Duff justice

Although The European Union’s meddling in sovereign affairs is often portrayed for comic effect – such as the Euro-sausage in Yes, Prime Minister – it is far more serious and wide ranging for citizens of the Member States.

For British citizens especially, living on an island as we do and attached to our pound, it might seem a little more of an ideological entity. What is now known as the European Union (EU) has enjoyed legal primacy over the parliaments of member states for over 50 years, something which the UK has subscribed to since then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath took us into the European Community in 1973.

The UK has always been known for its “unwritten constitution” which consists of the two principles of parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. The UK has long prided itself on the fact that its sovereign parliament is the supreme law-making body, with its legislation standing as the highest source of English law. The rule of law states that all laws apply equally to everybody, nobody stands above the law and no exception is made, even to those in power. However, these concepts are no longer strictly accurate, particularly since an Italian citizen refused to pay part of his electricity bill, valued at what would now be less than one Euro, back in 1962.

Flaminio Costa was an Italian citizen who owned some shares in the then privately owned electricity company. In 1962 Italy had nationalised the production and distribution of electricity and created the Ente Nazionale per l’Energia Elettrica (ENEL). Costa was opposed to the nationalisation and as the protest he symbolically refused to pay 1,925 Italian Lire (€0.99) of his electricity bill and ENEL duly sued Costa for non-payment. He prepared a written statement of case where he asked the Court for an interpretation of the EEC Treaty provisions, as he believed that nationalisation was contrary to (then EEC) law.

The Italian Government stated that the national law, under which they had nationalised ENEL, was enacted after the incorporation of the EEC Treaty, so that it is the Italian law that should have the priority over it.  According to the opinion given by the Italian Government, application for a preliminary ruling was “absolutely inadmissible” and there were no grounds for raising questions concerning the Treaty.

The European Court of Justice ruled that: “As a subsequent unilateral measure cannot take precedence over Community law, the questions put by the Giudice Conciliatore, Milan, are admissible in so far as they relate in this case to the interpretation of provisions of the EEC Treaty”.

The Court decided that it could not resolve the dispute between Costa and ENEL at the national level, but it could only deal with the questions concerning interpretation of the provisions stated in the EEC Treaty (the Treaty of Rome). It further ruled that the EEC Treaty is not a usual agreement between the Member States, and that the Community (the EU) has its own legal system that they have to follow, which is the consequence of the fact that they gave to it (the EU) part of their own sovereignty, and therefore the Community (EU) Law should also be exercised by the national courts of Member States. Provisions stated in the Treaty cannot be changed by any national law, because every State has to follow exactly the same provisions. If the Member States have the opportunity to change implemented law by releasing new and quite different legislative acts, the Community (EU) Law would be different in the various Member States. That could be contrary to some general principles of the Community (EU) Law.

It continued: “It follows from all these observations that the law stemming from the Treaty, an independent source of law, could not, because of its special and original nature, be overridden by domestic legal provisions, however framed, without being deprived of its character as Community Law and without the legal basis of the Community itself being called into question. The transfer by the States from their domestic legal system to the Community legal system of the rights and obligations arising under the Treaty carries with it a permanent limitation of their sovereign rights, against which a subsequent unilateral act incompatible with the concept of the Community cannot prevail”.

“Member states [of the EU] have limited their sovereign rights…and have thus created a body of law which binds both their nationals and themselves.”

That is why the Court ruled that the Treaty has the primacy over national laws which is also confirmed by the provision that it should be binding as a whole and be directly applied in all the Member States. The national law of the Member States, that came into force later, it stated, should not be contrary to the Community (EU) Law.

In summary, the implications of this case are that where possible, UK courts must give effect to existing legislation in a way that is compatible with convention rights. But if that proves impossible, the most that a higher court can do is to declare the two laws incompatible and let parliament sort it out.

But EU law is different. It has direct effect under the European Communities Act 1972. And that means the EU charter can be used to “disapply” – effectively, to overturn – an act of parliament.

A more recent case involved two Moroccan women who were sacked by diplomatic missions in London. Benkharbouche was a cook at the Sudanese embassy and Janah was on the domestic staff of the Libyan embassy.  They complained variously of unfair dismissal, unpaid wages and breaches of the working time regulations.  The Working Time Directive, from which the UK has a “legally binding” opt-out (the original version was introduced in 1993 under then Conservative Prime Minister John Major)  provides EU workers with the right to a minimum number of holidays each year and a certain amount of rest, means that employees are restricted to a 48 hour working week.

Both their claims were dismissed on the basis that foreign states have immunity from the jurisdiction of the UK courts. Although that immunity is not unlimited, section 4 of the State Immunity Act 1978 gives embassies immunity in respect of staff who are foreign nationals and who are not habitually resident in the UK. So the two women were deprived of the right to bring their claims.

The question for the President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal was whether there was any way round this statute.  Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention gives everyone bringing a civil claim in the UK the right to a fair hearing. But the judge said he could not use the Human Rights Act to change the meaning of the State Immunity Act.

So the barrister representing the two women, turned to EU law. Article 47 of the EU charter also guarantees a fair hearing and an effective remedy.  His clients’ claims for unfair dismissal were covered by the working time directive, which is part of EU law, although other parts of their claim were outside its scope.  Since the charter has direct effect in national law, the question for the appeal tribunal was whether it could disapply national laws that were contrary to the charter in litigation between private parties, as for these purposes they were.

He decided it could, despite what he described as “the uncomfortable recognition that the domestic legislature took care in the Human Rights Act not to allow the courts to disapply any domestic statute which was in conflict with the European convention on human rights”.  He allowed the women’s appeals to the extent that they were covered by the working time regulations, as well as claims by Janah for racial discrimination and harassment.

Recognising that he was opening up a rift between the application of EU law and the use of human rights law, the judge granted the embassies permission to appeal. An appeal would also allow the two women to seek a declaration of incompatibility in respect of their unfair dismissal and minimum wage claims – something his tribunal had no power to grant.

The ruling demonstrates once again that EU law trumps laws passed by parliament. Despite all the attention paid to human rights law, EU law is much more powerful.

And its a decision that may make life more difficult for ministers. The foreign office will have to tell embassies in London that they can’t sack their domestic staff without paying the compensation to which those staff are entitled under EU law.

So what of the agreement secured by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (has anyone spotted a theme yet?) following his piffle-stop tour of Europe?  According to the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, the EU reforms are not legally binding and could be overturned by European judges, as these cases have proved.

Mr Gove said: “The facts are that the European Court of Justice is not bound by this agreement until treaties are changed and we don’t know when that will be”.

He said Mr Cameron was “absolutely right that this is a deal between 28 nations all of whom believe it. But the whole point about the European Court of Justice is that it stands above the nation states, and ultimately it will decide on the basis of the treaties and this deal is not yet in the treaties.”

So, even if David Cameron has secured legally binding reforms – and there are doubts that he has – to ensure the UK parliament retains supremacy over the European Court, as these two cases have proved it really doesn’t mean that much.

Sandwiched between politics and porn

I’m a bit of a telly nerd. Only a bit, mind – I wouldn’t profess to have the in-depth knowledge of someone for whom being an enthusiast is a career, besides which I just don’t have the time. Taking getting to and from there into account I spend more than half my life at work, and more than half of what’s left trying to get some sleep, if the cat has left enough room.

But I’m enough of a nerd to know my way around British television, particularly sitcoms and light entertainment as my mahogany shelves would testify, creaking under the weight of umpteen DVD box sets. I’m also quite into what are known as idents, endcaps and the like – the presentation-y bits before and after television programmes that tell you when they were made and who by. Southern Television is a particular favourite, a regional ITV company until it’s bitter demise in 1981 whose logo was a white star that looked a bit like a ship’s wheel on a blue background, in the days when ITV had a proper federal, regional structure and you could get a warm glow when your own local station had produced something the whole country was watching.

The other reason that my nerdometer perhaps registers less than others is that I have a genuine problem with concentration. There’s probably a support group I could join or benefit I could claim, if only I could be bothered to fill the form in. This means that no matter how much I love a particular television programme, any more than two half hour episodes and my mind starts to drift. I have to draw on every ounce of what limited brainpower I have to get through a single Columbo, anything beyond that and I have to lie down. That probably explains why, during my forty-one years of existence, I have only ever been to the cinema twice: Ghostbusters and Ace Ventura Pet Detective. For me films have to be particularly engaging, and the only two I own on DVD, apart from the Columbo box set, are All The Presidents Men and Falling Down, and only then can I watch them on a rare day off having completely drained my mind beforehand.

Imagine then being asked to watch a film. A whole one. Specifically “The Bungee” on something called Talking Pictures TV. Now, I’m a pretty unadventurous kind of person, and my frequent but familiar journeys through the EPG had just about taken me through the General Entertainment genre and scratched the surface of News. This channel I was being asked to watch was sandwiched somewhere between politics and porn, a bit like a Jacqui Smith expenses claim.

So to the film: Hemel Pike (played by Harry H Corbett who a year later would take on his career-defining role as Harold Steptoe) and his cousin Ronnie (a pre-Frost Report, pre-anything come to think of it, Ronnie Barker) carry goods by canal around the waterways of Britain. It is a declining industry which sees boatmen living on their barges, and in the film Hemel often spends nights with different women en route, and herein lies the plot.

He crashes into a novice mariner, played by Eric Sykes, and both eventually stop at Rickmansworth where Hemel hooks up with Nellie, one of his regulars, who is a barmaid. When she realises she’s not the only port where he unloads his cargo, so to speak, she chases him away, threatening to kill him should they ever meet again.

Hemel and Ronnie continue towards Birmingham, on the way stopping at Leg O’Mutton Lock to meet Christine (Julia Foster), daughter of possesive lock keeper Joe Turnbull (Hugh Griffith) who Hemel fears. In order for them to meet, he hatches a plan whereby Ronnie takes Joe for a few drinks, leaving the coast clear. However it seems that Hemel’s plan is about to be thwarted when Joe says he’s going home, but Ronnie goads him into a drinking contest, leaving Hemel and Christine alone. Christine tries in vain to persuade Hemel to leave the canal and get a job on land so they can marry, but he enjoys the lifestyle too much.

The following morning after Hemel and Ronnie continue to Birmingham, Christine collapses and Joe calls Dr Scott (a young Derek Nimmo in a rare appearance without a dog collar). He tells Joe that Christine is three months pregnant, and Joe jumps to the conclusion that the father must be one of the men who pass through on the canal. In order to identify the culprit he drains the pound and padlocks the lock gates to prevent any barges passing through until the father comes forward. He attaches a bomb to the gates and takes the detonator and his gun to the outside toilet from where he keeps guard. The police are called (two of whom are played by the youthful Brian Wilde and Richard Briers) but to no avail.

Eventually Hemel and Ronnie return from Birmingham, Hemel admits that he is the father and is forced by Joe to pay his way and get a job on land in order to support Christine once they are married. Hemel goes through a number of different jobs, including one smashing glass bottles and another making plastic chandeliers, but deliberately gets the sack from them all, hankering after a return to the water.

After Christine learns from Ronnie that the canal boats are to be withdrawn from service in eighteen months time, she has Hemel’s boats renamed the Hemel and Christine in time for the wedding, and they agree to raise their new family on the waterways until Hemel is forced to return to a job on land.

