The latest collection on the BBC archive website charts the corporation’s coverage of gay rights issues. There are thirty segments from both radio and television that range from news reports to discussion programmes and documentaries. This rich and fascinating archive dates back to 1957 and the publication of the Wolfenden Report.
The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality on the grounds that the law should not regulate the private acts of consensual individuals. It is fascinating to watch Sir John Wolfenden smoking away on a pipe and answering questions about the details of the report. He separates the law from the edicts of religion and the sway of popular opinion and sets the groundwork for the civil liberties that eventually followed. Wolfenden calmly explains that just because one disapproves of something does not make it a criminal offence. That a 25 minute discussion of the report was aired at a time when there was only one BBC television channel is a testament to its public service duty.
It is interesting that, although homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967, there are programmes from ’65, ’66 and ’67 which explore the question. Although it was not illegal to be a lesbian the subject is given equal time because the social implications were on a par. This is discussed at length in the Late-Night Line Up discussion about two ‘Man Alive’ documentaries, one on men and the other on women. It is fun to watch the Conservative MP Ray Mawby out of his depth and spouting off the sort of nonsense that the Daily Mail likes to scare its readership with: the dangers of promoting homosexuality, the need to protect children from homosexual predators, and the idea that if you allow homosexuality you may as well endorse incest. The experts have a good laugh at his prejudice and his shortcomings.
It is interesting to note that the strange and illogical arguments still trotted out by those who oppose homosexuality, for want of a better phrase, are there from the start in this archived material. One has to wonder how much the world has changed. Consistent right through is a lot of noise from the reactionary element. Their self-righteous stand is more often than not bolstered with quotes from the looniest of Biblical texts, Leviticus, as if that should inform any Christian’s viewpoint. It is remarkable how simpleminded some of the opponents sound. It is fun, nevertheless, to watch the frothing Conservative MPs who think incidents of buggery that went on in their public schools caused lifelong homosexuality. Yet turning to the current dramas in the US midterms one sees that the same language and the same preposterous theories are being used in 2010. The anti-gay prattle of the Tea Party and the moonshine of the candidate for New York governor, Carl Paladino, are informed by such nonsense. They rail against ‘homosexual propaganda’ and ‘the homosexual agenda’ in a way that recalls Heinrich Himmler. Anne Widdicombe’s unreasoned balderdash from the 1990s, which is shown to such good effect in this archive, pales in comparison.
The idea that one can promote homosexuality, and in so doing create unhealthy homosexuals from healthy heterosexuals, is one of the looniest ideas that conservative types cling to. It is taken as read in Uganda, a country that is spurred on in its considerable homophobia by fictions circulated by the US Christian Right. Clause 28, which stated that teachers and local authorities could not promote homosexuality, was an issue that galvanised gay activists in the 1980s. (That the Clause followed and was arguably a consequence of the AIDS hysteria, though, is a subject conspicuously absent from this archive.) Promotion of homosexuality is a ridiculous concept, as Ian McKellen points out to windbags like Peregrine Worsthorne. (He would be called that, wouldn’t he?) McKellen is magnificent in all his appearances. He is the voice of reason in a parliament of fools.
The archive is wrapped up nicely with the last entry, a Radio 4 broadcast from August 2009 looking back on the furore that led to Clause 28. The usual fact-less, opinion-heavy bigots are trundled out, but on the whole the programme is a testament to how far gay rights have come since 1957, and how much society has changed. This archive is a fascinating look into how Britain has changed in the age of television and how the secular law has risen above prejudice and the dictates of religion.
Visit the BBC’s archive by following this link: