Now/then, now/then

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It’s always best to make your intentions clear before entering a verbal minefield. This blog concerns (but is not directly about) the biggest story of the moment in the entertainment industries (and beyond) – the recent explosion of sexual harassment, assault and rape allegations which have hit those industries, particularly in the USA, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations – as well as the previous, very similar set of revelations and accusations which followed the Jimmy Savile expose in Britain. I don’t intend to address those issues themselves – that has been and continues to be done exhaustively on news and opinion platforms and social media – but rather to consider actual and potential implications for archives of film and television content containing the work of those accused or convicted, the public re-presentation of that content and the writing of our cultural history. The fact that many of the most recently accused have already admitted to past “failings” makes it reasonable to speculate on the implications of the scandals for their work, but I seek to imply no judgement on any of those whose names have been linked with abuse but have not had their cases tried in a court, so some of the blog will be hypothetical. All “historic” accusations of abuse need to be investigated according to due process and, whatever the outcome, it may be inappropriate for the work of those accused to be screened or otherwise available, both during and after that process. But an archivist (even a retired one) must take the long view, while everyone else is concentrating on the here and now.

A regular feature of the BBC4 schedule for several years now has been repeats of editions of Top of the Pops from the 1970s and 1980s. Very frequently, these are billed in the Radio Times as “revised repeat”, which means they will have been edited to remove the contribution of Jimmy Savile (or Dave Lee Travis, or….), or performances by Gary Glitter (or Jonathan King, or Rolf Harris, or….). Obviously, it would be inappropriate for any of these to appear in unmediated contexts and, in the case of Savile particularly, the BBC’s own sense of shame and responsibility, as well as consideration for his victims, makes it impossible. In the cases of performers like Gary Glitter, there would also be the imperative to avoid paying royalties to a convicted paedophile. The music of the most popular British star of the 70s has had to disappear from TV, radio and all music purchasing outlets – and probably, as a consequence, from history.

OK, these editions of Top of the Pops are only being presented for the purposes of nostalgic entertainment rather than as the exemplars of social and cultural history they could also be, but there still seems to be a whiff of Stalinism about the re-editing of history at work here – or, perhaps more appropriately, of 1984 and Winston Smith’s job of retrospectively altering news reports to tell the “official” story (remember that ministry of truthOrwell’s Ministry of Truth was partly based on his experiences at the BBC). The purist in me would like to see captions included in any re-edited programme, explaining what is missing at any point and why, but I realise that is not going to happen. The most extreme example of this sort of process in the current spate of scandals is the re-shooting and re-editing of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World to replace the performance of Kevin Spacey with one by Christopher Plummer. The film had been completed but not released, so it isn’t a case of changing something which is already a part of film history, but the digital technology to do just that exists and the temptation to use it may grow. After all, film and TV are collaborative arts and it would be unfair on other contributors if something was withdrawn because of the nefarious activities of one star or producer. The Spacey case looks primarily to be a financial decision, rather than a moral one, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, at some future date and if the climate is felt to be right, a “director’s cut” edition appears, with Spacey’s performance reinstated.

The Savile case prompted a flood of allegations against other celebrities from the TV and music industries, some of whom were convicted and jailed (Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall), some tried and acquitted (William Roache) and others found to have no case to answer (Jim Davidson) – a situation brilliantly and sensitively dramatized in Channel 4’s National Treasure. The suppression of appearances by Rolf Harris doesn’t have massive implications – a history of British TV entertainment would be incomplete but not essentially harmed without him. But the William Roache case had different potential implications for our cultural history. If the actor who has been in Coronation Streetcorrie from the very first episode in 1960 had been found guilty of a historic rape charge (or even if his acquittal hadn’t been so decisive) the entire archive of the programme, which represents the greatest fictional social history of the last six decades we possess, may have been compromised.

