This week I watched the 1968 film Up The Junction. The original book on which the film was based was a collection of sort stories by Nell Dunn. It depicted working class life in Battersea and Clapham Junction. In 1965 the BBC did a Wednesday play of the same title, charting the lives and relationships of three working class girls. That was also written by Nell Dunnand directed by Ken Loach. The film, based on Nell Dunn’s book, was written by Roger Smith. All three are quite different. The book comprises of various short stories joined together by characters and location. The TV version follows a more linear story about three girls and their boyfriends, and the film has the added ingredient of a ‘posh rich’ girl from Chelsea who, considering her world to be shallow, decides she wants to experience life as a working-class girl. All three are quite different, but all include one sequence that is as shocking today as it was then. One of the girls falls pregnant, makes the decision to have the pregnancy terminated and visits a backstreet abortionist.
I don’t remember the details of the sequence in the book, but I do remember being shocked. And what was even more shocking was the scene in both the TV version and the film version, when the character goes through an induced miscarriage. The visual depiction of such an event left a searing impression on my mind. In the film the cost for this abortion/miscarriage is £4.00, which was probably half a week’s wages for someone working in a factory in 1968. You handed over half of your wages to dice with death. The TV play incorporated documentary elements, one of them being a doctor advocating a change in the law to prevent the 35 deaths that occurred each year through illegal abortions.
It might be hard for anybody to think this now, but then abortions were illegal. The play went out in 1965 and contributed to the debate which led to the Abortion Act in 1967, which legalised the termination of pregnancies if certain criteria were met.
Nevertheless, not everyone was happy about the bill or Ken Loach’s take on the subject. The BBC estimated the play was viewed by 10 million and they received 400 complaints, mainly about the abortion and the bad language. The charge was led by a woman called Mary Whitehouse. She created something called the Clean Up TV petition and gained half a million signatures. This was swiftly followed by the formation of the National Viewers and Listeners Association. This was still going strong when we launched EastEnders in 1985 and naturally enough the programme came in for a lot of flak from the NVLA.
At first complaints weren’t a problem for EastEnders, in fact we revelled in them. It was a sure sign people were both watching and taking it seriously. Julia Smith, the producer at the time was so unshaken by them, she would have letters from Mary Whitehouse framed and hung on the wall in her office. It became almost like a trophy receiving a complaint letter from Mary Whitehouse. I was disappointed that I’d written quite a few episodes before I got the ‘trophy’ letter.
At the time the powers that be didn’t seem to worry about the complaints. I think they were convinced that EastEnders was going to be a short-lived affair and when it was taken off the air, it would silence all those crying for action. Of course, that wasn’t the case. As the first year went by controversial storylines not only gave fodder for the complainers, they also attracted a larger audience. It slowly became evident that EastEnders wasn’t going anywhere. How do you axe a programme with a growing audience, unless you’re Jeremy Kyle?
It was inevitable that the programmes attitude to complaints would change in direct proportion to the growth in audience figures. The more people that watched, the more nervous the powers-that-be became. Censorship, although I don’t think I ever heard that word used, but that’s what it was, became self-governing. We became aware that there were certain things that could not be said at 7.30 at night. One interesting one was the use of the word ‘bugger’, which was quite acceptable when EastEnders started, but soon became taboo.
As time progressed the more nervous everyone became about complaints. Getting a few hundred people moaning about something that they considered to be offensive, wasn’t that worrying to me. At the time we were getting 18 million viewers an episode, and a handful of offended individuals I didn’t see as a big deal. Besides I thought good drama was meant to court controversy. As I’d said before I’d been brought up on a diet of those 50s and 60s new modern dramatists from Arden to Osborne, from Bond to Orton. All these writers had controversial aspects about their work and this was the work I admired and wanted to emulate. I never wanted to be the next Ray Cooney.
At the time there was a body called the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which was established in 1981 and continued until 1997 – slightly longer than my time on EastEnders. Those of you who are old enough to remember will recall that if a serious complaint was upheld by this illustrious body, then at some point an announcement would be made on screen saying how the complaint had been investigated and upheld.
I had three of these – I think, not sure, but it could be some sort of a record.
The first was because I had one of our characters who had been annoyed by a dog, suggesting it should be allowed to play on a motorway. Of course, it was a joke! Surely no one thought I was serious. However, someone thought it would encourage people to let dogs play on motorways and the chastisement was read out after one of the subsequent episodes of EastEnders. To this day I still think it’s ridiculous.
