‘The world was never the same’
Joan Bakewell on sex, revolution and reporting during 1968.
Joan Bakewell is many things: a novelist; a commentator; a cultural critic. But she’s something else, too: she is someone who lived through, observed and participated in the tumult of the 1960s. As a presenter, from 1965 onwards, on the BBC’s fringe arts show Late Night Line-Up, Bakewell spent seven years interviewing artists, politicians and radicals. And as a result, she drunk deep on the countercultural, artistic and political movements of the 1960s. She met Vaclav Havel, interviewed and debated Paris students, and spoke to American draft dodgers.
Now a member of the House of Lords, Bakewell is far removed from her flirtations with the anti-establishment movers and shakers of the 1960s. But if her new BBC documentary Vive la Révolution is anything to go by, she is still as interested in the desire to change the world as she was 50 years ago. The spiked review’s Ella Whelan caught up with Bakewell at her home in north London to find out what was so great about 1968, and whether she thinks it could happen again.
Whelan: How did you come to be a presenter on Late Night Line-Up?
Bakewell: Late Night Line-Up began when BBC Two began, because the idea was a line-up for the evening show. So it was a trailer programme. And it was run by the continuity department, which meant it didn’t have much authority. It was quite small beer in the BBC. By then, I was in my late twenties, with children, and scrounging around for different bits of television work because of the perennial problem – children and jobs. I had a job doing some work for Southern Television (none of these companies exist anymore), and it was seen by the person who edited Line-Up. He asked me to go along for a drink in the BBC club, which is where a lot of business was done in those days. He said they were doing this programme, it’s going to be on late at night on BBC Two every night of the year. Every night of the year! And they needed a rota of people, so would you like to try it out? It was an absolute disaster, truly, truly awful. I knew how to interview people for three minutes – but for 10 minutes? I couldn’t think of what to ask them.
I think he took a shine to me, I was quite pretty in those days. There was more to it than just my professional skills. I don’t mean that I had an affair, but I think he thought it was nice to have a pretty woman around. So he signed me up for a programme on every night of the year except Christmas night. There were four of us who were the main presenters, with adjacent people to help out. It’s where Barry Norman’s film programme started; it’s where Old Grey Whistle Test began – so it was a seedbed for bright young things who fancied working in television. I was lucky to be one of them.
The programme was initially meant to review television programmes, but as it was every night of the week, we got bored. So anything that was mentioned on television we took as an excuse to do a discussion. So of course that meant all sport, current affairs, pop music – we could talk about anything we liked. And once we knew that, we were off. We chose our own subjects.
Whelan: So Line-Up was only three years old in 1968: what was it like reporting during that time?
Bakewell: I was interested in a lot of BBC drama. And through that I met people like Ken Loach and Tony Garnett and lots of radical playwrights who were interested in the changes that were going on in the world. A lot of the BBC drama department had contacts across Europe, where plays were being written. And Václav Havel was a Czech writer whose plays they used. So I got to know about playwriting and what was happening.
I also had a lot of left-wing friends in London and they tipped me off in 1967 to the fact that there was a lot of rumbling among intellectuals in Czechoslovakia, as it then was. And I thought, that would be interesting to talk about – but how do we do it?
We had the excuse that Havel had written a play the BBC had done, so that ticked one box. And then we discovered that there was a television festival in Prague in the autumn of 1967. That ticked another box. So we took this to the editor and argued that we ought to go to Prague. And, we said, by the way, while we’re there, we might talk to other intellectuals. He was very easygoing and said yes. So off I went to Prague.
What I had in my bag was a list of phone numbers which included people like Havel and Miloš Forman. We met the head of Prague television, who was to prove very instrumental when it came to the Prague Spring. When the rebellion began, he opened the state television studios to the protesters and the students. He subsequently vanished when the Russians came – we never heard anything more of him. He probably had a terrible fate. But Miloš Forman went to Hollywood and became a famous director, and Václav Havel went on to become president of Czechoslovakia. So we’d hit the right people. But when we were there, we just knew them as sort of dissidents – intelligent, active dissidents who were being monitored by the Russians.
Whelan: Were you aware of a feeling of pent-up political tension in the years before 1968?
Bakewell: What had been happening for some 13 years by 1968 was the Vietnam War, which we covered on Line-Up. Because of our sympathies, we interviewed a lot of draft dodgers. We got into trouble with the BBC establishment who noticed we weren’t interviewing the people fighting the war. And they felt that was to the discredit of the BBC.
There wasn’t a lot of media in those days. And there was only three channels: BBC One, BBC Two and ITV. PR people, who wanted publicity for their causes – books and plays – where did they look? They looked to us because we were always on the air, every night, and we willing to try new stuff. We liked danger and rebellion. So they would get in touch with us.
