Swear it again: The diminishing impact of cursing on TV

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Once the height of taboo, profanity is now used across UK TV programming as a substitute for wit.

In 1979, an impressionable teenager was confronted in his front room by something so heinous that it sent a shockwave through his spindly adolescent body. Not by an over-optimistic cat burglar, no; nor, indeed, the inevitable collapse of the family home’s crumbling 200-year-old ceiling nor, thankfully, his sister caught in flagrante with her soon-to-be live-in boyfriend. Nope, that autumn evening, this writer was hit – face-on, and for the first time – by a blatant use of the f-word on television.

Thanks to Play For Today’s liberalism, one might have caught some on-screen nudity, violence or drug abuse. But never a ‘fuck’

The dreaded oath had come hurtling from the JVC via good old Play For Today, thanks to whose sometimes painfully self-conscious liberalism one might previously have been (un)lucky enough to catch some brief on-screen nudity, violence or drug abuse – all, probably, in the name of art. But never somebody saying ‘fuck’. Although I’d done nothing wrong, I actually felt tangible guilt, its utterance causing me to look about to make sure the parents hadn’t reappeared from their bedroom to retrieve that forgotten mug of Bournvita.

Perhaps my un-worldly mind was over-emphasising its impact, but hearing the f-word within the safe confines of home felt like a breach of the ultimate taboo. However, its use was justified. The play was Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians, a dark treat that relied upon the f-word to create the necessary impact within Jonathan Pryce’s woeful stand-up act. And the stunned silence of the fictional audience that met it was probably a reasonable barometer of how real viewers were responding. This was perhaps their first ‘fuck’, too.

play for today comedians

Before anyone parachutes frantically into Wikipedia, I speak of a ‘scripted’ version of the imprecation here. Unsolicited f-bombs had, of course, been dropped before upon our unwitting three channels: In 1965, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan shocked a few BBC2 night-owls with a fleeting utterance; a decade later on LWT, Bill Grundy’s orchestration of the Sex Pistols was to shock a whole load more at tea time. These indiscretions were, however, ‘live’ television events, neither scheduled nor authorised in the conventional sense, and for which (despite a flurry of headlines and stiff letters) the broadcaster itself could not really be held responsible.

Sometime during the late 90s, a careless TV employee unlocked the swear cupboard and dropped the keys down an outside drain

However, airing language that had been checked and sanctioned felt like a watershed – and this was some while before that expression was formally adopted to symbolise the regular opening of such floodgates on our screens. So, ‘watershed’ that Play For Today moment may well have appeared, but the dam held firm enough to allow little more than a trickle throughout the 1980s. But by the turn of the 90s, ‘fuck’ was ‘in.’ The introduction of the f-word denoted an occasional explosion of passion, or outburst borne of frustration, employed as it was to enhance a dramatic moment, or augment wit. And quite satisfying it was, too.

However, sometime during the late 90s, a careless TV employee unlocked the vast swear cupboard and promptly dropped the keys down an outside drain. By the millennium, his industry’s talented and not-so-talented alike were seemingly sneaking in every few hours to steal a piece for themselves. If crafting a thoughtful script proved a bridge too far for the great unwashed, then chucking in a few curses offered a satisfactory alternative. This, after all, was something that everybody knew how to employ. And, my, how they employed it.

the thick of it

In Britain in the 20-teens (or whatever the fuck this decade is called), comedy dialogue has come full-circle in its quest to emulate the harsh quacking of a vodka-fuelled pub argument. The air now positively fizzes with the overuse of profanity. The Thick of It has given us monstrously funny creations like Malcolm Tucker, whose blistering use of swearing underpins who he is and what he represents within the show’s boundaries.

Meanwhile, those who produce mass-appeal comedy have long-since traded wit for a scattergun-offensiveness that borders on the insane. Increasingly-commonplace potty-coms like E4’s The Inbetweeners understandably draw their greatest audience from the demographic that reflects best the characters within them, but lose points for sustaining the tedious belief that this overly-calorific diet of unleavened obscenity makes them somehow funnier. It doesn’t.

Those who produce mass-appeal comedy have long-since traded wit for a scattergun-offensiveness that borders on the insane

When a script is built entirely around characters that swear, then the basic premise ought to be a little more adventurous. If we’re to stem the dumbing-down of comedy any further, then an audience needs to be treated to more than a succession of characters that merely spit endless expletives. For example, while Catherine Tate’s effing-and-jeffing Nan character is designed to appeal to this kind of audience, it feels far less satisfying than the late Margaret John’s colourful Doris from Gavin & Stacey. With the latter role subtler and more peripheral, the amusing impact of language is greater since it reacts to the main action; Nan’s, of course, is the main action. Would you rather have jalapeños as an ingredient in your dish, or as the dish? Thought so.

It’s all part of the climate of course, but, sometimes, watching TV leaves one hankering for 1979 again – heady days when TV had it all to play for. Frankly, what is the point of having swear words if there’s no longer any ‘taboo’ attached to them? This isn’t the writer being a prude – this is the writer saying ‘let every word earn its place’. But today, that feels like one hell of an ask, and an increasingly hopeless ask in a world where the language somehow manages to be both unbridled yet simultaneously, depressingly unsurprising. A world where ‘cunt’ is the old ‘fuck’, and ‘fuck’, the new ‘hello’.


Featured image: E4

Inset images: BBC; BBC

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