Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Frank Skinner minds his language

Frank Skinner's "Have I Got Bad Language For You?" report on last night's Panorama is worth seeing. I like the way he managed to look majestically unimpressed when talking to embarrassed defenders of TV profanity like Jana Bennett of the BBC and embarrassed critics of it like Charles Moore. Skinner has recently decided to reduce the amount of swearing in his act and found that it didn't in any way diminish the show's impact. I'm not surprised.

In real life swearing is, by its very nature, hard to justify. This doesn't mean we don't do it. I do it all the time in front of about a dozen people. I have known those people for a long time and I'm confident they're not offended by it. In broadcasting you can only justify it on the grounds of dramatic realism - though I fancy "Boys From The Black Stuff" and "Our Friends In The North" managed to convey a sense of real life without employing as much profanity as Gordon Ramsay needs to make an omelette.

Use it in humour and you're then in a position where you have to use it all the time. One "fuck" is never quite enough. You have to have an act peppered with "fucks" to maintain the tone. And whereas in a real life conversation you filter the profanities out, when you're just listening or watching each one seems to have greater than usual emphasis. The speakers are not swearing on your behalf. They're doing it at you. Al Murray, who's interviewed in this film, talks about comedy shows where the word has come down from on high to make it "edgier". I would take that to mean, can you make it less comfortable for some of the people watching? This is in the hope, usually false, that this will then make it more appealing to the section of the audience, usually younger, that we are trying to attract at the moment.

The one thing that swearing on TV can never claim to be is natural. This struck me recently when somebody swore on one of our Word Podcasts. I realised then that, with absolutely no regulatory framework, with an audience of consenting adults who had pulled the experience towards them rather than having it pushed into their living rooms, with a format that is designed to elicit the most intemperate reactions, we hardly ever swore. We did it but we did very sparingly and often prefaced it with "if you're in the car with the kids you might want to duck the volume here...." Just as you wouldn't swear on the bus in case you offended someone who was in hearing distance, we rarely swore in this context because, well, somebody might be listening.

Re: Panorama. What the bloody hell is Jeremy Vine doing at the beginning and end of that programme poncing around outside Television Centre? I hope my licence fee is not paying him for that.


  1. Anonymous7:24 am

    gnoring the swearing controversy for a bit it must be admitted that "fuck" is an incredibly versatile word. It can be used to make a complete coherent sentence, as in the mechanic inspecting a car and turning to the owner to say "Fucking fucker's fucking fucked."

  2. Well said David.

    On Jeremy Vine, my partner's reaction to seeing him pop up at the end was, "Why on earth is he back, he's just so.... Daily Mail".

  3. Making something 'edgier' is a darn sight easier than making it 'funnier', I suppose. And I think 'edgy' plays well with those BBC types you wrote about in an earlier post; those ex-spotty Herbert executives who were still wetting themselves to hang with the cool kids. Who makes me roar more than anyone else on telly? Harry Hill. I think he's pretty sexy too, if that counts.

  4. I'd be a happy - well, happier - man if my license fee wasn't going to pay Jeremy Vine for anything.

    Is there not a Word piece to be written about Jeremy's toe-curling 'taste' in music? I imagine in that studio there's a cardboard box with a dozen or so 'absolute classics', none dating from later than around 1983 - Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Jackson, Van Morrison, each comprehensively tired, nay beaten and thrashed to within an inch of their lives, through repetition... massive fan of 'classic rock' and 'new wave', is our Jeremy, like your big brother from 1978 who never quite got it with the Pistols and the Clash but knew a good toe-tapping tune when he heard one. I hate the f****r, frankly.

    I suppose I could always switch off, but I've never thought of that. Besides I'd miss out on his 'calling all nutjobs' phoneins, not to mention hearing that f**ing Welsh c***'s weekly progress report on his poxy allotment, seemingly phoned in from sometime around 1947. The horror. I'm obsessed.

  5. Here in straight-talking Australia the fark epithet is so overused that hard bitten down and outs revert to using terms like 'grub' and 'maggot' when they want to express contempt for someone above and beyond the devalued f word. Nevertheless, after 20 years of exile I find it jarring to dip in to British programmes and see the likes of Alan Carr and Ricky Jervais bandying the word about as if they have a quota to fill.

  6. technically, he's not outside TV Centre... he outside another of the various White City buildings.

  7. Robert Peston has locked him out, so that he can take over, that's what.

  8. Here in the USA you're not even allowed to say "Goddamn" on television, they always cut out the first part.

    I mostly object to the liberal use of fuck in movies - usually in the latter oeuvre of Martin Scorsese - which I think really is a sign of lazy writing. HBO are a bad offender here too, just because they're allowed to say it they think that's what separates them from the pussies at the major networks so they throw it in everywhere. It's "adult" you know.

  9. And what about TV concerts/festivals - it's almost compulsory for some performers to drop into set-piece Parental Guidance dialogue during their set.. I noticed while watching some Live Aid footage recently, how little swearing there actually was - you really wouldn't get that now

  10. I've just watched this on iPlayer and, not being a regular viewer of Panorama, also wondered what the point of Jeremy Vine bookending the show actually was.

    Very good film, by the way.

  11. Frank Skinner is a brilliant comic and although much has been made of his attempt to de-profanitise his act, he has always been capable of doing so from the many times he appeared on TV to do ten-minute sets and *had* to cut out the effs and cees.

    I enjoyed this film, and I thought Charles Moore came over as particularly killjoyish. The bloke from Ofcom was impressive, mind.