The BBC Sex Scandals and the Birth of Punk


The longest and most expensive trial in United States history prosecuted crimes that never occurred.

The McMartin pre-school case was The Children’s Hour come to Godzilla-like life.

That sordid story sits on my mental desk like a momento mori, cautioning me against rushing to judgement whenever the media comes down with a contagious new sex-related “epidemic,” be it real (those Catholic Church abuse scandals) or fake (like “rainbow parties.”)

Moral panics we will always have with us, and the real harm they do is incalculable, both to those accused and to society at large.

Caution is advised.

Which brings me to Operation Yewtree, a.k.a. the BBC pedophilia scandals involving the late children’s show presenter, Top of the Pops host, and conspicuous philanthropist Sir Jimmy Savile, along with who knows how many others.

Now, I don’t doubt that, particularly during the permissive 1960s and 1970s, myriad sexual hijinks transpired in and around BBC headquarters, or that underage girls and boys were frequently targeted.

And space doesn’t permit an in-depth rumination upon public school “fagging” rituals or the matter-of-factly mainstream “St. Trinians” series.

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These and other “normal” bits of British culture, such as the almost sacred position accorded to flamboyant eccentrics, are utterly foreign to most Americans, who can’t imagine any atmosphere in which — to try to put Yewtree into a U.S. context — the likes of Captain Kangaroo, Dick Clark and Merv Griffin could run an informal “jail bait” exchange with impunity.

Yet I remain slightly agnostic on the Jimmy Savile case — or, more precisely, all the other accusations that have sprung up in its wake.

And not just because I’m a temperamental contrarian or because “pedophile rings” have always been a familiar trope in sinister, and groundless, anti-Establishment conspiracy theories.

It’s because, as the UK’s Frank Ferudi writes:

Operation Yewtree isn’t about solving crime – it’s more like a reality TV format where the police’s aim is to thrill the paedo-fearing public. (…)

Leaving aside the reality-entertainment nature of Yewtree, and its negative impact on the justice system, there is another question to be asked of the arrests of elderly showbusiness figures: what purpose do they serve? Even the police acknowledge that the investigation of historic allegations is not really about fighting or solving crime; rather, such operations are justified on the grounds that, through actively soliciting allegations, they help to give a voice to victims.

But of course.

Victimization certainly has its privileges these days.

It’s easier than being a hero, after all, and sometimes more lucrative.

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In the UK, the Savile scandal prompted a coast to coast stock-taking, with a senior police officer stating that the deceased TV legend had “groomed a nation.”

Obviously, videos in Savile’s massive archives were subjected to the Zapruder treatment.

Even a few old comedy sketches performed on other programs suddenly seemed eerily prescient.

So did a particular 1978 interview on BBC Radio 1.

At one point, musical guest John Lydon tells the host of “Rock On” about a morbid movie he’d like to make, in which he kills off all the famous people he hates:

I’d like to kill Jimmy Savile. I think he’s a hypocrite. I think he’s into all kinds of scenes.

We all know about it but we aren’t allowed to talk about it. I know some rumors. (…)

I bet none of this’ll be allowed out.

Lydon was right. That portion of the interview was never broadcast.

Few heard it until earlier this year, when it was included in the reissue package of a classic debut album by a group called PiL.

The strategically placed first song on that album is pointedly titled “Public Image.”

It’s a furious frontal aural assault on some shallow, stupid, unfortunate “you” whom you dearly hope is somebody else.

You may know the singer better by his one-time stage name, “Johnny Rotten.” His old band was the Sex Pistols.

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As everyone picked forensically through old television clips, I noticed that one of the most famous segments ever broadcast on British TV wasn’t being discussed.

Thames Television presenter Bill Grundy’s shambolic, booze-fuelled swearing contest with the Sex Pistols on December 1, 1976 marked the moment millions of Britons first learned of the latest “moral panic.”

The widely-anthologized segment has inspired (admittedly dreadful) songs and been lovingly recreated for Saturday Night Live.

(Oh, and here are the “Amish” and the “LEGO” versions.)

The Daily Mirror‘s front page the next morning is the “Dewey Beats Truman” of punk; Peter Vernon’s spectacular photograph now hangs in the National Gallery.

What marked the segment as a cultural turning point was the resulting upside-down fallout:

The Sex Pistols’ only real album is now considered one of the best of all time. In 2006 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — against their wishes.

It was veteran broadcaster Grundy whose career was ruined overnight, for goading guitarist Steve Jones into cursing on live TV before the “watershed.”

Today, viewers would be far more incensed by that (unremarked upon) Nazi armband worn by one of the Bromley Contingent in the back row.

(That symbol was the juvenile “satanic pentagram” of punk, not a badge of ideology. The sizable number of Jewish punk “elders” — from Malcolm McLaren and The Clash’s Mick Jones to Lou Reed and the ill-fated Nancy Spungeon — has been well-documented in The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s.)

But most of all, viewers today would be calling for Grundy’s dismissal for doing something  — and this is, at long last, the point — that no one, not even the “shocked and appalled” British “red tabs” — considered particularly creepy at the time:

Flirting with a teenaged girl.

(Content warning:)

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Namely, the then-blonde, pre-Banshees Siouxsie Sioux, at the time an unknown nineteen-year-old Pistol’s hanger-on.

Everyone remembers Steve Jones cursing out Bill Grundy, but they may not remember quite why the swearing, which started early, eventually escalated.

The host’s question to Siouxsie — “We’ll meet afterwards, shall we?” — prompted Jones to call him a “dirty old man,” among other things.

Look, I’m not naive.

Jones was being a drunken petulant brat, not a chivalrous knight or a Jane Austen hero.

But it is just a tiny bit funny, all these years later (and knowing what we now do about British television’s corporate culture) to see who acted like something of a “gentleman” that afternoon, and who didn’t feel the slightest need to try.

Who knows?

Maybe forty years from now, impossible-to-imagine revelations, now-unfathonable moral metamorphoses and unpredictable twists of fate & fame will make us look at, say, Miley Cyrus’s performance at the MTVMAs in some kind of whole new way.

OK. Probably not.