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Censorship, swearing and the 1960s

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Eamonn Walsh | 12:15 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

US comedian and political satirist Lenny Bruce once said "life is a 4-letter word".

Between you and me he said funnier things in his time. Many of which really can't be posted here.

Bruce made his career in the 1960s trying to push the boundaries over what could and couldn't be said. He claimed he was trying to reduce the power of language to cause offence. Others claimed he was actually just offensive.

Which is quite apt in the week where Panorama looked at taste and decency on British broadcasting in the aftermath of the return of Jonathan Ross to the BBC.

Criticised in some quarters and celebrated - after a fashion - by others, his return has placed the issue of swearing in broadcasting centre stage again. With Ross the current poster boy.

Tv anti-hero Alf Garnett had similar problems in the 1960s. His creator - the "Til Death Us Do Part" screenwriter Johnny Speight - was interviewed by Panorama in 1968. Speight spoke of his dilemma of not being allowed to let Garnett speak as a real, working class east Londoner would have spoken - crudely and with lots of 4-letter words.

Speight was interviewed in a Panorama looking at the wide-ranging issue of censorship - in books, on the stage and of course on television. In typical-fashion the programme went to permissive Europe - in this case Copenhagen - to look at more liberal attitudes there.

However, rather than a direct contrast with the Danes, Panorama rather surprisingly found liberal attitudes in the UK too among the supposedly more conservative Brits. Watch an abridged version here:

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In a strange twist, the very fact that Panorama broadcast some footage - rather tame by today's standards - that some would seek to censor (an autopsy and a Danish love film to name a couple), led to the reporter David Dimbleby and a senior editor facing a panel the following week to defend their actions on the BBC's right-to-reply show "Talkback".

An abridged version of the debate - featuring a youthful future Cabinet minister David Blunkett - can be seen here:

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Panorama guest presenter Frank Skinner also had to defend his position when news broke that he was fronting the show. He called it "comedianist prejudice" recently - perhaps not entirely seriously. Richard Dimbleby was not concerned by the "dumbing-down" debate when he tried his hand at - rather relevant it turns out - comedy in 1965:

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Bad comedy aside, Panorama had clearly hit a nerve in 1968 as concerns over apparent broadcasting permissiveness grew. Forty years on the nerve still seems to be jangling.

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