I did a long interview with James Baldwin, and people like that who were part of the civil-rights movement. A lot of the draft dodgers came over here to the UK, there was a route by which they got to Sweden where they were accepted by the government. Lots of them lived in Hampstead, hiding out here! So we told their story, and that brings you in to knowing more. You know how journalism works – you get to know someone and they say, ‘Did you know that such and such has happened in Prague?’. And then you’re off.
One is always curious about where change is coming from. The status quo is boring to report – it’s just the same old people doing the same old thing. Where does change come from, and who does it? It’s basically young people, and we all picked up that message. We were in our twenties and thirties, with a great deal of freedom, which you would not be given in the BBC now, or probably in any news institution in this country. It’s gotten much more constipated; it’s hard to do new stuff.
Whelan: You were the face of this institution of the British establishment, the BBC, and you were interviewing people who wanted to overthrow everything it stood for. What was that like?
Bakewell: We just went our own way, saying that we were interested in ideas. I’ve always said that that’s what interests me – change and ideas. Where do they come from? What effect do they have? How do they work themselves out?
But I was called in by the head of the department, who said, ‘Joan, there’s a rumour going round the BBC that you’re trying to bring down the government’. Well, I said, ‘give me strength, I’m a married woman with two small children and a part-time job. What do you think I’m doing?’. And he said, ‘Well, I think I ought to warn you to be careful’. I told him, ‘Believe me, I support this country and its government and its freedoms and parliament. I want to improve everything that is flawed, but I don’t seek to bring anything down.’ But having issued the warning, he did keep an eye on what we were doing.
So, we had to have a good case to cover controversial issues. That’s why we claimed to be out in Prague filming the television festival. It was a big festival!
The BBC delegate was Tony Garnett, Ken Loach’s producer. He did Cathy Come Home and all the radical productions. I always remember him being considered very shocking by the status quo in Prague, who came to all the events and dances in buttoned-up, double-breasted suits (they were rather small, stocky people), with wives in tight satin and fur wraps. Tony went in a leather jacket and jeans. They couldn’t believe that he was the BBC representative! They were really bemused by that. They thought the BBC was very strange, and even felt a bit insulted that it had sent such a studenty kind of person. He also took six or so Rolling Stones records with him, and doled them out to the females (it got him a lot of favours). The idea of taking Rolling Stones records to Prague, when it was behind the Iron Curtain and under Russian surveillance, was considered very daring.
Whelan: What was it like, interviewing these activists?
Bakewell: Prague was interesting, because the people who we interviewed had to use metaphors when talking about the changes they wanted. So Havel said his play, Momentum, examined the nature of bureaucracy. That’s how he talked about it, through drama. Everyone in Prague was used to language that was couched in meaning, rather like Nineteen Eighty-Four. They knew how to speak of something that had a hidden message.
I remember two of the Prague activists asking me to do the interviews out in the open air, because everything was bugged. To that extent, talking to these people was circumscribed. The language had to be discreet, within reason. When you got back to England, you knew what it was about.
As for the students who came up from Paris when the troubles broke out in 1968, we simply phoned them and said come over to London, we’ve got a BBC studio and we’ll give it to you for the evening. That was it, they got the train. It wasn’t complicated in those days.
But on the other hand, you see, we were late at night on BBC Two, well past 11 o’clock. We had our following, but we didn’t have a huge audience. It was a bit fringey, so nobody worried in those days. Everyone was watching Eric and Ernie or something like that, which got 20million on Saturday nights. We were really small fry, but that gave us a lot of freedom.
Whelan: What did you make of the student activists?
Bakewell: I was 35, I was older and wiser but I thought they were great. I thought they were terrific because they never stopped talking and I liked that. I love exchanging ideas and having arguments. Listening to the hopes of young people made you feel hopeful. People don’t really feel hopeful now. We might get together and discuss why things are going wrong, but we don’t look forward.
In the 1960s, we always talked about how things were going right, but only just, and if we could be more effective, things would get better. It was a very different mood to today; it all felt really good. I loved talking to all of them. People like Havel were amazingly talented, they were the flower of their generation. Lots of them went on to have fantastic careers. They were intelligent, they weren’t just irritated troublemakers. They were thoughtful – intellectuals, really.
The interesting thing that emerges in the documentary I made about 1968, Vive la Révolution, is how conventional the student radicals were. They didn’t harangue or rally or put their fists in the air. They were really serious theorists about the nature of political government, and I enjoyed all that. It didn’t finally triumph, except of course for Havel, who became president.
The Prague Spring wasn’t violent – the Communist president Dubček brought in a lot of reforms. The activists we spoke to didn’t want to abolish Communism. They wanted to make it Communism with a friendly face. They could see that it might work that way. So, they were all very conventional in the way that they talked to me. But in August the Russian tanks drove across the frontier, straight to Prague. The Russians really fought back and crushed the rebellion. Nothing like that happened in Paris, even though de Gaulle called a General Election. No one was going to have an election in Prague, so they were two entirely different set-ups.
