SBHD: If the middle classes are offended by the `vulgarity’ of popular television, then it is in part because the medium tries to reflect the aspirations of the common man.
One way or another, vulgarity has been much in the news of late. The Queen’s former private secretary, Lord Charteris, set the ball rolling when he described the Duchess of York as “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar” and went on to conclude his interview with The Spectator by saying “Now let’s go and get pissed”.
A week later, journalist Henry Porter described how he had tuned into a Channel 4 programme, The Word, and discovered presenter Terry Christian, awkward and giggling, asking a pop singer whether a famous story about him was true. “He didn’t explain what it was, but there was no doubt he was talking about oral sex,” says Porter – who turned off his set.
“Everyone is affected by the current vulgarity, which passes for humour but which is in fact dispiriting and corrosive and lazy,” he says.
Next came Paul Johnson with the observation that British TV is run by “cigar chomping vulgarians and Left-wing pseudo-intellectuals”.
The rumble turned to thunder with the arrival of a very big gun indeed, Lord Rees-Mogg, who described, with disgust, a scene from the most recent episode of One Foot in the Grave. Victor Meldrew is in a solicitor’s waiting room when a client comes in, takes his shoe off, sniffs it and scrapes some dog-dirt from his sole with a nail file. When he has gone, Victor absent-mindedly picks his teeth and cleans his nails with the same file.
“One can scarcely be morally outraged by this sort of lame scatological humour, but one can be irritated by it. What is shocking is the sheer stupidity and vulgarity of the joke,” says Rees-Mogg.
So, from the highest family in the land to the meanest TV programme, the nation is awash with vulgarity. We can all cite our own examples. Witness BSkyB’s poster for the film Indecent Proposal, which shows the bottom half of a woman’s body clad only in knickers and bearing the headline “The price is right, so they come on down”.
But what is so terrible about all this vulgarity? Charlie Parsons (a bit vulgar, these diminutives), executive producer of The Word, responded to Porter’s strictures by admitting the programme was sometimes vulgar “in its true meaning, but this follows only in the tradition of say Sterne and Swift. Rather than influencing society, it only reflects it”. Some might doubt that Christian stands in direct line of descent from either of those 18th century savants, but Parsons has a point when he alludes to the “true”, or literal, meaning of vulgarity – namely “characteristic of the common people”.
But, however much we may deplore the fact – Evelyn Waugh deplored it with a venom admirably inherited by his son Auberon – we live in the age of the common man. A liberal democracy such as ours, which in effect declares the common people sovereign, is in no position to deplore vulgarity.
And yet vulgarity has other meanings, such as “unrefined, coarse, lacking in taste, manners or delicacy” and even “spiritually paltry, ignoble and debased”. Now you can’t get much more pejorative than that, which places liberal thinkers firmly on the horns of a dilemma.
For asked the question, “Are the ordinary folk of Britain coarse, tasteless and ignoble?”, they must demur, or accept, that the democratic experiment is fundamentally flawed. Those of us of an illiberal disposition have no such difficulty, since to us it is self-evident that popular culture is for the most part tasteless and worthless.
But, as Rees-Mogg points out, it is the liberals who run the BBC and Channel 4. Which explains the preponderance of vulgarity on our screens. If scatological humour springs from the masses, can it be wrong?
There is, of course, more to it than that. In recent years, the BBC has delighted in the maxim “Il faut pater le bourgeois”. For it is the middle class which is most aggrieved and shocked when TV presenters turn the conversation onto oral sex or the humour in a sitcom reaches into the gutter.
It is the middle class, too, that opposes the liberal agenda. If TV can be made to undermine middle class values, the path to liberalism will be cleared.
Ironically, Thatcher did more to promote the spread of vulgarity than the BBC has managed yet. For though it is fashionable to deride the trickle-down economics and excesses of the Eighties, for most of that decade the mass of people enjoyed personal wealth on an unprecedented scale. And with money comes power.
Freed to express their preferences and tastes through the market, the ordinary people of Britain spoke. In came junk clothes, junk videos, junk food, junk magazines and, yes, junk TV. Above all, the authentic voice of hoi polloi power still rings out, glottal stops and all, in the pages of the Sun.
When people decry vulgarity they are implicitly pleading for a return to the belief that it is a worthy ambition to want to better oneself – not just materially but in the intelligent or immaterial part of being human which our less mealy-mouthed forebears called the spirit.
Porter says: “A society which endlessly sniggers and is consumed by smut has a diminishing self-respect because clearly it does not believe itself worthy of anything better.”
In truth, a great many people think themselves worthy of better. But whenever they raise their voice the broadcasters spit in their eye. Dear old Parsons sees it as his task not to influence society but to reflect it. But he chooses to hold up a mirror to the worst he can find.
When a man of such refined sensibility and elevated taste as Rees-Mogg turns on his set, it is no surprise the reflected image gives him a nasty shock.