For me The Bargee started slowly, and my only two problems with the film came very early on. Eric Sykes’ character didn’t really seem to serve any purpose; if it was meant to provide some slapstick relief to a fairly traditional love story then it just didn’t happen. The other is that Nellie seemed to exist purely to establish Hemel as a dirty (old) man, and save for the briefest of mentions at the very end when realising they’d have to return via Rickmansworth, that was the extent of her role.

Setting that aside, I found the film hugely enjoyable, flowing over the mind like the rippling waters of the canal – gentle but absorbing. The beautiful scenery was delightful to see as were early but fleeting performances from stars who’d go on to far greater things in sitcoms that are now universally regarded as the pinnacle of British television.

That, for me at least, is probably the most wonderful thing about Talking Pictures TV: even for those who struggle to watch films, the majority of those that they show will having you elbowing your partner, saying: “Look! LOOK!! Isn’t that, er, you know, him from, er…” and for curiosity alone it’s worth giving the channel a go and you’ll start to enjoy watching films, almost by stealth. I’m now looking forward to watching “The Iron Maiden”, another film that’s been suggested to me. If you take the trouble to plough through their schedule there are gems in there including a huge number of British comedy films starring early incarnations of those who went on to become small screen comedy fixtures.

Talking Pictures TV are quite big on those, too. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that they’re soon to show Take A Letter Mr Jones starting the brilliant John Inman as Graham Jones, “computer and secretary” to Joan Warner (Rula Lenska), a thirty-something executive at Eight Star, a company that seems to have its fingers in just about every possible pie. Add to the mix Miriam Margolyes as a mad Italian housekeeper and the writing of Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe (On The Buses) along with Bryan Izzard as producer and you have all the elements of a truly great sitcom. It is also, however, a sadly underrated sitcom due to it only running for one series, not because it wasn’t any good, but because it was produced by the aforementioned Southern Television which, if you haven’t fallen asleep by know, you will have read earlier disappeared from existence about six weeks after the final episode was aired. It is also often unfairly dismissed as not being that good, probably by those lazily comparing it to John Inman’s more famous vehicle Are You Being Served? (strictly speaking it began as a vehicle for Trevor Bannister but Inman stole the show), but it really does deserve to stand up there amongst the best.

That Beryl Marston! Is another Southern sitcom that’s coming soon starring Julia Mackenzie. And then my particular favourite, Tell Me Another, not a sitcom but a series where various television personalities of the day share anecdotes with Dick Hills, half of Morecambe and Wise’s early writing team, all edited together in the style of The Comedians, meaning you get around half a dozen stars per show. And all of this is possible because Talking Pictures TV are owned by Renown Pictures, who seem to have distribution rights for huge swathes of Southern’s back catalogue.

Although Southern weren’t as prolific a programme maker as their big five ITV contemporaries (ATV, Granada, London Weekend, Thames and Yorkshire) they did provide us with many high quality series. Spearhead, an army drama not unlike the later Soldier Soldier but without the irritating singers, Dick Barton plus many others are peppered throughout the Talking Pictures TV schedule.

Give it a try. Sky channel 343, Freesat 306 or Freeview 81. You’ll suddenly find yourself immersed in a world which you kind of knew existed and were desperate to discover, but didn’t quite know how. Until now.

The NHS: The last bastion of restrictive practices

Ok, she was talking about ITV during its last proper franchise round in 1991, but she may as well have been talking about the NHS today, for it is sick. Militant junior doctors are holding tax paying patients and the Government to ransom with demands for premium pay at evenings and weekends and various other bonus payments when most of us are paid the same regardless of when and how long we work.

For a large variety of factors – predominantly time related, be it winter or weekend – demands on the NHS are notoriously variable, from the drunks who are glassed in a town centre at 2am on a Saturday to pensioners suffering from hypothermia on a snowy January evening, patients require the availability of professional care 24/7. Many recent studies have identified the very times when junior doctors want premium pay as the times when there is the highest demand for them. This would be fine if they were paid according to productivity – but they want the money because those times are “antisocial”, and if they don’t get what they want they’re threatening to take their £250,000 taxpayer funded training somewhere else, be it Scotland, Wales or sunny Australia.  But you need only look at the definition of antisocial, which is “ontrary to the laws and customs of society, in a way that causes annoyance and disapproval in others.”   It would seem that junior doctors’ interpretation of that is society might want an NHS that is there for them at Saturday teatime, and that rather annoys junior doctors who feel they should get an extra thirty per cent in their pay packet for just doing their job and if they don’t, we can all die.

It strikes me, if you’ll forgive the phrase, that two practices which I’ve experienced myself in my varying careers, would solve both problems.

In some workplaces, a system of annualised hours can be beneficial for both employers and employees. While I was working at an engineering firm in Sheffield work became scarce. The thing was, though, the forward order book was pretty healthy with large contracts in the pipeline, but in the short term there was little to do. This is typical in the manufacturing industry but highlights fluctuations in demand that can befall any organisation.  In order to stave off redundancy a system of annualised hours was introduced.

Such a system sees employees work a certain number of hours over the whole year, but with a certain degree of flexibility about when those hours are worked.  Normally, a period of regular hours or shifts forms the core of the arrangement, with the remaining time left unallocated and used on an “as needed” basis.  Sometimes, the employee is paid in advance for the unallocated time, and may be called upon at short notice, perhaps to cover colleagues who are sick or on holiday, or according to a surge in demand.

Annualised hours are most often used for shift workers, but in theory they can be applied to any employee.  They are most useful when dealing with big variations in demand throughout the year, and can help reduce overall working hours and overtime. ACAS, the arbitration service involved in the current junior doctors’ dispute suggests that “organisations that need to run twenty four hours a day all year, such as hospitals and the emergency services, can also find this arrangement beneficial.”  Maybe they ought to have a nice word with the British Medical Association.

On the plus side, the system gives managers greater control over working patterns, with more potential to maximise efficiency. Employees may also benefit from longer and more regular breaks, and higher basic pay that’s received in even sums as a salary. But here’s the problem: when employees are currently enjoying high overtime earnings, annualised hours may be a disadvantage, which would have the effect of removing the cherry from the icing on the cake.

However, under most annual hours systems, overtime is removed and consolidated into basic pay. Employees may be required to work extra hours at short notice, which may disrupt planned leisure time, and be expected to work longer hours seasonally perhaps, in the case of the NHS, more so during the winter.  But if the junior doctors decide they’re really not happy and do take their talents abroad, UK taxpayers – who have invested a quarter of a million pounds per junior doctor in training – will lose out.  Happily, there is a solution.

When I first trained to become a bus driver – we are trained, unbelievably – I was trained by one of the largest multinationals that operate in the UK.  I signed something called a training bond, and here’s how it worked:

The main concept – where employees either stay for an agreed amount of time, or the employer agrees to pay for a percentage of an employee’s training costs – seems reasonable, as since employees are the ones who will benefit in the long run, they should bear the cost of their own education.  Doctors are funded by the taxpayer to get the skills that allow them to work in their chosen field.  The training bond is an amount the employee agrees to pay back should they decide to leave the company before a specific time.  Of course, the time an employee is required to stay with the company after training needs to be realistic as well.  A ten year term might seem unrealistic, while anything up to five years minimum seems fair.  Having the employee pay back costs on a pro-rata basis is also common practice in other industries.  The cost of the training is divided by the number of months you require the employee to stay as a minimum, and therefore bond debt would be reduced by that amount or a percentage of that amount for each month of completed service.

Indeed, I myself signed a training bond with a company, was “tapped up” by an old friend who I went to work for, and duly repaid about 25% of the cost of my training.  I understood that from the outset, and there were no hard feelings either way.

If employers use this type of formula, employees should not be reluctant to sign training bonds as these types of contracts are mutually beneficial: the employer has a trained workforce that they can count on for a minimum period, and the employee has an upgraded skill-set and an employment commitment from the NHS.  This, combined with annualised hours, guarantees training, work and pay for junior doctors giving them real security.

Implementing these two simple and commonplace ideas would ensure that junior doctors are properly trained and can be called upon by their taxpaying patients whenever they’re needed.  This is not about the Government having some ideological ccircle jerk over privatising the NHS.  It is about security for junior doctors and patients alike, with the knowledge that fairly paid staff funded by equally hardworking taxpayers are available to treat them according to demand.  In short, the NHS needs to grow up and behave as a service for the nation’s health, rather than a gravy train for junior doctors.

Equality isn’t fair, love

Equality. I’m all in favour of it, whether someone is black, white, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, tall, short, the feckless… let’s draw the line there. Television, for example, falls over itself to be diverse, with unspoken quotas on panel shows for example, giving us a blend of talents from differing genders and ethnic backgrounds and, as a consequence, the funny and the unfunny. Shappi Khorsandi, for instance, is a woman from Iran. She mentions this quite a lot when she appears on television, just in case you couldn’t tell. She isn’t particularly entertaining or hilarious, but there for balance nonetheless.

Equality comes at a price. You have to sacrifice some degree of ability and effort in order to satisfy an artificial and unnecessary need for the different – imagine a waif-like female hacking coal out of the ground, you know the productivity is going to be virtually non-existent, but cell GG27 on the diversity spreadsheet has got a little tick, so that’s all right then – and as a result productivity is, by and large, compromised.

Last summer the sickeningly liberal Prime Minister David Cameron set out to “end the gender pay gap in a generation”, in spite of the fact that the show latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) women between the ages of 22 and 39 earn more on average than their male counterparts. And it doesn’t stop there. Evidence shows that when men and women follow the same career path in the UK, women tend to out-earn and out-perform men.

Nicky Morgan, the Equalities Minister, said: “We’ve seen the best employers make ground-breaking strides in tackling gender inequality. But the job won’t be complete until we see the talents of women and men recognised equally and fairly in every workplace.

“That’s why I am announcing a raft of measures to support women in their careers, from the classroom to the boardroom, leaving nowhere for gender inequality to hide.

“At the same time, I’m calling on women across Britain to use their position as employees and consumers to demand more from businesses, ensuring their talents are given the recognition and reward they deserve.”

This alleged gap that the Prime Minister refers to is actually indicative of personal lifestyle decisions, not employer discrimination. While women who choose to stay on rigorous career paths usually find themselves rewarded, many women choose to take more flexible jobs and/or years out of work to focus on, for example, raising a family. This, of course, results in a significant change in working hours, as well as changes to responsibilities and/or roles at work – forced upon the employer in an effort to accommodate a new mother rather than discriminate against her – which would, as you might expect, have an impact on one’s salary.  This also tends to unfairly impact on other work colleagues who tend to have to work a greater proportion of school and bank holidays.  Carolyn Fairbain, the (female) director-general of the CBI, agrees:

“League tables should not be used to name and shame firms, as data will only be able to present a partial picture, particularly given factors such as the mix of part-time and full working and sectoral differences.  Where reporting can be useful is as a prompt for companies to ask the right questions about how they can eradicate the gender pay gap.”

