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Friday, July 09, 2010

Do we have to revisit the sweary bits of Live Aid?

It's twenty-five years since Live Aid. In most quarters this will pass unremarked. The One Show on BBC-1 are doing an item about "things you didn't know (or have forgotten) about Live Aid" and they wanted me to tell the story about Bob Geldof saying "give us your fucking money" while I was interviewing him live on air. Since the point of this story is that he didn't say that (instead he said "fuck the address") I always feel that I'm letting people down.

Telling a story like this on TV is difficult enough, given the impatience of editors with any story that has to be told in a joined-up way or not at all. When the nub of that story is to contrast two sentences, both containing a word that you can't say on TV at tea time, this is near impossible. The producer in this case said he'd "have to check it with Ed Pol". You will quickly work out that Ed Pol is not an actual person but Corporation shorthand for "editorial policy". (BBC people always refer to their internal bureaucracy as if it is a given, rather like gravity.) Anyway Ed Pol said that obviously I couldn't say the word, nor could they bleep me saying the word and nor could I replace it with "effing". I had a similar experience with a Radio Four programme I did about bootlegs where we played parts of the Troggs Tapes. This was safely after the watershed but unsurprisingly we couldn't run it without bleeping the offending words. What surprised me is that Ed Pol would only allow them a specific number of bleeps.

I can understand zero tolerance of swearing. It worked for fifty years. I suppose I can also understand the arguments for total tolerance, though I think you have to take into account the fact that swearing is tiring to listen to and, if the swearing is being done by somebody you don't happen to be close to, removes a layer of skin from your soul with each obscenity. What I don't really understand is the curious halfway house we're in at the moment, where Ed Pol imposes quotas and you're allowed certain things at certain times. If the Geldof incident was an embarrassment at the time, what's the point of revisiting it 25 years later on a channel and at a time where you can say less about it than you could say at the time? It was live, which says all you need to say about it. In fact shouldn't the live blurt be the only acceptable excuse for swearing on the TV?

I don't buy the idea that TV has to change to reflect the manners of society. It's TV. Not real life. There was a time, not long ago, when you couldn't swear at all on the TV. Wasn't that also the era that produced Boys From The Black Stuff, The Singing Detective, Fawlty Towers and all the other programmes that people now look back on as the golden age?


  1. I was at a lunch sitting next to Geldof not long ago and mentioned that I knew Dave and we talked about the incident. What seemed to annoy him, and he is a man annoyed by many things, was the fact that as Live Aid recedes in time, the G.U.Y.F.M non-line is becoming the most famous moment of the day. The fact that his achievement is being traduced to that one incident was getting his goat, and you can't blame him for that. Then again maybe he shouldn't have lost his temper in the first place.

  2. The Troggs Tapes with beeping must have sounded like a wall of Vuvuzelas.

  3. I don't think it's a question of 'his achievement is being traduced to that one incident'. A few posts back we were discussing the nature of passion, and surely people feel that G.U.Y.F.M - or, as it is generally reported, 'just G.U.Y.F.M.' - summarises all of the passion, the simple directness, which Geldof put into the exercise. It's not actually about what was said, it's about what that phrase represents,

  4. Why does it always seem to be the mis-quotes that pass into history? "Play it again Sam' springs to mind.
    I can just imagine Sir Bob sitting at home, watching the tv & shouting "I didn't fucking say that!"

  5. I've never understood the whole swearing quota thing. It seems to be perfectly acceptable for a 12 certificate film to contain one instance of the word 'fuck'; now, how is it ok for a 12 year old to hear this word once, but not twice? I understand that there's a spectrum to be observed, but either the word is ok for children to hear or it's not.

  6. Ah but @Lucas, perhaps by hearing it once, a child can learn that if you want to express an explosion of emotion, once, when you lose control of language because your feelings are so heightened, then you swear. If a character swears twice,it begins to become a commonplace, and loses its passion. We all know that when somebody swears continually, it becomes a meaningless and rather pathetic punctuation - isn't that an argument for restricting its frequency?

  7. Talking of swearing quotas: there's a very funny recording of Peter Ustinov in conversation with Kenneth Allsop and Cliff Michelmore etc, in which he tells a tale of working on a military propaganda film during the war where the representatives of Army, Navy and Air Force fell to arguing over which service could lay claim to the one mild swearword permitted in military regulations. Well worth tracking down if you haven't heard it.

  8. Re swearing being tiring to listen to... There's a good bit in Steven Pinker's excellent The Stuff Of Thought about swearing and why we say what we do. eg "oh shit" is easy enough, but why is "fuck you" an insult when it actually sounds like fun? The theory is that it hearing words forces them into your mind (a bit like the club whose membership involved standing in a corner and *not* thinking of a polar bear) - so hearing rude words makes you think of those acts / objects.

    ps I am sure Singing Detective was sweary - where's Kenith Trodd when you need him?