But what was common to them all was young people rising. I thought that was wonderful. If it happened now, I’d like it.
Whelan: One of the things you bring out in the documentary is that many of these young rebels in Paris looked a lot like their elders, the guys had a short back and sides haircut…
Bakewell: And wore tweed suits.
Whelan: Yes, and the young generation in the US looked completely different – like hippies. What was the difference between American and European radicals in 1968?
Bakewell: Paris students were very intellectual in the sense that they believed in pressing forward their case in long sentences about political theory. They wore suits and ties, and spoke in sentences. Some of them did have wonderful posters and things of that kind. But when they got together in the room, the leaders tended to discuss Marxist Leninism, Trotskyism, Adorno, what did they think of political theory – those kinds of things. They were really seeking the solution in abstract ideas while they inspired people to go on the street.
You had a bit of that in Prague, too, and you did have it in Britain but not so much. Of course, our protests were basically against the Vietnam War. We had a democratic election every five years. Harold Wilson was in power, so everyone complained about him because he didn’t denounce the Vietnam War. But he refused to be allied with the Americans over the Vietnam War. So basically the British disapproved of the Vietnam War, but not our government.
So the moods were very different. And life was changing very much in the 1960s. A lot of us, me included, were quite conventional. I was married, I had children, most of us did. That was the route and the pattern of life. Life wasn’t as varied as it is now, and all sorts of things weren’t allowed. Homosexuality ceased to be prosecuted in the 1960s, but it was still unusual. And the idea of a same-sex marriage was beyond imagining in those days.
Whelan: One of the most famous interviews you did on Line-Up was with Marcel Duchamp. What was that like?
Bakewell: People ask me about Duchamp a lot. One, because he’s unique and virtually started conceptualism. And the other because he didn’t do many interviews, so mine is there simply because that’s it. There isn’t anything else. He came on Line Up because a gallery was promoting his work. They phoned us and we told them to send him over.
He came to the television studios and was very funny. He arrived in reception and announced who he was. They had no idea who he was, so they said sit down there. He had this sculpture with him, and they didn’t know what it was. He said, this is mine, it’s going on the programme. It was a bottle rack.
He told me that he’d been having a wonderful time. He said: ‘This bottle rack, nobody knows what it is. They don’t know what it’s for. And I am sitting watching their expressions because it has to be treated with discretion. I’m following the expressions of all the people who are watching and how they frown, or just ignore it, or, if they are very British, they pretend it isn’t there.’
His sense of humour about his work and its impact in general was very engaging. I just got on with him very well. He wasn’t to live much longer, but he must have been in his sixties. He was very charming, and very French. You know how we think of the French as being so charming with the ladies – he did have a bit of that old-world charm. He smoked cigars in the studio throughout the interview. That was no problem in those days.
He basically only wanted to talk about chess. Once he’d made the great glass piece, one of his masterworks, he sort of wound down. I think he felt he’d made his mark, and he wanted to talk about chess. He really wanted to play international chess. He was passionate and quite disappointed that I wasn’t very good at it.
Right at the end, after I thanked him, he said, ‘it’s been a pleasure’. I don’t know if you can hear that at the end of the interview. It was a pleasure. Then he walked away, and I thought, there goes a legend.
Whelan: What was it like being a woman – a female reporter – during that time? Especially when lots of the movements of 1968 were dominated by men?
Bakewell: It’s very hard to explain to people today about what it was like, because I’m so steeped in what it was like. I’m always surprised that people don’t know that back then it was automatically assumed that men would take all the main jobs. They deferred to women – they opened doors and had manners. Sometimes they behaved badly, but that was the other side of the coin.
It was automatic that most of the shows and top jobs in the BBC belonged to men. There was one female producer on Line-Up, and obviously all the editors were men. All the other interviewers were men.
But that was how the world was. So I didn’t say ‘good heavens, everyone is a man!’. I just said: ‘Hi guys, I’ve come to join you.’
Sometimes it attracted unwanted attention. Someone once interviewed Tony and asked him what it was like working with Joan Bakewell. He said ‘she’s not bad for a bloke’. That’s exactly how I wanted to be seen – they did treat me like a bloke, that was part of it. They expected me to just get on with the job and do it as well as they did. We were all equal doing the programme.
Jimmy Savile was often in the BBC club after Top of the Pops, looking at the talent. And Jimmy was a very eccentric, peculiar man who we didn’t take much notice of. The world hummed with sexuality and the fact that men expected to make passes at women. That’s what they do. And that was accepted. We didn’t say ‘how dare you’; we said ‘no, please don’t’.