Perhaps the most famous “inequality” in recent years has been that of the prize money on offer at the final of the Wimbledon tennis championship. Back in 2002 then Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell (whose husband, solicitor David Mills, was later jailed for four and a half years for accepting a bribe from the experts expert on women and money, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) called on Wimbledon to join the “modern world” and reward women players the same amount of prize money as their male counterparts.

Ms Jowell, who was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the then Labour government (wonder if there’ll ever be another?) urged the All England Club (AEC) to bridge the then £39,000 gap between the top prize for the winners of the men and women’s singles titles.

“We are long past the time where it’s acceptable for there to be discrimination between the rewards for men and women. Men and women should compete on equal terms and be rewarded on equal terms whether it be on the tennis court, the shop floor, in the office, running track or anywhere else.”

Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary at the time, accused the AEC of setting a bad example to the rest of society with its division of cash prizes. She said it was “simply wrong” that the winner of the men’s singles should walk off with £525,000, while the women’s champion collected only £486,000.

“Wimbledon seems to have got stuck several decades back in the last century, when it was just taken for granted that women were the junior partners to men, that they were rewarded less and that their work was less valuable than men’s work.

“We don’t accept that in law for employees. We challenge it where we find it.  It’s a pity that Wimbledon – an organisation that holds a major position in our national life – hasn’t caught up.”

Well Wimbledon did eventually “catch up”. Both men and women champions now get a clitoris-moistening £1,850,000 prize. But where’s the equality? Men play the best of 5 sets while women play the best of just 3 – 40% less work for the same reward. women’s tennis that is. Liz Reason, writing in the Oxford Mail:

“Women, who run marathons and triathlons, play football and cricket, clearly have the strength and stamina for five sets, so why don’t they play them?  Contrast a match between [two grunting] women on Centre Court – lasting barely an hour – with the thrilling 2014 four-hour final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Had that stopped at three sets, Djokovic might still have won – the last set would certainly have been longer and played till one of them got head by two games. But we would have missed out on an exciting match that ultimately rewarded Djokovic for his consistency and stamina.

“The fact is that women’s tennis is often not of the quality of men’s tennis. Going to five sets would help. It would mean that women would have to get fitter to endure longer hours on court, would have to find a variety of strategies for winning, would have to work to deliver consistency, and then they would deserve the equal pay that they get.”

And that is the crux of the problem. In order to truly close the alleged gender pay gap and to deliver genuine equality for all, productivity has to be quantifiable and that is how people should be rewarded, be it through pay or prize money.  And once companies and competition organisers are able to put such a system in place, we can fire the starting gun on the great gender pay race. And may the best man – or woman – win.

Having to work on a Saturday afternoon? That’s life…

Earlier today I drove past protesting junior doctors opposite Sheffield Children’s Hospital holding placards saying how tired they were (well go to bed then), how underpaid they all were (13.5% pay rise on the table taking potential earnings up to £70,000) and how many hours they work (apparently working after 5pm is antisocial).

They also wanted passing motorists to honk their horns in support. But that would have been in breach of Rule 112 of the Highway Code as enforced by the 1988 Road Traffic Act and would have put lives at risk. So I didn’t.

I was slightly puzzled although more annoyed that, in spite of their claims to be striking in the interests of the safety of patients, they were blocking the pavement while shouting their incomprehensible nonsense at the top of their union-sponsored voices, while simultaneously jabbing their placards up and down in a kind of half-arsed wanking motion, scaring small children shitless – as if going into hospital wasn’t nerve wracking enough – and forcing them and their parents to walk into oncoming traffic on the busy A57 coming out of the fourth largest city in England.

Back in the real world I drive buses.  Those who have experienced this would probably say I don’t do it particularly well but nevertheless I am paid £8.91 per hour, regardless of what day of the week it is and what time of day I work.  I regularly work significantly more than 60 hours per week including evenings and weekends and when everything is rotted up I take home about £420 per week, after giving a third of the gross to the Government, of which 17p would go to Trident’s replacement (well worth it), and around £1.60 to the EU which, having banned wonky vegetables, are singularly responsible for the demise of That’s Life and, thankfully, the fucking irritating Doc Cox.

Speaking of irritating Docs, I suspect I do my job for the same reasons as many junior doctors. Of course it’s for the money – let’s be honest, the bills wouldn’t get paid otherwise and we all want to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle without necessarily wanting to be extravagant. But also, surely, because each and every day we, in our very different ways, provide a service which is largely appreciated. We don’t get it right all of the time, we all get tired and frustrated, but that’s life. I’ve never been on strike or off sick, I do my job to the best of my ability then go home.  I enjoy a quiet life.

The thing is, the striking junior doctors claim to be saving the NHS, but how many patients lives have they put at risk today?  3,000 operations have been cancelled or postponed as a direct result of industrial action, 7,000 in total to date with more set to follow.  It’s a bit like that thing you did at primary school, where you were told there were a dozen people in a hot air balloon and you had to lose some so the rest could survive. Except nobody is forcing the junior doctors to go on strike.

The key sticking point appears to be payments for working Saturdays. The British Medical Association (BMA) wants the whole day to attract an “unsociable hours premium”, but the Government says the hours between 7am and 5pm should be paid at the basic rate.  Like the rest of us. The BMA proposed accepting around half of the 13.5% basic pay rise (that’s THIRTEEN AND A HALF PER CENT) offered by the government in return for retaining extra payments (about £7,000) for working Saturdays.  Jesus.  Based on my current hourly rate, in a typical working week I’d be about £200 better off, and if such a whopping pay rise is, as the bleeding hearts claim, going to destroy the NHS then perhaps it’s not worth saving.

It’s perhaps worth noting here that the proportion of the total salary bill for junior doctors which would pay for the increase alone is almost exactly half of the entire mental health budget (currently just 1.4% of total NHS spending), so some people seem to have, shall we say, a skewed sense of priorities.

The Government says it wants to make these changes – which would be cost neutral so that the extra £8 billion they’re investing into the NHS would go directly to caring for patients –  to make it easier for hospitals to roster junior doctors at the weekend to address evidence of higher mortality among patients admitted Friday to Monday which, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal in September 2015 increases by up to 15 per cent.

Could any of the supporters of the strikes and other bleeding hearts honestly say they’d turn down such an offer?  Back in the day at the tender age of 19, I was staff representative (NOT union rep – can’t abide unions, bunch of trouble causers) for the IT and Purchasing departments at the fabulous Markham and Company of Chesterfield, and was able to secure the overwhelming majority of colleagues’ wishes not by strikes or walkouts or childish militant behaviour, but by building coalitions with others, differentiating the important and achievable from the outrageous and unrealistic.  And everybody was happy.  It was a cracking firm to work for (we built the machines that dug the Channel Tunnel, you know which, come to think of it, although was a terrific feat of engineering, the consequences have become catastrophic, allowing a [insert appropriate collective term here] of migrants virtually unrestricted entry into the UK) with a friendly atmosphere, devoid of back stabbing and selfishness, everybody pulling together for the common good   Not unlike my current employer which just goes to show that if you put in the effort and are alway prepared to listen, others will too.

What I can’t understand is how exactly, as the BMA claim, such a proposal would put patients’ lives at risk. Is it because junior doctors would be a bit miffed because they wouldn’t get an extra SEVEN GRAND for working after 5pm on a Saturday, and so would deliberately botch operations to get their own back at the nasty Tory Government?  Grow up.

The starting salary for a junior doctor is currently just under £23,000 a year, but with extra payments for things such as unsociable hours, this can quite easily top £30,000. Junior doctors at the top end of the scale can earn in excess of £70,000.

I get tired most days.  Driving a bus while listening to passengers witter on about the last person to get off (and wonder if they’ll ever be seen again other than in the obituaries column of the Derbyshire Times) and having to think for every other retarded arsehole motorist in five hour spells with just the occasional few minutes layover is tiring, and one slip of the steering wheel – like a slip of the tired doctor’s scalpel – could prove fatal.  The difference is the doctor would just kill his one patient; I could kill a bus load.  Surely in any other occupation you’d kill for those terms doing a job you liked, so what on Earth makes junior doctors think they’re so special?

Thr similarities between the NHS and the once thriving coal industry is stark.  There was an insatiable demand for coal in the UK, a demand privately owned and run organisations would be grateful for.  But because it had a unionised workforce for whom striking was a sick habit, satisfying that demand became so expensive it simply wasn’t economic – or in the country’s interests – to artificially prop up the mines, and so more efficient alternatives became commonplace and gradually (and sadly) our mines closed.

After their day in the fresh air and on the telly he junior doctors will return to work and catch up on the backlog of work they’ve created – and doubtless moan about that, too.  But for the many thousands of bleeding hearts – surgery is not the answer.

“Can I have a return to common sense, please?”

In 1957 then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the country they’ve “never had it so good”. Fifty years later slack-jawed paranoid lunatic Gordon Brown, the former Chancellor-cum-PM, with all the economic acumen of a rent boy, his one good eye looking nervously over his shoulder for any Blairite blades that might be hurtling his way leaving him blind to the impending economic disaster, introduced the bloated electioneering vanity project known as The Concessionary Bus Travel Act, rimming the wrinklies to the tune of £1.1 billion per year courtesy of hardworking taxpayers which, needless to say, our country couldn’t afford as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. It provided (and still provides) unlimited free bus travel for pensioners on services in England (there are similar schemes in Scotland and Wales); bus companies are in turn paid a “contribution” towards the lost fare revenue which Brown promised would see them “no worse or better off”.

As funding to local authorities is being cut, evening and Sunday services throughout the country and all day rural provision are under threat. For example, last week Derbyshire County Council (DCC) – local authority to the small, family run bus company for which I work – announced proposals to reduce the support for bus services that are not commercially viable (defined as being socially necessary but not profitable) from £5.4 million to zero. That is to say all funding for bus services, except for school buses for which they have a statutory obligation to provide, will disappear. DCC are looking to bus operators to run underused services on a commercial basis – likely at a loss, or they will disappear. So, they will largely disappear.

Peter Box, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said councils were finding it “impossible” to continue to make up a funding shortfall for the scheme.

“The way the concessionary travel scheme is funded by Whitehall has long been unfit for purpose and has not kept up with growing demand and cost. Unless the Government commits to fully funding concessionary fares, vital bus services that support the most vulnerable in our society will continue to come under pressure.” Amen to that.

As a bus driver, day after day I see the abuse of the free bus pass scheme. For example, one lady travelled on three separate services around the Derbyshire countryside, a total of 43.2 miles, to go home – which was just 1.8 miles from her starting point. This week, 4 pensioners boarded my bus which runs a particular route just once a day but is over 30 miles and takes almost two hours because it was a “nicer run” than the direct service that was stood in front of me which runs every half an hour, and is half the time and distance. And this is commonplace. A few years ago there was a debate on rehabilitated coke-fiend Richard Bacon’s BBC Radio Five Live show on which I explained that this kind of thing was happening, neither he or his guest David Quantick believed it.

Bus companies are obliged to accept free passes between 9.30am and 11pm weekdays, and all day weekends and Bank Holidays. There are 9.8 million of these free passes currently in circulation, each of which performed 102 journeys on average in the financial year ending March 2015. Now, given the cost of the scheme, that means operators are paid a CONTRIBUTION (that’s a CONTRIBUTION, not subsidy) of £1.10 towards the cost of each journey. As the average single fare in England is £2.01 (all based on Department for Transport figures), and in the same period a third of Concessionary journeys were “generated” (that is to say had they not been free they wouldn’t have taken place), bus operators lost over £303 million that year alone, effectively in unpaid fares. This used to be called “theft”.

