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TV review: Britain's Most Dangerous Songs

The BBC says its role is both to educate and entertain, but Britain's Most Dangerous Songs (BBC4), shows how it assumed a third role: that of the nation's moral guardian.

Cosy old Auntie kept us on the straight and narrow by deciding which music we were allowed to hear. From the 1930s, with its draconian Dance Music Policy Committee, to today's producers who're ruled by compliance culture and fear of offending people, the BBC is ever watchful of popular music and still willing to ban songs which it thinks are harmful, explicit or disrespectful.

Of course, as the programme tells us, 'there's nothing like being banned to guarantee chart success' and the bumbling Beeb often found that songs they suppressed went rampaging to the top of the charts.

The programme surveyed ten of the 'most dangerous' songs which the BBC banned, mixing great nostalgic footage of the controversial artists with the inevitable commentary from music celebrities, some of whom were droll and incisive, like David Quantick and Stuart Maconie, and some just annoying, like the overly-emotive Carrie Grant.

We saw infamous songs, like The Sex Pistols with God Save The Queen, although they just seemed oddly quaint instead of threatening, and when their notorious interview with Bill Grundy was played the sulky cursing wasn't as shocking as the fact they were smoking in the studio. That looked wildly strange!

There was also mention of Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax, which was censored for its erotic video and allusions to gay sex. It's clear why a strait-laced establishment institution would have banned it, but the programme also looked at the BBC's weirder choices, such as Lola and All The Young Dudes, both of which were initially banned for the unforgivable sin of product placement, the former mentioning cherry cola and the latter Marks and Spencer.

It's an odd, prissy bureaucracy indeed which takes offence at revolution one day and fizzy drinks in the next, at homosexuality and then at Marks and Sparks.

The programme also revealed a list of songs which were to be banned whenever Britain was at war. This was utilised during the Gulf conflicts. Any songs containing references to battles or weaponry were forbidden, so Blondie fell foul of the rules with Atomic, as did Lulu with Boom Bang-a-Bang and - ridiculously - Waterloo by Abba. What possessed the minds of those grim men in suits in thinking the Gulf War could be won or lost via glitter and shiny blue trousers? And what a low opinion they must have had of the masses who were just keen to hum along to a catchy Abba tune.

That seems to lie at the root of the BBC's desire to be our moral guardian: the thinking that we are an unwashed rabble and must be prodded and controlled and protected, for only the toffs in the Establishment know what's right. That attitude was behind the censoring of the first song on the list, With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock by George Formby.

He was a grinning working class hero from the ultimate working class town. Blackpool, in its hearty summer season, is a joyous, raucous place. There's no pretension there. You won't find gastropubs and spas and boutique hotels. Instead, you'll find what's always been there since the days of George Formby: the Tower and the Ballroom and dancing and drinking and bingo and singing, and not a care for what the posh folk get up to. George Formby, with his catchy songs, clever lyrics and innuendo summed up that irrepressible working class spirit. In the Winter Gardens, Blackpool audiences stuck two fingers up to the toffs and called for another song and the BBC men, in their airless London offices, hated this. Formby's lyrics - rude but hardly revolutionary- upset the BBC. They objected to funny innuendo like 'it may be sticky but I never complain. It's nice to have a nibble at it now and again' and so he was banned from the airwaves. Working class culture and clamour silenced by the Establishment.

This programme was an enjoyable survey of Britain's 20th century through the excesses of its popular music, and the BBC wasn't afraid to mock its old frigid attitudes, but things have hardly improved as their timid reaction to Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead proved. They were neither brave enough to ban it, nor brave enough to play it in its entirety. Instead, they allowed a five-second pinch to be broadcast. Radio 1's controller justified the cowardly compromise, saying it was done out of respect for Margaret Thatcher's grieving family, though I hardly think they were gathered round the radio in their mourning garb saying 'oh do hush, Carol dahling, the bloody chart show's on.' So, our dear Auntie showed that she might be able to have a laugh with us but she'll still rap our knuckles if we laugh too loud.

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