The second was when one of our characters, for a time, was a Brownie leader and having returned from a trip ‘up West’ with a group of her Brownies, she heads for the Queen Vic and a stiff drink to steady her nerves. She goes on to explain how it was the trip from hell, the Brownies ran amok, which culminated in them soliciting a stranger on a tube. Again – joke! But again the complaint was upheld and the announcement made with the intention of shaming me into behaving. (It was a bit like ‘tagging’ someone – I wore the badge with honour, it was just a shame there wasn’t an actual badge.)
The third one was probably the silliest. I was writing some episodes set in Ireland and I was also writing a film also set there – so it was two birds with one stone, I could research them both at the same time. My wife’s father came from County Mayo and he used to have a place in Mayo, in Ballyhaunis. We used to go there when we were first married. (In fact, another little thought about how times have changed, the first flight I ever did was to Ireland and I was 20. Flying was a big deal then, maybe it’s going to be the same again when this virus eventually decides to disappear.) So, we thought we should go and check out Ballyhaunis, for old times sake. We got a bit lost and I decided it was time to ask someone for directions. And there was a man, gently strolling along, so I pulled over and wound down the window. The conversation went something like this …
ME: Excuse me … do you know the way to the village of Ballyhaunis please?
HIM: (thoughtfully) The village of Ballyhaunis … the village of Ballyhaunis?
ME: Yeah – the village of Ballyhaunis.
HIM: (pause) No.
ME: Okay … thanks.
I gave him a smile, engaged gear and started to pull away. Suddenly there was a loud bang on the roof of the car. I immediately stopped the car realising it was the Man who had hit the top of the car with some force. I looked out of the window and saw the man coming to talk to me again. He looked at me, took a breath and said:
HIM: Now the town of Ballyhaunis … I know where that is.
I couldn’t help but smile to myself before saying …
ME: Right … so how do I get there?
HIM: You don’t … you’re already in it.
I used this and a couple of other real exchanges I had in the script. All the exchanges were in the same tone. Apparently, the complaints came flooding in and once again there was an official complaint held up. I was accused of taking the ‘piss’ out of the Irish, when for me it was clearly the other way around, they were taking the ‘piss’ out of me. The difference is that today, if it’s even thought something might cause offence, then it will never hit the screen. Having said that, I’m not sure what anyone would find offensive anymore, except from an obvious racist comment. Certainly nothing sexual is going to cause offence as kids learn about everything from transsexuality to masturbation before they get out of their pushchairs.
Since the days of Up The Junction what is acceptable, or what is shocking, has changed beyond recognition. From 1843 to 1968, the Lord Chamberlain’s office was the official censor for virtually all theatre performed in Britain. I still have a copy of Joe Orton’s play Loot with all the Lord Chamberlain’s amendments. Anything that was considered blasphemous, or too sexual had to go, and ‘bloody’ was allowed but not ‘fuck.’ Near the end of Loot, Truscott utters the immortal line: ‘You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty.’ In 1968, shortly after the end of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship powers, I was watching an uncensored version of the play and when Truscott said the infamous line, the audience stood up and applauded. The demise of the Lord Chamberlain also allowed nudity on stage, so musicals like Hair and review shows like Oh Calcutta! played to packed houses.
The 60s moved things on, not only culturally, but also legally. Apart from the Abortion Bill, there was The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 which legalised homosexuality for consenting adults and the 1969 Divorce Reform Act which allowed couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years, or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce. A marriage could also be ended if it had irretrievably broken down, and neither partner no longer had to prove “fault”.
These were massive changes and changes that still shape and inform our society today. I wonder what this decade will bring. I read the other day about the rise of the ‘on-set intimacy coach.’ This a coach that instructs the actors how to behave when recording a ‘sex scene.’ The article goes on to say the ‘on-set intimacy coach’ choreographs the scene, which I would have thought was another way of saying rehearses it, which every director would do anyway. It also says the ‘on-set intimacy coach’ gets the actors ‘to make animal noises, shriek like monkeys, slap against the floor like a seal to get themselves in a sexy filming mode.’ There’s no doubt that since Up The Junction things have changed both legally and culturally, but I’ve got to honest I hadn’t realised sex had changed that much – I think I’ll stick to what I know.