It is argued that free bus passes encourage pensioners to be more physically active and socially integrated. In a study performed by The Imperial College London and published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers analysed data on the travel habits of 16,900 people over a four year period.

Over this period the percentage of pensioners with a free bus pass increased from 56.8% to 74.7% – a jump of around a third – in line with the DfT’s own figures – while over the same period there was an increase in the percentage of bus pass holders walking three or more times a week. The study also found that these people were more likely to undertake any “active travel” – defined as walking, cycling or using public transport.

Sophie Coronini-Cronberg, who led the study from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said the public health benefits of the scheme should be taken in to consideration when deciding its future.

“Although the costs of the scheme are considerable, it may offer value for money as it seems to promote physical activity among older people, thereby helping to reduce inactivity-related mortality and morbidity.”

“It enables a huge glut of the population to be active. It also supports economic growth, particularly as grandparents are freeing up mothers to go back to work. They use them to take grandchildren to museums and to and from school.”

Former councillor Richard Worrall, from Walsall, has made several long-distance trips on his pass and argues that pensioners who travel extensively are not abusing the system.

“On your way you’re spending money on B&Bs, food and drink and putting money into the local economy. So when people say we don’t like retired tourists gallivanting on the bus pass for free, they ought to think again. What they aren’t spending on local buses, they’re spending in the local shops.” So that’s alright then.

He and several friends, reported The Guardian, armed with a hefty A-Z and four paper bus maps, pointlessly and at tremendous expense to the taxpayer and at a roughly equal loss to the bus companies who fell victim, set out to travel every bus route in London from end to end. They completed 549 journeys within 12 months just because, er, they could.

You think that’s bad? The best free bus journey in Britain is Lancaster to Keswick via Windermere Ambleside and Grasmere on the 555 in the Lake District, according to another freeloading sponger, retired engineer Steve Gibbs, 74. He completed a 2,000-mile round trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats, entirely on local bus services, armed with his bus pass and a total absence of shame, starting with the 1A bus from Land’s End to Penzance and returning 13 days later.

But why is it the responsibility of private companies – especially small, family-run concerns such as the bus firm for which I work – to subsidise public health? Why should bus companies bail out other struggling businesses? Why don’t the B&Bs that the former Councillor enjoys give him and his ilk a free warm, hearty meal? Why aren’t the food and drink retailers of the local economy obliged to provide unlimited free fruit and vegetables then be reimbursed just half the cost? Or why not provide free energy so pensioners can keep warm, then expect the energy providers to stand half the cost? Oldies would be shovelling strawberries between their dentures with their thermostat set to “tropical” at the drop of a loose fart. Such schemes would be abused – just as the free bus pass is now. And when something is abused in this way provision becomes unsustainable, either through the inability to supply or due to it simply being uneconomic.

Martin Griffiths, Chief Executive of Stagecoach, agrees: “I won’t provide a service and not get properly paid for it. You would not go to Tesco and say to them – great idea, we’re going to let OAPs have free food. They cannot stand up there and be dishonest with people and say we’re going to have a scheme but not fund it properly. That punishes people who do pay, whether it’s full-fare paying adults or the children or young adults who I want to be the passengers of the future. Are there some passengers who board our buses who could probably afford to pay? Of course they could. I want to know bus services are going to be protected. They have to decide what is the prioritisation.”

It is often argued that bus companies wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the free bus pass. Er, wrong. Do the maths – two-thirds of journeys would have been made anyway generating twice the revenue per passenger, net gain of a third. And that other one – “Well, the bus is running anyway so why shouldn’t pensioners be able catch it for free?” Ok, and then on that same logic since there’s electricity and gas already running into your house why not simply bypass that inconvenient meter thing that someone had the temerity to install – you know, that monitors what you use so it can be paid for – and enjoy unlimited free energy? What’s the difference between a meter and a bus ticket machine?

In the 1970s a scheme was introduced where pensioners would be given a number of tokens which were exchanged for free bus journeys. This meant that bus rides were chosen prudently and according to necessity, not because they were abundant.

And that is why bus services are being cut. In 2010 new Chancellor George Osborne asked the public for ideas. I submitted one which proposed that pensioners be allocated one free return journey per day by the most direct route to their nearest suitably equipped town (which, say, has a hospital, GP, dentist, library and a big-five supermarket), and any unnecessary journeys would be charged at the normal fare. Economically sustainable while providing socially necessary free bus travel. Not even a reply.

So, dear pensioner, when you start moaning that your buses are disappearing, just think back: would you have made all of those bus journeys around the countryside if you’d had to pay for them? Because a third of you wouldn’t have, and soon you won’t even be able to nip to the shop on a Sunday or go to the bingo of an evening. And if you live in a rural village you’re set to be isolated, cut off from the real world whose hard earned taxes you frittered away while munching your sandwiches and gazing out of the bus window. And you’ve only got yourselves to blame.

Are You Being Perved?

This week feminists have been foaming at the mouth and getting their claws into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) claiming that using, amongst others, “rabid” as an example for the use of the word “feminist” is mysoginystic, and that non-gender specific words such as “doctor” and “teacher” should be more commonplace. The implication is that institutions such as the OED are inherently sexist, and are representative of a wider problem throughout society.

The same breed of talking heads spent last Christmas invading our television screens through a cornucopia of clip shows crowing about how sexist sitcoms of the 1970s were, and that now everything is rosy in the garden (tended, no doubt, by a man who doesn’t mind getting his fingernails dirty). So, was television in the past demeaning to women and if so, have things really improved?

Whenever you think of the traditional British sitcom, you probably picture a suburban family, everything prim and proper, semi-detached house, man goes to work, wife looks after the house. You know, the Terry and June model.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin had a similar setup. Loosely based on writer David Nobbs’ novel The Death of Reginald Perrin, it was a melancholic, at times surreal sitcom that concerned the titular character (played to perfection by Leonard Rossiter) who had faked his own death (in precisely the same manner as did the then Postmaster General, John Stonehouse). Perrin was overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of his life, the corporate culture he was immersed in at Sunshine Desserts – his gravestone read: “Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn’t know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein” – and his dull, irritatingly boring family life. Central to this was his wife Elizabeth, played by Pauline Collins. She prepared the meals, cleaned the house, and even dutifully handed her husband his briefcase and umbrella every morning before he set off to work, only to always arrive 11 minutes late due to feminist protestors on the line at Hampton Wick, or something. All very traditional, very 1970s, very sexist you might say. But the point of the role of Elizabeth was merely to serve as an extreme contrast to Perrin. This was such a strong, character driven comedy that Perrin’s sense of the absurd, the extraordinary, the unconventional needed Elizabeth to be exactly what viewers would expect – ordinary and conventional – in order to emphasise Perrin’s skewed view of life. It would be fair to observe that the central female character in this particular comedy did indeed conform to a perceived stereotype, that of the stay at home housewife who tended the house and her husband, but that would – perhaps deliberately – miss the point. Elizabeth existed as a foil to allow Perrin’s quirks and foibles to blossom, rather than as a doting spouse.

At around the same time The Good Life was born. It too featured a middle class husband and wife: Jerry Leadbetter (Paul Eddington) had a middle management job, earned well and provided for Margot (Penelope Keith) who looked after him. All very cosy and predictable one might think. But again the wonderful character of Margot, who seemed to have undergone the same sense of humour bypass as today’s not even worthy but definitely dull Guardianistas, cut down any Council official or tradesman with a withering swipe of her tongue: “I am the silent majority!” She wasn’t dowdy or downtrodden – she certainly wore the metaphorical trousers chez Leadbetter – and although she was a housewife, she was a social climber, had aspirations – even if only to be the chair of the Music Society. As with Elizabeth in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Margot’s character served as a contrast, this time to neighbours Tom and Barbara Good (Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal), who saw the funny side of everything and nothing, and who dropped out of their middle class comfort zone in much the same way as Reggie Perrin would go on to do, to become self-sufficient with the appropriate hilarious consequences.

Sitcoms of the 1970s had a huge breadth of female characters, though many were played as gossipy and hen-pecking, a sort of aggressive Cissie and Ada. Lily Briggs (Queenie Watts) in Romany Jones and Yus, My Dear was a forceful woman, always suspicious of the layabout brother-in-law Benny (James Beck) and forever badgering her husband Wally (Arthur Mullard) who would seek to help him out. Another in a similar vein was Mildred Roper played by the delightful Yootha Joyce. Perhaps better known from George and Mildred (starring Brian Murphy as long-suffering husband George), the character first appeared in Man About The House as landlady to two attractive young females (Paula Wilcox and Sally Thomsett) and Richard O’Sullivan. While clearly ruling the roost with a venomous “George!” who she would belittle in front of visitors, she could show a softer side and had an enthusiastic obsession with sex, often dropping less than subtle hints for “an early night”. Of course, had the roles been reversed such behaviour would have had feminist protestors choking on their dildos.

A torrent of drivel on this subject recently came courtesy of Helen Mirren – the pretentious pseudo-royal knicker-wetter who once said of herself “had big tits” – during an interview sympathetically covered by another woman doing it for herself, Yvonne Roberts of The Observer:

“The connection between Helen Mirren, strong, fearless, embracing life with ever greater vigour… and Mary Elizabeth Jennifer Rachel Abergavenny Slocombe, possibly born in the 1920s [and definitely sourced from Wikipedia], once employed as a senior member of staff in the Grace Brothers department store, may not be obvious. However, the historic sitcom character, notoriously single but for the cat referred to routinely as ‘my pussy’, could easily act as chief witness in Mirren’s accusation that the sexism of the 1970s was ‘horrible'”.

“‘It was far from unusual, and gave Jimmy Savile his cover. That decade, after the sexual revolution but before feminism, was perilous for women,’ Mirren said. ‘Men saw that as a sort of “Oh fantastic! We can fuck anything, however we like, whenever we like. They’re up for grabs, boys!”'”

If we are to believe Mirren’s desperate and rather sickening inference that sitcoms such as Are You Being Served? were responsible for the sexual abuse of young children by Savile, then their viewers – millions of them – were complicit. Maybe the officers of Operation Yewtree should trawl Amazon’s order book and arrest anyone perverted enough to have bought any offending box sets (guilty as charged – where’re the handcuffs?)

Mirren’s hypocrisy is also quite staggering. In an interview with GQ magazine in 2008 she pontificated on the subject of rape, something which Savile was alleged to have committed some 31 times: “I don’t think [a woman] can have that man into court under those circumstances. I guess it is one of the subtle parts of the men/women relationship that has to be negotiated and worked out between them. It’s such a tricky area, isn’t it? Especially if there is no violence, if a woman ends up in a man’s bedroom with her clothes off. Look at Mike Tyson – I don’t think he was a rapist.”

Back to The Observer article and Yvonne Roberts: “Mrs Slocombe, played by Mollie Sugden, appeared in the popular BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? It encapsulated the weird whirlpool of changing social attitudes, challenges to male power and female doubts about the value of sexual liberation that failed to deliver independence, freedom from domesticity or a route to female desire.”