We asserted ourselves. We didn’t get pushed around unless we wanted to. But you did do certain things, like when you got in a lift you stood with your back to the wall because you didn’t want someone stroking your bum. But if they did, you wouldn’t complain. Who would you complain to? If you told a man, he’d say, ‘Oh for God’s sake, Joan, they were only having a bit of fun, don’t be so solemn’. There was no one to go to, the hierarchy said we expect men to chat up women. If you don’t like it, just say so, but for heaven’s sake don’t be so stuffy.
Whelan: How much was the radicalism of 1968 about sex?
Bakewell: Having sex with each other was revolutionary in those days. You were meant to be virginal, you were expected to stay a virgin until you were married. The impact of DH Lawrence and his sexy novels was profound. People were deeply moved and wanted to be part of that roaring sexual world.
So when the universities said that men and women couldn’t sleep in the same rooms, that was really political. That wasn’t just a trivial thing, it was fundamental to people’s lives. When people laugh about the dormitories and think, how silly, that’s not revolutionary, they’re wrong. At the time it made a huge difference because it was a big statement about how we wanted to live. It did matter.
The flaw of 1968 was that the students wanted to overturn society, but they didn’t ever come up with the system of how they wanted society to run. The workers went on strike and supported the students – and the students supporters the workers. But the workers wanted change, and I’m not aware of any changes that the students ever proposed. Lots of people wanted de Gaulle and his troops out of the way. But as I made clear in my documentary, far more people wanted de Gaulle to overcome the students, and make them grow up. The march for the Gaullists in Paris was half-a-million strong.
Whelan: It’s striking how quickly the unrest of 1968 was over, especially in Paris. What was the legacy? Did it change the world?
Bakewell: The world was never the same. You knew that things could be possible, change could be possible, activity could be possible. But the outcomes were never evident. The Vietnam War was brought to an end, in many ways, because of protests and evidence of the war on television.
One of the biggest changes after 1968 was for women, and the breakthrough of the women’s movement. Germaine Greer had already published, Gloria Steinem was already moving that way. I was very moved by a book by Betty Friedan called The Feminine Mystique, which had come out much earlier. I knew that would change me. So women writers and women thinkers were changing things. And that just got stronger, that didn’t go away or get defeated. Simone De Beauvoir made a huge difference and is still one of the standard texts of the feminist movement.
There wasn’t any turning back for women. But there wasn’t any turning back for men, either. In fact, many of them went into politics. The American radical Tom Hayden became a senator, France’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit is still an MEP. So they just worked the system, rather than trying to smash the system.
Women have been a good deal more forceful, I think, and they’ve got further to go. But even over the past 12 months there’s been an enormously invigorating response to women and their interests. You’ve got strange things like the statue of Millicent Fawcett going up in parliament (a nice establishment thing to do, but wonderful nonetheless). And then you’ve got things like #MeToo and all sorts of change happening and affecting everyone’s lives. So I rather bask in the pleasure of watching that happen, and I think 1968 has pushed this change forward.
Whelan: Is there any difference between the youth of 1968 and young so-called radicals today?
Bakewell: It is different. Women have the law on their side. The laws have changed – laws about equal pay, laws about discrimination and abusive language. So while the law isn’t always obeyed or effective, it has been laid down. Women have a fair chance now. That’s the basic difference between then and now.
It was very strange in the 1960s. A woman couldn’t get a mortgage without her husband’s approval. I sometimes refer to those days and my grandchildren gasp and say: ‘Was it really like that? Surely you’re exaggerating?’ It was like that – it was intrinsic to the way you lived your life. You weren’t shocked by injustice, it was routine.
Whelan: Do you think we misremember 1968? Do we need to put its history right?
Bakewell: It’s unavoidable that people who lived through the 1960s misremember it, because we enjoyed ourselves so much. When you’re old you look back with nostalgia and you forget the tawdry, sad things about it that didn’t work. You forget that people had far less money and not so many went to university. It is impossible not to think of it as a good time in your own life. And that spills over into how you think about the society as it was.
Whelan: Do you see the possibility for a 1968 movement today? Is the defiance of the ’68ers dead?
Bakewell: I think young people have always been fired up and looking for a place in life. They don’t want to fulfil the expectations of the elders, because it’s boring.
But it seems to me that younger protesters have fragmented into single-issue things. So the people who care about the environment care very much, and people who care about women’s issues – #MeToo and so on – care about those very much, too. It’s not the universal, generalised opposition to older generations and societal injustice that 1968 had going for it.
When you see pictures of young people in the 1960s rising up against an older generation, it does really make the juices run. I wish they’d do that now.
Joan Bakewell is a journalist, television presenter and Labour Party peer. Her BBC documentary, Vive la Révolution, is available to watch here.