Two of the iconic art figures of the 1960s meet in a fascinating British television film.
At the start of the 1970s, fashion photographer David Bailey was at the height of his fame – having broken the mould of staid fashion photography in Vogue during the 1960s, Bailey – with his celebrity model girlfriends – had been the template for Antonioni’s Blow Up and was arguably the first celebrity photographer. In 1971, Lew Grade hired him to make a series of arts documentaries for ATV, despite Bailey’s complete lack of experience in the field. The first of these was an intimate and groundbreaking portrayal of Cecil Beaton, and set the scene for what ought to have been a whole series of fascinating studies of interesting artists from an insider viewpoint – he followed up with a documentary on Visconti. Unfortunately, the whole project was ended abruptly after the third film, a 1972 study of Andy Warhol, which caused press outrage and legal action from moralising fanatics.
The Warhol documentary was a study of what would turn out to be the dying days of the Factory – soon after this film was made, Warhol cut ties with the likes of Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling and moved away from experimental filmmaking to more overtly commercial art. As such, Bailey’s film – which manages to get more out of the famously monosyllabic artist that most did (thanks in part to Bailey’s decision to hand the directing duties to William Verity and instead concentrate on getting Warhol to talk – even getting in bed with him to do an interview. Bailey spent almost a year making the film, interviewing and filming many of Warhol’s contemporaries and associates, including Paul Morrissey, Jane Holzer and Brigid Berlin, who was filmed making ‘tit prints’ – painting her breast and then pressing it to paper.
By the standards of British TV in 1973, are breasts were not especially outrageous, but the nation was in the grip of one of its periodic fits of morality at the time, stoked by the rise of the permissive society and the backlash from religious groups like Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light, Lord Longford’s ‘investigation’ into pornography and films such as A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs and The Devils. Warhol was already seen as morally suspect, thanks to films like Flesh and Trash, which had been subject to BBFC bans, censorship and police raids, and this documentary – with drag queens and transvestites, homosexuals, junkies and other outsiders, not to mention sexual discussion and fruity language – was bound to be controversial. When ATV screened the film to the press, it caused a predictable tabloid storm, and moral campaigners saw a chance to stand up against the tide of filth that they thought was engulfing the nation.
The moraliser, in this case, was Ross McWhirter, who – alongside twin brother Norris – was the editor of The Guinness Book of Records and a regular fixture on popular BBC kids show Record Breakers, where his encyclopaedic knowledge of who and what was the fastest/biggest/strongest kept viewers entertained. He was also something of a fanatical right-winger, who had ties to Whitehouse and was a fervent campaigner against Irish terrorism, campaigning to have the rights of the Irish in the UK severely curtailed and offering a £50,000 bounty on the capture of IRA members – this eventually led to his assassination in 1975 by the very IRA men that his reward was meant to bring to justice.
When McWhirter read the press reports about Bailey’s film, he was outraged and disgusted – but also saw the opportunity to strike a blow against the permissive society. He had not, of course, seen the film, but such niceties have rarely slowed down the moral campaigner. On the 15th of January 1973, based solely on sensationalist press reports, McWhirter issued a writ against the Independent Broadcasting Authority – then the ITV watchdog, later replaced by the more far-reaching OFCOM – to prevent the film from being shown. The writ was dismissed in court, but McWhirter immediately appealed, and the case was heard on the 16th – the day that the film was scheduled to be broadcast by all ITV regional broadcasters apart from Anglia TV, who had decided that it was not of sufficient quality to appeal to the sophisticates of Norfolk.
McWhirter’s claim was that the scenes with Berlin contravened the Vagrancy Act of 1838, which outlawed “wilfully exposing to view, in any Street or Public Place, any obscene Print, Picture, or other indecent Exhibition” – Mary Whitehouse unsuccessfully tried to use the same act to prosecute cinemas showing La Grande Bouffe in 1974. He also claimed that the film contravened broadcasting rules about taste and decency and that at least one sexual description – a fantasy about having sex on a motorcycle while travelling at 60mph – was in contravention of road safety rules.
The Lords sitting in the Appeal Court also hadn’t seen the film, but this did not stop them from making a judgement based on McWhirter’s own imagined version of what it contained. It seems fair to say that the Lords were not exactly in touch with the modern world, and were outraged by the description of Berlin’s art – which, lest we forget, merely involved bare breasts and had no sexual content – and voted 2 to 1 to uphold an injunction against the film, also voicing criticism of the IBA for not having watched the film prior to broadcast. In fact, the IBA – unlike McWhirter and the Lords – had seen the film and insisted on both cuts and an opening warning/explanation being added (“Warhol and his followers do not think or live in a conventional way. Some people may find both his work and his life-style unsympathetic or offensive”). ATV was forced to replace the film at the last minute, which caused more press outrage and viewer frustration.
A further appeal court case – this time with the film being shown – saw the induction reversed, and McWhirter forced to pay half the IBA’s costs plus damages. It was probably a small price to pay for the publicity it brought to him and his cause. The film was eventually broadcast on March 27th and unsurprisingly was a ratings hit – as with most censorship campaigns, McWhirter’s attempt to hold back the tide of filth merely boosted public awareness. Some 14 million viewers tuned in to be titillated and outraged, and most were inevitably disappointed. The documentary became enough of a cause celebre to ensure that the interview transcripts would later be published in book form, however.
The fuss and outrage surrounding the film did, however, bring a halt to Bailey’s documentary career. Lord Grade, reluctant to face a repeat of the situation, did not commission any further films.
Seen today, the Bailey/Warhol documentary is a fascinating time capsule, with two of the iconic figures of 20th Century art – and some of the most interesting figures of the 1960s – captured at their prime. Thankfully, it is available for viewing online:
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