“Slocombe, a divorcee with wigs of changing hues, was portrayed as being sex-mad but unthreatening to men because she was over 40, and therefore obviously out of action. Each week, she was ridiculed for her age, appearance, weight and love of her ‘pussy’.” Let’s just quickly make something clear: Roberts, bless her, has obviously never seen the show, for she would have known that at no point throughout it’s thirteen year run was her pussy (or cat) ever referred to by anyone other than Mrs Slocombe herself; it was merely a device for glorious double entendre each week, and very bloody funny they were too.

And on she goes: “On the Buses featured the shortsighted, less than glamorous Olive, who was the butt of all the ‘face like a back of a bus’ jokes. It was an era of dim dolly birds and ‘real’ blokes.”

Now On The Buses is often cited as being the worst protagonist for sexism, with characters Stan (Reg Varney) and Jack (Bob Grant) eyeing up the female Luxton and District conductors, with the occasional lingering camera shot on their breasts or backsides to lustfully illustrate the point. I happen to be a bus driver, and although females aren’t exactly my area of expertise, I do know colleagues past and present behave in this way. In that sense writers Ronalds Wolfe and Chesney have penned an accurately observed sitcom. It is rather disingenuous for Roberts to describe Olive’s character as “less than glamorous” – if that comment had been made by a man he’d have been hung by his testicles. That well-known chauvinistic tome the OED informs us that the word “situation” is derived from the Medieval Latin word “situare” meaning “to place”. All sitcoms are placed in a location and time (the “sit-” bit); On The Buses‘ location was a bus depot, it’s time: the 1970s. Get over it.

The overwhelming majority of sitcoms and their characters are based on the experiences or observations of their writers, sanitised or exaggerated possibly but always with their fair share of caricatures so that the audience can clearly identify the roles of each character and what should be expected of them. It is unlikely that a sitcom billed in the Radio Times as being about accountants struggle to balance the books with not so hilarious consequences would sell the advertising or justify a licence fee in anywhere near the same way as Are You Being Served? or On The Buses did. But these were exactly the kind of programmes John Logie Baird had in mind when he hot-footed it down to the patent office, often ridiculed by critics but enjoyed in their millions.

Female sitcom characters from the 1970s can largely be split into two categories: the understated to allow main characters the freedom to shine, the overstated to caricature identifiable traits. But how were these characters treated by others?

Till Death Us Do Part, the Johnny Speight masterpiece, satirised – amongst many bigoted traits – that of the selfish, mysoginystic, Victorian-esque head of the household brilliantly, constantly claiming that the patently ridiculous and unreasonable “stands to reason”. Probably the best example was featured in series four when they were about to embark on a holiday to Bournemouth. Here’s a couple of minutes of dialogue where Alf (Warren Mitchell) is sat reading the paper, wife Else (Dandy Nichols) is ironing a pair of his long johns and complains about how dirty they are while daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) and her husband Mike (Anthony Booth) looked on:

Alf: “Innit marvellous. You can’t have a proper discussion with her without it getting personal. I mean you would think that civilised people – you’d think that we’d be able to talk without picking holes in each other. That’s your bloody women’s lib for you, that is. No, I mean in the old days women got married, for better or worse and bloody grateful they was not to be left on the shelf. I mean when I married her (pointing to Else) she was lucky to get me, and she knew it, and she was bloody thankful (Else looks gobsmacked). Don’t stand there with your bloody mouth open – (points to the television) – it’s that thing I blame it on, that bloody telly there, that’s the cause. Before that came into the house that bloody telly she knew nothing. She was ignorant, she was, and better for it. That’s what’s unsettled her that bloody telly, sitting in front of that all day, stuffing her head full of nonsense.”

Rita: “If men like you had their way they’d have women as lackeys, slaves to wait on men hand and foot. Clean the house, make the beds, cook their meals, wash their shirts.”

Alf: “What do you expect them to do? Sit around all day doing nothing? That is a women’s work, to look after their man and keep his house and do for him.”

Else: (disgusted) “Do for him.”

Alf: “That’s what they married for in the first place isn’t it?”

Rita: “Unpaid skivvy.”

Alf: “What are you talking about unpaid? She gets her housekeeping doesn’t she?”

Rita: “Not every woman was born to be a drudge.”

Alf: “Everybody has got to do a job of work and it just so happens that a woman’s work is in the home.”

Rita: “And not very woman wants to be a slave to some bloody man.”

Alf: “It’s not always a question of what they want, my dear, you see. I mean women are different to men. It’s your nature isn’t it? God, he made them different.”

Rita: “Not different. No, not different.”

Alf: “No amount of arguing is going to turn a cabbage into a steak, is it? He – God put women here just for man didn’t he?”

Rita: “What?”

Alf: “It’s in your bible, your Garden of Eden. All he done there, see, is made Adam, see, and then realised in his infinite wisdom that man couldn’t be expected to run the Garden of Eden all on his own so he – God, that is – took a rib and made Eve so she could clean for him and wash up, look after Adam’s house for him. So you see, if it hadn’t have been for man and man’s need for home help, woman wouldn’t’ve been born in the first place.”

It was about at the point where Alf started going all religious (though really it should have been a long, long time before) that anyone with the tiniest vestige of common sense should have realised that Speight was satirising, through Alf, those who hold such views in a similar way as he’d done many times before with race. Speight was doing spoof television thirty years before the likes of Brass Eye, and it could be argued that his targets were exactly the same – the wilfully ignorant or just plain stupid: the mysoginyst, looking for an easy laugh or the rabid feminist (I looked it up), aching to be offended – and he was able to satisfy these two diametrically opposing extremes of his audience by pitching his character smack bang in the middle. Indeed, like Chris Morris (“Cake is a made up drug”), Speight left enough clues (“She was ignorant, she was, and better for it. That’s what’s unsettled her that bloody telly, sitting in front of that all day, stuffing her head full of nonsense”), but those who pleasure themselves by taking Alf’s rants as red for whatever reason are likely to be found wielding a clenched fist and sticking it wherever makes them ejaculate.

Contrary to popular belief, sitcoms of the seventies were not responsible for perpetuating sexism throughout society, but were merely a caricatured reflection of it. Writers developed scripts and ideas according to what people knew and wanted, rather than alienate them. As Dr Samuel Johnson put it: “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” So what of television nowadays – will women ever be satisfied?

Sexism is a label lazily applied to that which is inoffensive and familiar to those who lived in times depicted by the sitcom, but new to those who didn’t, such as The Observer’s Yvonne Roberts and far too many others. Last week The Independent reported on a study of 500 hours of television, conducted by the Communication Research Group and commissioned by Channel 4, relating to diversity and sexism in particular. When terms like “diversity”, “The Independent” and “Channel 4” appear in the same sentence it is usually wise to have copious amounts of salt to hand, or in Helen Mirren’s case, cocaine. The survey found that sexism “occurred most frequently in comedy” and that women are “five times more likely to suffer sexism on-screen than men.

The buzz word now appears to be “objectification”; examples included a game-show presenter who told a contestant: “Darling, don’t you look beautiful? They’re all at home thinking ‘she’s a bit of all right’. You look gorgeous!” whilst simultaneously citing another instance of objectification where “victim” Aidan Turner was showing his “rippling muscles” while scything in Poldark. However, it seemed that those who voted in the National Television Awards weren’t in the least bit offended, choosing the scene as their televisual moment of the past year.

Back to that survey now and Oona King, failed politician (defeated as a Labour MP by George Galloway and losing the London Mayoral nomination to Ken Livingstone) and now Head of Diversity at Channel 4 (if the name doesn’t ring any bells hit Google then “images” and see if you can work out for yourself how Oona was the successful candidate), said: “Sexist objectification of male actors in dramas, witnessed by the trend for leading men to flaunt their torsos in topless scenes, was a new factor. There is a growing amount of sexual objectification of men but you’ve got to remember the context in which that takes place. When a man does a scene like that it doesn’t put him in a box they can’t get out of. You find often that when a woman comes across like that then she is labelled – ‘she’s got her kit off, she’s that type of woman’. So overall the increasing objectification we have, partly because of our celebrity culture, impacts women worse than men.”

Smells a bit fishy. For example Colin Firth, probably best known for playing Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, is often the go-to name when women, usually of a certain age, talk about attractive male television personalities, though the personality bit is generally ignored. However, for me having owned a small bus company back in the day, Firth will only ever be remembered for playing the title role in Donovan Quick, where his character, obsessed with the unscrupulous practices of a national bus company who’d taken off the bus service to his brother’s day centre, starts his own. Yet The Guardian, who interviewed Firth back in 2000 prior to the launch of the made-for-TV film, cooed: “[He] did a lot of acting with his eyes, burning with passion and unfulfilled sexual desire.” Pigeon holes, eh?

The study concluded that the “blatant sexism”, found in shows from the 1970s has been replaced by a “low-level” sexism which continues to thrive on-screen. Here’s more Oona: “Television is still awash with low-level sexism and it’s so ingrained we don’t really notice or remark upon it.” She then remarks upon it: “We are trapped a little bit in the mindset where black people were in the 1960s. In the 1970s, The Black and White Minstrel Show was OK. We hope that at Channel 4 today, low-level, everyday sexism is as bad as low level racism and we wouldn’t go along with that.”

So it seems we now measure sexism in the same way we used to measure a stiff breeze. Ironically, those who complain about the pigeon-holing of characters according to gender are doing exactly that with the offence they’ve supposedly committed. No doubt there’ll soon come a time when Tomasz Schafernaker, famed for his own nifty finger work, will be stood in front of an enormous Radio Times wearing nothing but a pair of tight white Calvin Kleins with beads of sweat running down his torso under the warm studio lights, – just give me a minute – pointing to Newsnight with a turkey baster and issuing a “Level 4 Sexism Warning” because Emily Maitlis is going to be “perched seductively” on the corner of a desk.

Sitcoms paint a picture of the life of the times in which they’re set, and times do indeed change. The role of women generally and how their work/life balance and roles and responsibilities have shifted in particular is admirably dealt with by characters such as Nicola Murray in The Thick Of It and Ellen Best in Bluestone 42, but who still contain a truth about women from which they cannot escape: that of being less capable of controlling their emotions.  But as attitudes have changed so too has the threshold for what is considered offensive, though sadly at a far greater pace. Nowadays it takes only the merest glimpse of a woman doing some ironing for it to be deemed “typical”, whereas the same whingers would argue that a woman in, say, in a senior management position was box-ticking rather than progressive and so, conveniently, comedies such as Southern’s Take A Letter Mr Jones – from the writers of On The Buses – where Rula Lenska played a “high-powered female executive” with John Inman as “a computer and a wife”, never seem to feature in lefty rags and list shows.

As Helen Mirren showed, hypocrisy reigns supreme in the strange world of the wantonly offended. Box-ticking seems permissible when the right boxes aren’t being ticked, as women not only want to artificially create more positions for women based on quota rather than talent, but expect comedy characters go above and beyond that which would realistically portray believable situations, in an idealistic feat of social engineering last seen in The Worm That Turned, the 1980 Two Ronnies‘ serial. Except even that was apparently sexist.