And what would a cultural history of the United States in the 1970s and 1980s look like without, for sake of argument, reference to The Cosby Show or the films of Woody Allen? Or any history of cinema in the later 20th century without any films starring Spacey or Dustin Hoffman? Not that this is necessarily likely to happen, but the effects of scandals, sexual or otherwise have never been predictable. Consider the different outcomes to the following cases from different periods of film and television history:

ArbuckleThe case of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: film history tells us that the two great pioneers of silent film comedy were Chaplin and Keaton, but that could have been very different. Arbuckle’s films were as popular as Chaplin’s and he gave Keaton his start in the business. But the scandal surrounding the death of Virginia Rappe, following a party at Arbuckle’s house, effectively finished both his career and his reputation, despite the fact that he was cleared of rape or any involvement in her death. A nervous studio not only banned, but also destroyed his films – what remains today has been reconstructed from sub-standard copies from the world’s film archives.

The case of Roman Polanski: Hollywood in the 1970s was clearly a more forgiving place and there was no shortage of support for director Polanski when he fled the US on the verge of re-sentencing, after having pleaded guilty to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. It was still forgiving when he won the Academy Award as Best Director for The Pianist in 2003 and received an ovation at the Oscars in absentia. His ability to continuepolanski his film-making career (in Europe, at least) has been unaffected by the scandal and his previous films remain highly regarded and easily available. Indeed, there has always been a feeling that an artist who draws upon his or her own experiences (and Polanski’s have been considerably more extreme than most), produces more “authentic” work. While not above the law, artists have often considered themselves beyond the norms of socially acceptable behaviour. Not any more.

The case of Chris Langham: after a patchy career full of minor roles, including a failed stint on Not the Nine O’Clock News, Langham made a breakthrough in the parody documentary People Like Us. Then, in 2005, came two roles which seemed to have set him onto the path of success and which brought him both British Comedy and BAFTA Awards for best comedy actor. I remember him accepting the former by ‘phone and wondering why – it soon became clear with his arrest, followed by conviction and imprisonment, for possession of child pornography. But what of those two series he had langhamstarred in? Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, in the first season of which he starred as the hapless government minister Hugh Abbot, simply evolved into one of the most brilliant satires of the last decade without him. That first series is available on DVD, though with Peter Capaldi on the cover now, rather than Langham. Paul Whitehouse’s Help on the other hand, in which Langham played a psychiatrist to a variety of characters, all played by Whitehouse, was finished by the case and there was only ever the one season. It was the best thing Whitehouse had done since The Fast Show, but, if you want to see it, the only copy publicly available is on a region 4 DVD at a high price. In the meantime, the release of the second season of People Like Us was delayed and was unheralded when it arrived. So, the approach towards Langham’s existing work was entirely pragmatic and sensitive to potential pitfalls.

I can discern some parallels here with the recent controversies, from Cape Town to Oxford to Charlottesville, over monuments to people whose historic status was built on actions and attitudes which history now condemns: Cecil Rhodes, Robert E. Lee et al. A robert e leekey question is whether these monuments have become a part of history and, if not, how far back do you have to go before they are regarded as such? Monuments to ancient empires based on slavery – Egypt, Greece and Rome – are treasured and are part of UNESCO heritage sites. The British Empire and the American Civil War have modern resonances which make things more contentious. The comparison may seem extreme, but how far things remain in the public consciousness can affect their place as a part of history. Films and TV programmes can be seen as a kind of audio-visual statuary in this context. If something is deemed to be unsuitable for continued public display, then it should be kept in a museum (for monuments) or an archive (for film and TV). Ideally, the cultural institutions involved will be able to make the materials publicly available with the appropriate contextualisation. It can be awkward and the contextualisation is everything. You either contextualise in public (which is preferable for historic continuity) or make materials available in a controlled museum/archive environment, for scholars only (who will then write the history and include or exclude things according to what they find of interest).

