing. The BBC ignored the naysayers and he appeared in the programme speaking about his work with the group on their very first album, unedited and as planned.
Objections to this policy might carry less weight if we were talking about a throwaway show on a lightweight filler channel buried deep in the EPG. Yet the Top Of The Pops archive repeats are being aired on BBC4, a serious heavyweight channel dedicated to the appreciation of arts and drama and with an image that is deliberately highbrow. The audience for these 35 year old repeats do indeed appear to approach them accordingly, articles and blogs and social media feeds buzzing as each edition airs, the shows held up as a fascinating cultural and social snapshot and a tangible reflection of how the musical era would have been presented to a mainstream contemporary audience. Even the BBC themselves are aware of this, preceding each annual ‘series’ of shows with an in-depth documentary that tells the story of each year in music, notes the prevailing social and creative trends of the age and demonstrates how Top Of The Pops reflected them. For example the most recent “Story Of 1979” contained the personal recollections of noted broadcaster Trevor Nelson and his memories of watching The Police perform Roxanne – the first time he and his family had seen a a white man singing reggae and the validation of his culture that this represented to him. Yet this edition of the show remained unaired. We were denied the use of the primary source to put this very personal recollection in its proper historical context.
So the arbitrary skipping of episodes doesn’t simply mean we are denied the opportunity to see a particular Squeeze or Nolan Sisters performance. Entire pages of the story are being discarded for what seems to be no other reason than to avoid the tedium of having another moaning write-up on Page 7 of the Daily Mail. As a consequence events which have been noted elsewhere as significant moments in the development of popular music are not being shown in their proper context. For example, the Story Of 1979 documentary spends several minutes waxing lyrical about the notorious “2-Tone” edition of November 8th 1979 which saw Madness, The Specials and The Selecter all feature on the same night – all the while glossing over the fact that this edition of the show will almost certainly not be aired this year or it seems any time soon, due to the presence of a certain Jimmy Savile OBE on hosting duties that day. We are left to assume that this edition did indeed hold the significance attached to it, without the chance to inspect the primary source for ourselves. History is purged accordingly.
The censorship has been branded Stalinist in some quarters, although Stalin’s casual approach to history often extended to writing himself into moments with which he wished to be associated. As the quote from 1984 at the top of this article suggests, the BBC’s approach to both its own broadcast history and that of the era of popular music which Top Of The Pops portrays is almost Orwellian in tone. Wiped clean to preserve the sensibilities of those whom the broadcasts are not even aimed. And it is only right that this is resisted. It is not the place of the BBC to decide how history is to be presented, whom it should portray and which version is the most acceptable for public consumption. It is an abdication of their own principles of impartiality and a very deeply felt insult to the intelligence of we – the licence fee payers – to whom they are supposed to be in service to.
Happily there are plenty of others who share my view, and a relentless series of complaints have already been submitted to the BBC’s audience unit as the opening gambit in persuading them to reverse this ill-advised policy of sanitisation. Inevitably so far those who have written have received little more than blandly worded stock answers, albeit ones which which state that they must “balance the views of all sections of [the] audience”. Queries as to just who the people are who have expressed a view that archive material aired on a minority specialist channel is unacceptable to them, or indeed why the views of those demanding censorship should take precedence over those who wish to see their history unaltered have yet to be addressed.
To be clear however, submitting an online complaint is just the first part of the process. The BBC has an obligation to be transparent and accountable to those who fund it and there are several means of escalating a complaint, right the way up to Trust level if required. I fully intend to pursue mine to the fullest extent possible. The BBC does not control the past, nor indeed does it have any business attempting to do so, and I want the BBC Trust to explain to my face and in words of one syllable the grounds on which they disagree.
My name is James and I’m an historian. We are the true custodians of the past. And it is time to start standing up for it.