OFCOM’s Revisionist History


Talking Pictures TV is a rather specialist channel at the arse-end of the EPGs for Sky and Freeview. Its USP is a collection of very old films and TV shows – nothing, as far as I can tell, from the start of the 1980s onwards. As such, it is probably never going to be competing with Sky or Netflix for the youth demographic, but for older viewers in search of comforting nostalgia, or fans of vintage cinema, it is something of a treasure trove, not only showing feature films but also strange little educational shorts from yesteryear. I could live without the overly plumby tones of the continuity announcer and the relentless WW2 films, but on the whole, it’s a pretty decent channel, run on a shoestring and clearly a labour of love as much as a commercial venture.

The problem with old films and TV shows, of course, is that they sometimes reflect the attitudes of the times in which they were made – and, if period pieces, the times they were set in. Some of those attitudes will seem quaint, cringeworthy, outrageous and sometimes rather distasteful to modern viewers, especially the sort of desperate-to-be-offended snowflake generation. But they are a reflection of their time. Wiping them from history seems silly – much better to allow such material to be seen and debated, so that we can understand the past , even if – as Talking Pictures TV does – it is preceded with a warning about dated opinions and descriptions.

However, Ofcom, the quango set up to regulate British broadcasting, think otherwise. They received a single complaint about an episode of the 1971 Granada TV series A Family at War.In this episode, a character used the word ‘wog’ (or variations thereof) five times in reference to an Egyptian character called Ahmed. Now, ‘wog’ is certainly an unsavoury racial epithet. But this show was set during World War 2 – a time before political correctness had taken hold. The fact is that lots of people really did use words like that – and worse – back then. Add to that the fact that the show was made almost fifty years ago, and you might sensibly think that the use of the word was suitably contextualised.

But we don’t live in sensible times, and for an organisation like Ofcom – one that, like any censorship body, depends on finding things to be offended by in order to justify its existence – the idea that viewers could watch an old show with a historical setting and understand the context is not an acceptable answer. They upheld this single complaint on the basis that repeated us of the word without challenge carried a high risk of causing significant offence.

It’s unsure how many of the 2  million people who regularly tune into Talking Pictures TV watched the show, but surely a single complaint is evidence that there was actually a low risk of offence – otherwise, more people would have complained. Perhaps – and I’m sure this will be the excuse used by the channel’s detractors – the Talking Pictures TV audience is made up of elderly bigots who need to be taught how to think correctly. Perhaps though, they are simply intelligent enough to understand that fiction is not real, and not every word that comes out of a character’s mouth is necessarily meant to be taken as an endorsement.

Censorship of politically incorrect art from the past is nothing new – it’s happened to everyone from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie. But that censorship has tended to be carried out for commercial reasons by publishers and broadcasters. The idea of it being enforced by a government quango is rather more unsettling. And the fact that the Talking Pictures TV staff have been summoned to a meeting with Ofcom, where they are to be taught what is and isn’t acceptable language – and context be damned – is something we should all be concerned about. Because there is little chance that such controls and historical revisionism will end with unpleasant racial insults. One thing that we can guarantee is that what is acceptable today will not necessarily be acceptable tomorrow, and confining art – good or bad – to the dustbin because it transgresses current sensibilities is something we should leave to theocratic dictatorships.