Perhaps it would be better for these people to focus on the “com”, and accept that the “sit” was of its time. Either that, or just be quiet and get the washing-up done.

We thrive on segregation

Whenever television looks back at the 1970s it tends to do so with disdain: the usual ragbag of modern day worthies pontificate about the bad old days of protests and colour bars, strikes and segregation. But what of today – have things really moved on?

Johnny Speight’s If There Weren’t Any Blacks You’d Have To Invent Them, first shown in 1970 then remade in colour in 1974, dealt with how people thrive on segregation, treating others as belonging a group rather than as individuals. From Richard Beckinsale fantasising about being a woman raped by a man to the blind Leonard Rossiter who thought Beckinsale was black because of the tone of his voice, Speight himself had something of an obsession with segregation, especially that according to race, with much of his work after The Arthur Haynes Show dealing with this subject – though sometimes misunderstood – to great effect.

Students at Oriel College, part of Oxford University, are the latest to find such a cause to leech onto, namely the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. Although it’s origins lay in a post-Apartheid South Africa, the British black and white copy seeks to have removed from the College a statue of former student Cecil Rhodes, seen by opponents as something of an imperialist, a white supremacist, who made his fortune from mining diamonds in the former Cape Colony of South Africa where he later became Prime Minister in 1890.

Rhodes was a shrewd, perhaps ruthless businessman. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 transformed South Africa into an industrial economy which saw Rhodes amongst others led to the rapid colonisation of the country, so much so that by the end of the 19th Century all the indigenous peoples of South Africa had lost their political and economic independence. White-owned mining companies were able to control workers who often found themselves in dangerous conditions for low wages and Rhodes was able to amass an enormous personal fortune through the creation of the De Beers consolidated Mines Company in 1888.  Today we call that “getting on”.

Rhodes used his personal wealth and political skills to become the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. His treatment of indigenous Africans as a businessman and Premier varied: by today’s standards he is seen as something of an imperialist, but he took a genuine interest in their cultures and language, and had a respect and understanding for Africans that belies his legacy.

But Rhodes’ methods in business and politics were merely a development of over 200 years of British and Dutch colonisation, which were relentlessly intensified after his death in 1902 when the British Government implemented the Act of Union and brought together the previously separate colonies of the Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape Colony to form the Union of what we now know as South Africa.  In comparison, today’s Britain is a small, insignificant bit-player in a group of nationals with vested interests seeking to unify different peoples under common, unelected law called the European Union, disgracefully championed by a toadying media including BBC Radio Four’s not very funny or clever The Now Show.

Back to The Cape.  For the following two decades successive governments introduced a raft of regulations and discriminatory laws that tightened state control over blacks. The Natives’ Land Act of 1913 which reserved around 90 percent of the land in South Africa for whites and prevented Africans from freely buying land; the remainder of the land became “reserves” and were a forerunner of the “homelands” where illness and malnutrition were rife. For many Africans, especially young men and women, migration to wage-earning jobs in cities and mines became one of the only ways to pay colonial taxes and survive. In turn during this period mass urbanisation saw the number of city-dwelling Africans more than triple, but they lived in terrible conditions, with poor housing, health and transport and no electricity for many decades, and along with poverty came crime and fear for personal safety. Sadly there are some indigenous to Britain for whom that is a fairly accurate picture of their country today.

Of course it is difficult to justify racial segregation in South Africa, just as it is difficult to justify segregation of any kind, anywhere. But Rhodes’ tenure as mining magnate and Prime Minister was merely a progression from what had proceeded him, and by the standards that followed it could be argued he was, comparatively speaking, a free-market Liberal. That is not to say that what he presided over was not cruel. To deny anyone the opportunity to live, learn and earn as they would wish purely on the basis of their being somehow different to what is perceived as a superior group of human beings is as distasteful as it is ultimately self-destructive. And it is this where, for me, the hypocrisy of the “Rhodes Must Go” campaigners at Oxford University becomes apparent.

What set Rhodes apart from the Premiers who succeeded him (apart from his statue) was that he left in his Will an endowment to Oriel College whereby eighty-three students each and every year, initially of Teutonic descent but latterly anyone – including some of the greatest campaigners against segregation and for civil liberties – would be awarded scholarships affording them the opportunity denied to others from a different academic and socioeconomic background. Indeed, there is much controversy about the alleged hypocrisy of a black Oriel College student, Ntokozo Qwabe, who although accepted a Rhodes scholarship, partook in the protests. In my view he was given his opportunity and should take it. However, it is a tad disingenuous for him to want to whitewash Rhodes out of history but happily take his cash.

But for these opportunities the students who benefit from them would not have their platform for debate. To be able to attend any university, let alone Oxford, is granted only to those with the very highest academic and economic means. The rest of us are kept in our respective places, working for a living and paying our taxes to, er, help fund “our” universities.

Yet for some even these opportunities are not enough. At the time of writing junior doctors, for example, who could go on to earn £120,000 as a consultant, are in the middle of a series of strikes because they believe that an eleven per cent pay rise is “derisory” and that working after seven o’clock in the evening is “antisocial”. The segregating of blacks in South Africa and forcing them into “homelands” was both derisory and antisocial; enjoying a double digit wage windfall while working when the sun is just about dipping over the horizon is something the majority of people would kill for. Yet for all the talk of Unions existing for the common good, and how important statues are as a symbol of what is right and wrong, what about the one outside the TUC which depicts a man helping another man off the ground? How are striking junior doctors helping others, except themselves?

On a 1980 edition of Parkinson, guests John Betjeman and Maggie Smith were talking about pay protests with the great Kenneth Williams who put it this way:

“Why can’t they march for somebody else instead of a few pounds for themselves? What about somebody who’s really hard up? When a union does something like jeopardising the work of their fellow men. For example if you stop trains, people can’t get to their work, can they? So in doing what you want for yourself you’re jeopardising your fellow men, aren’t you? Well why can’t you act in concert with your fellow men? Why do you have to do something that endangers… your fellow men when that statue represents exactly that, helping not hindering.”

Host Michael Parkinson countered: “Because it might be that one worker is a lot worse off than their fellow. If they were all equal there’d be no problem… it’s all very well if you’ve got a talent, a decent job, you can go on and earn a handsome living… because you work in an area where you can back your talent and because your talent pays off in the end then you had a horizon, you could see ahead.”

The points Johnny Speight, Kenneth Williams and Michael Parkinson were making, that all human beings should be treated equally and have the same opportunities in life regardless of anything, and that given an opportunity one should grasp it with both hands and have confidence in oneself rather than dragging others down with you, are absolutely spot on. Whether the points being made were intended to be interpreted in this way comes down to the simple passing of time: Speight saw the preoccupation with segregation as a regressive brake on society whereas today’s students see it has a bandwagon on which to hitch a ride and get noticed; Williams saw striking as an excuse not to better oneself whereas today’s strikers attach themselves to individual causes such as Ntokozo Qwabe or junior doctors’ pay – in so called “sympathy strikes” to seek attention rather than the greater good; Parkinson was attempting to argue that people who had what might be termed a menial job (the example he gave was people whose job it was to “stick on door knobs”) had more of a right to strike than those with better prospects – of course there are fewer jobs with better prospects than that of a junior doctor.

But while students mourn for their colonial brothers in spades perhaps they should reflect on the fact that in this country, not all indigenous whites have the same opportunity to attend university. The real problem is class not colour.

Segregation is commonplace, is part of our lives, and as such television portrays it in it’s many forms, from the class divide of Upstairs Downstairs and the exquisite Brass, to the more cut and dried Porridge, and not forgetting The Nineteenth Hole which also threw in sexism for good measure albeit satirised in a fashion typical of Johnny Speight. Between them Government and society have taken great strides along the path to equality of all forms, and this has perhaps been best documented by the venerable Coronation Street which, over it’s fifty-odd years, has gone from a stark northern working class kitchen sink drama to taking a more metropolitan, softer snapshot of everyday life with the introduction of characters who are black, gay and transgender. Sadly however the Street’s smokers – black, gay or otherwise – are segregated in the grubby yard at the back of the Rovers Return. That’s progress for you.

Seemingly only certain types of segregation attract publicity, mainly to do with race or sexual orientation, driven by a left wing media narrative whose greatest exponent is of course The Guardian, where Owen Jones, who probably believes every word he writes, hitches a lift on whichever particular segregation bandwagon will gain him a few hundred more Twitter followers that day. To be fair to Owen, he doesn’t bleat about “only” earning £30,000 a year for writing about those not afforded his opportunities. That said, he doesn’t mention the fact that the tax arrangements of the proprietors of The Guardian are very well segregated in The Caymans.  That, too, is called “getting on”.

So what do protestors want? Junior doctors would do well to take a leaf out of the Oriel College students’ book – and grab the money and the opportunity, no matter how distasteful they might find it. Maybe in an act of solidarity they should black-up, forming a picket line of Paki-Paddies between scholarship-funded lectures protesting about how downtrodden educational immigrants are. If they want to know real hardship they should do what Matthew Parris did for World In Action in 1984 and live on Jobseekers Allowance. In that year, months after my mother had died of a brain tumour (doctors, eh?) my father joined the ill-fated miners’ strike. Our meals came from food parcels which we’d collect from the stage at Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare and had about as much nutrition as the crumpled brown paper sack they came in – plenty of Bulgarian jam but no shortnin’ bread – and our heat came from burning fence posts which I stole – aged ten – from hedgerows armed with a wheelbarrow and a set of wire cutters, posts I’d then saw into fire-sized pieces under the cover of darkness.

It is so easy to protest from a position of comfort, not really having experienced that about which they complain. Segregation is a fact of life. Our country thrives on segregation whether as a cause to get angry about or a structure to exploit. Whichever way you look at it segregation puts people in their place. And that’s how society works.

The Wheeltappers… where acts not activists bombed

Depending on who you ask, I was either born in the middle of the “Golden Age” of television comedy and entertainment, or just before half way through the most racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic decade ever to sully our screens. But maybe television was and is reflective of its time, where, as Game For A Laugh put it, it is actually “Watching us, watching you, watching us, watching you.” So back to my childhood to see what’s what.

Being born in 1974 perhaps, first time round at least, I was exposed to television comedy just as what has since been unfathomably termed “alternative comedy” was beginning to replace the music hall derived light entertainment spectacles and the cosy suburban sitcom.

If my Dad’s views, who in 1974 was the same age as I am now, were to be analysed by the same dreary D-listers that spend clip show after clip show trying to plague a new audience with the view that everything and everybody from that era was as racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic as television comedy and entertainment of that time, they’d probably troll him to the point of suicide. Thankfully he’s not the one with the closed mind.

I would be the first to concede that my Dad did perhaps lack some imagination and vision: he named me after himself and stopped me going on to sixth form and University on the grounds that as a family we needed me to be earning not learning, both of which have probably more than anything resulted in my having a pretty severe lack of self-confidence, but have at least allowed me to stand on my own two feet from an earlier age than my contemporaries.

