Doomwatch – Sex and Violence

sex

There’s a clear irony in the fact that Sex & Violence, a story which concerned itself with the question of censorship, was pulled from the schedules and was never transmitted.  Given the very depleted nature of season three Doomwatch episodes it’s odd, but welcome nonetheless, that an episode which didn’t even make it to the screen somehow managed to survive the archive purges (logic would have suggested it would have been the first to go).

One suggestion for the reason why the BBC got cold feet concerns the use of real-life Nigerian executions.  It’s certainly shocking – but this footage had already been transmitted on several occasions prior to this, so it’s reasonable to assume that for viewers at the time the shock value wouldn’t have been too great.  And had this really been a cause of concern it would have been easy to excise the section without damaging the narrative flow too greatly (we could have cut away from the clip before the shooting and simply shown the reaction of the watching committee).

It seems much more likely that the episode was pulled since several characters were thinly disguised caricatures of real people.  Both Mrs Catchpole (June Brown) and Mrs Cressy (Noel Dyson) have more than a touch of Mary Whitehouse about them.  This is made very obvious in the pre-credits sequence, which sees Mrs Catchpole holding forth at a public meeting – held in a church – and railing about the filth thrown at people like her (her audience is comprised of middle-aged, middle-class women) by the intellectual media elite.

Unlike Mrs Whitehouse, Mrs Catchpole isn’t a national figure, therefore she tends to exist around the fringes of the plot.  So Mrs Cressy also acts as a Whitehouse substitute – she’s less of a rabble-rouser, but is equally vehement about stamping out sex and violence.  Mrs Cressy is a member of the Purvis sub-committee, who have been charged with investigating all aspects of pornography and violence in the media.  Quist is also asked to look into the same question, which he’s less than keen about.

Pollution in the air or the sea he can understand, but moral pollution?  It’s not his thing at all.  But as we’ve seen several times before, Quist starts off doubtful but eventually gets more interested as the story progresses.  It’s just a pity that yet again he’s operating on the periphery of the plot. Dr Tarrant is seconded to the sub-committee, which means she’s as an active participant, leaving Quist as a fairly passive onlooker.

The other members are Professor Fairbairn (Brian Wilde) and Steven Grainger (Bernard Horsfall) who tend to lean towards the permissive end of the spectrum.  Mrs Cressy and the Rev Charles Garrison (Llewellyn Reees) take the opposing view, which means that Dick Burns (Christopher Chittell) is a valuable floating voter, since he holds no firm opinions either way.  Burns, a pop star, is another clear analogue to a real public figure (at the time Cliff Richard had been asked to sit on a very similar committee).  Although Burns is a much less straight-laced figure than Richard, the parallel seems clear.

Sex & Violence is a dense, talky episode – a great deal of it revolves around the committee’s debates – which really comes alive thanks to the first-rate guest cast.  Brian Wilde and Bernard Horsfall are always a pleasure to watch, whilst June Brown (a decade or more away from achieving national fame in EastEnders) has some sharply written comic scenes.  It’s fair to say that Mrs Catchpole isn’t a subtle character though, and it’s no doubt this less than veiled attack on Mrs Whitehouse which sealed the story’s fate.  The Doctor Who fan in me was quietly delighted to see Llewellyn Rees and Bernard Horsfall in the same scene (a few years later they’d both appear in The Deadly Assassin).

There’s no stunning revelations here.  For example, Anne is attacked by Mrs Hastings (Angela Crow) as she attempts to buy a ticket for an Oh Calcutta type play.  Although Anne’s hurt and bruised, she’s much more interested why a law-abiding person like Mrs Hastings would be incited to violence.  The answer seems to be that she’s always been fairly repressed about sex (since her parents didn’t talk about it at all) which it probably didn’t take a psychiatrist to work out!  It’s also worth mentioning the décor of Mrs Hastings’ flat, which has the most garish early seventies wallpaper you could possibly imagine.

When Quist later wonders exactly why Doomwatch is involved, it’s easy to agree with him.  It’s an interesting enough story, but it’s also yet another example of how far the series changed from the early Pedler/Davis ecological tub-thumping.

Possibly the most interesting part of the plot revolves around the character of  Arthur Ballantyne (Nicholas Selby).  He’s a political figure who’s made considerable capital out of the sex and violence debate (he’s revealed to have financed a number of pressure groups, including Mrs Catchpole’s).  It’s easy enough to look around today and find politicians who have risen to prominence on the coat-tails of controversial debates – which is a final demonstration that Doomwatch, even forty years later, can continue to hold a mirror up to our society.

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