So far, understanding the recent cultural past in the light of the Savile case and its subsequent revelations has been superficially done. Channel 4’s It was Alright in the Seventies was an interesting attempt to use TV extracts featuring examples of sexism and racism to understand cultural change, but succumbed to the lure of cheap laughs and sensationalism. There is little more awkward than trying, as I have experience of, to till deathpresent episodes of Johnny Speight’s Till Death Us Do Part to a modern audience. It is a crucial television text from the sixties and seventies, which was made with the best intentions and is brilliantly written and performed, but the racism, in particular, is impossible to present without context and pretty difficult with it. What shocks the most is not the language or attitudes presented, but the delighted reaction of the contemporary studio audience. When the BBC re-made a lost episode as part of their sitcom season last year, they struggled to find one which was free of racist references and, having done so, still had to point out to the audience that the sexist attitudes were from another era.

Of course, the falls from grace we are currently witnessing will themselves become part of our cultural history, as will their effects on existing work, but it is the potential suppression of that existing work that concerns me. A quick scan through the film listings in the most recent four editions of Radio Times reveals no scheduled transmissions on broadcast TV of any films featuring Kevin Spacey and only one (The Graduate on TCM) featuring Dustin Hoffman. This is probably the right call, for the time being, by the broadcasters, who need to protect themselves against accusations of behaving as though nothing has happened, but the speed at which revelations are coming out may remove a significant part of our film heritage from public view, with the work of many fine contributors thrown out with that of the offending few. Interestingly, the letters page of recent editions of Radio Times contains complaints against the removal of the new Agatha Christie treat from this year’s Christmas schedule due to the ongoing investigation against Ed Westwick, thus neatly highlighting the BBC’s current dilemma.

A key question is how far one can separate a work from the personality of its creator and whether unacceptable views or behaviour diminishes how we view that work. For me that has rarely been a problem (as a life-long devotee of the works of Wagner, I long ago reconciled the fact that the man who wrote the world’s finest music dramas also wrote some of the world’s most unpleasant anti-semitic tracts), but I can understand the position of those for whom it is. Much will depend on the nature of the work – a stand-up comedy routine will depend much more on our connection with the performer than a piece of drama will on our views of the writer or director. Which brings me to the most unsettling of the recent cases: that of Louis CK. In this blog and elsewhere, my HoraceAndPeteadmiration for his work is on record, particularly Horace and Pete, which I regard as a modern American classic and my view of which is not changed by the recent revelations about his personal behaviour. It is possible to have integrity as an artist even though it may be lacking as a person. Indeed, if the work is dealing with human failings, as the best work so often is, then it can help to understand those failings personally – maybe it is even essential. Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy may well turn out to be the most relevant piece to emerge from this whole situation – I would say that I can’t wait to see it, but it looks like I’m going to have to – maybe for a very long time.

In the final analysis, individuals must be answerable for their actions, however long ago and however different the social climate then. Their personal future status will depend on the courts of law and on the court of public opinion, but the products of our shared cultural heritage in which they have previously been involved should not automatically be thrown out like babies with dirty bathwater.

2 thoughts on “Now/then, now/then

  1. Slavi Savic

    Well done, Steve. It is important to save the works of art while we can condemn and sue the men. I understand the dilemma as it occurs on so many levels in history. Think about Natst Germany and philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose work is the base for our modern way of thinking.

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  2. A postscript to this – I got my blu ray of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin yesterday and watched it straight away. Brilliant film and all of the wonderful ensemble cast are interviewed in the extras – except for Jeffrey Tambor. I can’t believe he was the only one not interviewed and can only surmise that his contribution was cut. This is highly ironic, as the iconography of both the film and the blu-ray menu pages features participants faces being cut out or removed from group photos, in true Stalinist style. In the US, Tambor has been removed from the pre-release posters from the film and the same irony has been commented on. One can almost imagine the irony is deliberate and even welcome as extra publicity for the film (which has also been banned in Russia).

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