Memories of staying up into the small hours listening to Test Match Special on BBC Radio 3, where Brian Johnston and Henry Blofeld would gorge themselves on an assortment of cakes sent in by devoted listeners – whose commentary on a Cairns Birdwing was occasionally interrupted by England’s cricket team inevitably losing The Ashes in Australia – and my perhaps being as equally fascinated by the crackles and whistles of late night medium wave as whether David Gower would snick another soft ball to second slip, remain as strong and as warm as playing snooker and pool at Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare, where John Allwood would lisp his way through calling six houses of bingo, and acts of dubious quality would ply their trade before being paid off by Stuart Ashmore, the Concert Chairman.

The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club was a television programme like no other. Compered by Bernard Manning with the wonderful Colin Crompton playing the part of Concert Chairman to the hilt, it was my world. It was hard to believe that The Wheeltappers was actually a studio set such was the impressive attention to detail: the Pile of Pennies for Charity stood precariously on the edge of the bar, Double Diamond and Bass Mild, Golden Wonder Jungle Fresh Salted Peanuts, people carrying trays of beer to their tables and wandering off to the toilet between “turns” and Worthington ‘E’ ashtrays brimming with cigarette stubs, complete with a dense haze of smoke hanging over the creaky wooden stage.

The Wheeltappers was meant to reflect a concert night at a typical Northern Working Men’s Club, institutions which have seen a steady decline since their 1970s heyday. They began life back in Victorian times as a place to learn rather than drink, and were always an integral part of the social life of local communities. Over time these institutions evolved and the working man was able to enjoy a pint after a long, gruelling day’s work. Soon the more recognisable Working Men’s Club was born, with cheap beer and, it could be said, even cheaper entertainment.

No agenda, no politics (aside from the pictures of Harold Wilson sitting alongside notices warning patrons “Hats Will Not Be Tolerated” and that they should not swear during ladies’ nights), just mirth and music circa 1974. Entertainment for the sake of it. Acts like Trevillion and Nine, where (Sadie) Nine would sing with a voice that cut through like a constipated crow while (Paul) Trevillion drew a vaguely related cartoon, would appear alongside Kossak dancers, rubbish ventriloquists and, hilariously, a knife thrower interrupted by Colin Crompton sounding his fire bell and announcing that there were still tickets available for the meat raffle just as an eye-watering 12 inches was about to penetrate a scantily clad female pinned to a board.

Fast forward to November 1991 when I saw Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out at Sheffield City Hall, and these acts were being satirised in the most absurd ways imaginable on “Novelty Island”, a small paddock made from butcher’s grass where bizarre acts would ply their trade with Reeves acting as compere. Perhaps my favourite comedy moment of all time, and certainly one that was the talk of the Monition offices at work the following day, was where the first act, Judith Grant (played by Emma Cafferty) walked into the paddock carrying a white box spewing with wires and told Reeves she was going to electrocute a shrew. A short buzzing sound was heard before a ball of fluff (the unfortunate “shrew”) leapt half-heartedly from said box. That was it. End of act. Entertainment for the sake of it.

Back to The Wheeltappers and it wasn’t just the “speciality” acts on the bill. Many who made their television debut at The Wheeltappers went onto achieve greater exposure in their own prime time shows, such as Little & Large and Cannon & Ball, The Krankies and Paul Daniels while others were at the tail-end of their careers (even though in some cases they didn’t really want to believe it) including Charlie Williams, who’d just had a disastrous run hosting The Golden Shot, Freddie Garrity memorably dressed as a chicken on the 1974 New Year’s Eve Special, and Gene Pitney, who Bernard Manning introduced with “It’s a good job he was nice to me on the way up ‘cos I’ve just met him on the way down!”

Of course, this was the 1970s, and so Paul Daniels performed an exaggerated caricature of a camp homosexual, Cannon & Ball sang a song about Pakistanis during their first appearance in 1974 while Charlie Williams, himself of Caribbean descent, told jokes about how “they were going to take over” (make your own mind up as to whether this was prophetic or pathetic). The thing is, and this something that is often conveniently or lazily forgotten by current cultural commentators, there was absolutely no malicious intent in any of the acts.

Sadly many Working Men’s clubs have closed. Although anti-smoking legislation has undoubtedly had an impact, they certainly suffered from an old-fashioned image among young people, perpetrated by a prejudiced modern left-leaning Southern-centric media which seeks to colour the North of the 1970s as an era of hatred and racial division, of misery and deprivation by and large with pieces written in The Guardian or list shows on Channel Four pursuing their metropolitan, predictably politically correct narrative.

The problem with this breed of social commentators is that they haven’t lived in the North or through the 1970s with its rugged industrial landscape, genuine albeit sometimes misplaced fear of immigration, and the ignorance of the different. Writer Harry Pearson once said: “When judging Southerners we must always remember that they have not had the benefit of our disadvantages.”

It is ironic that while progress has undoubtedly been made in terms of race representation, for example, regional diversity is lagging behind.

In a piece subtitled “The bad old days of British comedy”, Allister Harry wrote in The Guardian in April 2000: “[Charlie] Williams, now 72, was the first black British comic to enjoy mainstream TV success. In the early 70s he was a resident on Granada TV’s influential stand-up show The Comedians. He hosted the popular game show The Golden Shot and in 1973 topped the bill in Scarborough, breaking box- office records. Here’s one of his jokes: ‘When Enoch Powell said, ‘Go home, black man,’ I said, ‘I’ve got a hell of a long wait for a bus to Barnsley.'”

“‘I didn’t set out to offend. I went out so that people could laugh.’ Williams met two other [black] comics on The Comedians – Josh White and Sammy Thomas – both from Lancashire.”

Harry then goes onto quote Curtis Walker, star of The Real McCoy who had at the time been a stand-up for 18 years: “…if it wasn’t for Charlie… doing what [he] did, a lot of black performers wouldn’t be anywhere near telly today.'”

Of course some of the material in the 1970s may have been uncomfortable so far as perceptions of racism was concerned, this acts as a smoke screen, a scapegoat for an anti-Northern bias, prejudice even. Bradford-born comedian Kate Fox, talking to The Yorkshire Post back in October, said: “That while some progress has been made in terms of… race representation, regional diversity is lagging behind. ‘I think it is harder for a young person in a Northern school or college to make their way in the creative industries… [which] are still very London-centric and middle class.'”

All of which makes you wonder where the problem really lies. The same media set, so quick to criticise Northern Working Men’s Clubs of the 1970s for having a supposedly narrow-minded attitude to race, is similarly blinkered when it comes to anything north of Watford.

The Wheeltappers, which emerged from the success of The Comedians, gave opportunities to performers regardless of colour, and represented a club where the whole community could come together, have a laugh and a sing-song and chat to friends. An important meeting place. A force for social cohesion. A hub. At Arkwright Town Miners’ Welfare Club in 1984, it was the place where people bought and sold allotment vegetables, enjoyed a game of dominos and where striking miners’ families would collect food parcels containing such variable delights from lentil soup to Bulgarian jam (while Norma Dolby kept all the tins of Stewed Steak to herself). We had genuine community spirit. And yet where current comedians and talking heads would see our Working Men’s Clubs confined to history, they were just as crucial to social well-being as Facebook and mosques are today.  And what people forget is that once we’d had our watered down beer (mine was a shandy, to be fair – I was only 10) and won our topside of beef, we went home to the Epilogue and a good night’s sleep. We didn’t spend countless hours online threatening to kill someone or walk into a bar full of people with a nail bomb, because they were the wrong colour, sex or sexuality, or because they were too fat, too thin, introvert or into the wrong thing.

In the 1970s any prejudices stemmed from what was seen as a sudden, unstoppable change the likes of which had never been seen before, and were, generally speaking, played out with humour. Nowadays, even with the benefit of experience and education, there is an indoctrinated hatred that manifests itself as wanton cruelty and destruction, with collateral damage that has a far deeper and longer lasting impact than the closing of a few hundred clubs. Are things really better now?

The only thing that bombed at Working Men’s Clubs were the turns. We had a bloody good time.

Not so straight but narrow

As society embraces gay marriage and coming out is in, to today’s generation seeing gay men on television is as normal as posting your bank details and a naked selfie on what the BBC innocently yet laughingly calls “social media”. #ridiculousisntit

How gay men are portrayed on our screens today varies wildly. In recent years two of our most popular and enduring sitcoms, My Family and Benidorm, have featured prominent gay male characters. In the former Michael Harper (played by Gabriel Thomson) is an intelligent teenager who looks and sounds exactly as one might expect a teenaged boy to do, while in the latter Kenneth Du Beke (Tony Maudsley) is a flamboyantly dressed, overweight, camp manager of a hairdressing salon). Both are fantastically different and readily accepted by the audience in their millions without prejudice. But did the portrayal of gay characters in the 1970s stick to a single stereotype? Were gay characters and performers received as well then as they are now? And was the way they were depicted a fair reflection of their sexuality, or just a grotesque misrepresentation?

Let’s cruise the woods of poorly-researched opinion and lazy journalism, put these hypocrisies to bed and pound them till they bleed, then maybe, as is often the way with these things, they’ll be gone in the morning.

First of all we’ll go off topic, back to 1969 and Doctor In The House, adapted from Richard Gordon’s “Doctor” books with scripts from Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Goodies Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, and Barry Cryer. Duncan Waring (played by Robin Nedwell), a twenty-something who wore flash suits (though his trousers spent a large part of the series around his ankles) and enjoyed women and alcohol to excess. Five years on and Eric Chappell’s Rising Damp hit our screens which featured, amongst others, Alan Moore (played by the superb Richard Beckinsale), a left wing, long haired twenty-something who wore tight jeans, a dark green jumper and was occasionally teased by landlord Rigsby (the formidable Leonard Rossiter) for his perceived femininity and awkwardness around women. The characters of Waring and Moore were complete opposites in almost every respect, except they had one thing in common: they were medical students. (Actually the actors themselves had more in common – they both started in Granada’s The Lovers and both died tragically young of heart attacks). Nobody could convincingly argue that either of the characters were typical of medical students, no more so than all Muslims are fanatical terrorists, or all gay men fist Chancellors of the Exchequer at awards ceremonies.

Sticking with Rising Damp, the 1977 Episode titled “Stage Struck” featured Hilary (Peter Bowles), a flouncing, camp actor and friend of Ruth (Frances de la Tour) who has written a play which he wants her to perform with Alan. Rigsby, who has always tried and failed to become intimate with Ruth is worried the play will give Alan the opportunity to succeed. Rigsby tells Alan “He’s one of them!” who promptly abandons any acting ambitions. Hilary, knowing what Rigsby has done, asks him to step in. They share a sofa, Hilary moves in closer and closer before beginning to make a pass at Rigsby who leaps up telling Hilary “it’s no good” before Hilary assumes the lead. He seduces Ruth “Do you think we could do that again?” and it is obvious that he is not gay. Although the writer played on a common stereotype and perhaps the ignorance of part of the audience through the use of a caricature, he was then able to question their preconceptions of someone who was seemingly a flamboyant homosexual by revealing him to be a flirtatious heterosexual.

