TV UK, 30 July

Old men get grumpy about the sixties.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Why I Hate the Sixties (BBC2 on Tuesday) took its title and a certain facetious tone from the I Love… programmes, but it also owed a lot to another recent BBC2 series, Grumpy Old Men.

While there was an element of good-natured curmudgeonism in this critique of the sixties, however, the overwhelming current in the programme was one of old-fashioned political reaction.

This peculiar trait was at odds with the programme’s slot in the liberal artsy ‘BBC4 on BBC2’ strand after Newsnight, as well as with its whimsical tone, and the effect was somewhat surreal. Right-wing commentators like Peter Oborne, Peter Hitchens, Simon Heffer and Peregrine Worsthorne lined up to bash the sixties, while the likes of David Aaronovitch and Terry Eagleton fitted in more comfortably than they might like. Leftish critiques of commercialism only complemented the conservative account.

Of course taking on a decade like this is a stupid idea, and Tony Blair was roundly ridiculed when he tried it in a recent speech. While there might be something to be said for a programme challenging some of the smug claims about how great the sixties were, and there was a bit of that, the programme mostly took the sixties to mean liberalisation and experimentation, and attacked them on that basis. Peter Oborne summed things up by arguing that that the problem was human arrogance.

There were patchy sections on architecture and education in which some sensible points were made, but the general reactionary thrust of the programme meant that any intelligent criticisms were lost amid the stupid ones. The programme did go for more radical credentials with an attack on the racism that was prevalent in the sixties, but it quickly reverted to reaction when it came to the contraceptive pill, which was alleged to have put women into sexual bondage, and to abortion.

Anne Atkins explained that along with legalisation there had been a philosophical shift in the sixties in which abortion had gone from being seen as something that might be justifiable in certain circumstances to being claimed as a right, and that this had led to slaughter on the same scale as the Nazi Holocaust. (Thankfully she didn’t complete the analogy by arguing that it might be all right to exterminate the odd Jew in exceptional circumstances.)

All this right-wing guff put a different complexion on the previous night’s programme in the same slot, in which Mark Lawson took on the idea that the sixties had been a golden age of television. The programme made clear that while the best of sixties TV had been excellent, the worst had been dire. Fair enough, but several contributors talked about the spirit of experimentation that had prevailed, particularly at the BBC. However contemporary TV shapes up to that of the past, experimentative is not a word that springs to mind to describe it.

Unless, of course, you count tweaking a light entertainment format to indulge grumpy old men raging against the whole idea of experimentation.

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