Another good example of how a certain “type” of person is portrayed comes from can be found in the 1977 Christmas Special episode of The Good Life. Titled “Silly, But It’s Fun”, in spite of precision planning the Christmas fayre isn’t delivered to middle-class Margot and Jerry Leadbetter (Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington) and so they pop round to their neighbours, Tom and Barbara Good (Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal), for some home grown pea pod burgundy and party games. After Margot’s excellent “This is the Daily Mirror” scene Jerry and Barbara find themselves together, on the sofa the worse for wear. Some very mild flirting ensues, but it is all very well written, and the audience clearly understand that they are drunk without their needing to be dressed in soiled, torn clothing, or be seen guzzling a three litre bottle of White Lightning on a park bench asking for the price of a cup of tea.

It is therefore important to establish the difference between a stereotype and a caricature. Those who do not know or care to acknowledge that there are clear distinctions between the two are perhaps as lazy as the stereotypes they seek to condemn.

Stereotypes are generalisations about a group of people which can be affectionate, benign or disingenuous in nature. There isn’t really such a thing as a typical medical student or Muslim or actor or drunk, yet there is undoubtedly an unhealthy obsession with the notion that in the 1970s there was a typical homosexual, and that this was stereotyped in an offensive way.

Gay men in particular are stereotyped as flamboyantly dressed and effeminate not because all gays are like that, or not because no straight men are (as Peter Bowles’ Hilary showed) but because some gay men exhibit these traits the audience is able to recognise what is being caricatured.

Possibly the two of the most well known examples of this common stereotype both in terms of popularity at the time, and how often they appear in the Top 100 Programmes People Were Too Young To Remember But Somehow Still Found Offensive featuring D-listers peddling witless arse gravy with all the authority of a wilting dandelion, were Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served?, played by John Inman, and Larry Grayson (Shut That Door, The Generation Game).

The former, a salesman in the menswear section of a slightly dreary department store, was never explicitly stated to be gay. Indeed, producer and co-writer David Croft did say that the character “was never written as a homosexual” (although conversely after the pilot episode was shown in 1972, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton, reportedly said: “We’ll take the series but we don’t want the poof.”) It does, however, feature one of my favourite ever scenes in sitcom, between Mr Humphries and Head of the Ladies Department, Mrs Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) while in Department Manager Mr Rumbold’s (Nicholas Smith) office along with the rest of the department, all bent over leaning towards Rumbold as he imparts some top secret information:

Mrs Slocombe: “If I’m stood standing here like this for much longer I’ll have to see an osteopath.”

Mr Humphries: “Don’t worry Mrs Slocombe. It gets easier with practice.”

Russell T Davies, writer of Queer As Folk, said of Mr Humphries: “I think he’s fun. I think he’s funny. And don’t tell me that gay men like that don’t exist. They absolutely do… Mr Humphries is absolutely a gay man.” But it didn’t seem to offend the audience, who tuned in in their tens of millions. Indeed, in 1976 readers of TV Times magazine voted Inman the “Funniest Man on Television”, and at The Variety Club Awards in the same year he was voted BBC Television’s “Personality of the Year”.

After many cameo appearances on other shows in stage and screen Larry Grayson was given his own show by ATV in 1972, Shut That Door. Grayson would introduce each show by inviting the audience to “Make yourself at home for a gay evening.” Again, rather than alienate the audience they adored him. When he took over The Generation Game in 1978 millions of people watched him – more even than the legendary Bruce Forsyth.

Every stereotype is based on at least one truth, otherwise there would be no terms of reference. Some gay men are camp or effeminate, but not all. Equally some medical students are undoubtedly alcoholic womanisers, some Muslims wander furtively through busy cities carrying rucksacks full of explosives, some actors are fey and some drunks are untidy and occupy park benches downing cheap liquor. But not all. However, there are enough recognisable truths in the personas of Mr Humphries and Larry Grayson that it easily able to determine that the two are gay, based on the caricatures.

Yet novelist Philip Hensher, “one of the 100 most influential LGBT people in Britain,” writing in The Independent in 2010 – a newspaper whose circulation is collapsing faster than a knackered deck chair – said that “…the camp persona of Larry Grayson [is] directed at one particular audience: the audience which had never knowingly associated with a gay person.” Grayson was simply being himself, and it beggars belief that one homosexual can find another offensive simply because of his persona, not exactly a progressive attitude, and suggests that Hensher believes that Larry Grayson wasn’t entitled to perform, certainly as himself. And following Hensher’s logic to its ridiculous end either no gay people watched Larry Grayson, and given that, according to official historical figures, the average British person knows 5.5 gay men (I don’t know how these surveys work, but presumably the .5 is a particularly well-endowed regular glory hole acquaintance) it would seem that for most of my adult life (and a little bit before) I’ve too often made my selection without walking the full length of the counter.

He went on: “Stereotypes could be sustained in the 1970s because most people watching a sitcom or a drama were not at all likely to know what a gay person was like. Those camp representations – Mr Humphries, Larry Grayson – have long since been written off.”

A gay character shouldn’t be vilified because it’s portrayal conforms to a particular stereotype. A large proportion of comedy characters are based on observations of appearances, mannerisms and traits of others and it follows that anyone finding a character whose appearances, mannerisms and traits offensive is no different to finding those people offensive. How they are portrayed is merely a caricature, an exaggeration for comic effect of those appearances, mannerisms and traits which help us identify people. A stereotype is a lazy, narrow-minded perception that a single caricature is typical of the type of person being caricatured.

Indeed, Mr Humphries is effectively a caricature of the type of gay man Larry Grayson is, the only tangible difference being that Mr Humphries is stood at a Grace Brothers’ counter rather than the Generation Game conveyor belt. Therefore if you find the character of Mr Humphries with his effete deportment offensive then it follows you also find Larry Grayson himself offensive as he carries the same traits, and so who is carrying the prejudice?

What would Hensher have thought if Are You Being Served? writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft had taken a slightly different approach, perhaps with an opening scene where the camera pans across the department before revealing Mr Humphries barebacking Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister) over the tie counter in much the same way as Stuart (Aidan Gillen) did to Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) did in Queer As Folk, before showing a customer what’s in his drawers. It would have been just another caricature, a different means to the same end, though possibly not as family friendly. What is the correct way for a gay man to be portrayed? Or a medical student? Or a Muslim? Or an actor? Or a drunk? Or maybe gay men shouldn’t be seen at all? Camp is in the great tradition of British humour, from the music hall through Danny La Rue and the Carry Ons, to Alans Cumming and Carr, Little Britain‘s Dafyyd (Matt Lucas) and Graham Norton, and uses a particular caricature for the comedic effect, whereas other might not be so suitable.

It is absolutely untrue to suggest that in the 1970s the portrayal of gay men was confined to a particular stereotype – there were many different flavours of gay men in 1970s sitcoms. In Porridge, the character of Lukewarm (Christopher Biggins) wasn’t excessively camp, dressed (obviously) in a prisoner’s uniform, had a long term partner (Trevor) and enjoyed knitting.

Rob and Michael (Jeremy Bulloch and Peter Denyer) were a gay couple in LWT’s Agony from 1979, and on the face of it their homosexuality was totally indeterminable. They would have their ups and downs as would any straight couple rather than being written as a pair of bitchy queens, always offering their shoulders for agony aunt Jane Lucas (Maureen Lipman) to cry on when she had her own problems, and were as unstereotypical as you could get. Incidentally Robert Gillespie appeared briefly as Mr Mince, a well-dressed, middle-aged married man, who happened to enjoy wearing women’s clothes.

Fast forward to supposedly more enlightened times and it is clear for all to see – except Philip Hensher – that it simply isn’t the case that “those camp representations have long since been written off.” For where we had Larry Grayson flouncing around with contestants and clay in the late 1970s, Julian Clary, the cutting edge mould-breaking latex police uniform wearing star of Channel Four’s Saturday Live, was doing exactly the same on the brilliant Sticky Moments, but hugely exaggerated.

And while the 1970s audience adored the camp, innuendo-laden Mr Humphries, more modern day viewers enjoyed the equally camp, innuendo-laden “Suits you, Sir” tailors Ken and Kenneth (Paul Whitehouse and Mark Williams) from The Fast Show.

Since Hensher has also written for The Mail on Sunday maybe he’d welcome probing the portrayal of gay Nazi officers (see what he’s made me do?), from the limp-wristed Lieutenant Grüber (Guy Siner, and that’s for the purposes of alliteration not offence, so that’s ok, got it?) in ‘Allo ‘Allo, to Horne and Corden‘s own Nazi nancy (that’s fine too) which even The Daily Telegraph‘s Neil Midgley defended, whilst not particularly liking it which, since the series tanked, is fair enough.

Andrew Pierce, broadcaster and columnist (Translation: someone who not only talks nonsense on television and radio, they put it into print, too) writing in the Daily Mail (where else?): “By far the greatest offenders in all this are our most prominent gay TV presenters and entertainers, who allow themselves to be portrayed as ridiculous camp stereotypes by executives who revel in the same hackneyed rubbish.”

“It’s astonishing and offensive that, in a country which has made such remarkable and commendable strides forward in same-sex equality, TV producers still think that if a gay entertainer is not camp, lisping, effeminate and bitchy then they can’t be funny or interesting or popular.”

There is a delicious irony here. Whilst Pierce can take some credit for at least accepting that such caricatures aren’t confined to the 1970s, he spends the entire article bitching so much like a hideous old queen he would have been nailed on for the part of Freddie in Vicious were it not for his having all the charm and talent of an enema. His blinkered assertion simply reinforces the myth of the one-dimensional broadcast homosexual, taking two very uncommendable steps back in the process. He went on to single out Graham Norton as being the chief protagonist, who I and millions of others see as both interesting and popular rather than ridiculous, as viewing figures of his Friday night chat shows. But once again the ignorance shines through. Maybe Pierce has never seen QI, presented by Stephen Fry, not camp, lisping, effeminate or bitchy. Or maybe he’s blissfully unaware that Evan Davis is the presenter of Dragon’s Den or Newsnight.

Hang on a minute. In another piece for the Daily Mail in July 2014 he wrote: “I’m delighted Evan Davis is to be the new face of BBC2’s Newsnight in succession to Jeremy Paxman. Now that he’s leaving Radio 4’s Today programme, I can start listening to it again.” Maybe Pierce simply wants to be the only gay in the village and in doing so, just like Little Britain‘s Dafyyd, he comes across as slightly nasty and insecure.

People now more than ever readily choose to take offence in what has become a cultural version of ambulance chasing. Hensher, Pierce and others, frustrated homosexuals, middle-market media killjoys, envious of anyone having fun, whose only experience of having something inserted into their anuses was when they stuck their own heads up there only to forget to take them out again, and whose gag reflexes have suffered at the thrust of little other than their own verbal diarrhoea. And then there’s the vociferously straight and repressed, occasionally and surreptitiously getting tossed off by a teenager in a train station for a tenner, yet so narrow-minded that trying to form an educated opinion would likely cause an aneurism.

Between them they may be unwittingly establishing their own stereotype, that of the hypocritical, faux-offended, ill-informed cultural commentator, who is always on those list shows, always writing in the laughably termed “quality newspapers”, and always contributing very little, except to an already baseless prejudice. Thankfully, however, not all who are granted the good fortune and responsibility of putting themselves and their thoughts in front of the masses are the same.

And neither are all gay men, whether caricatures or personalities, on or off our screens.