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26 May

Listen To The Banned!

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Can censorship be ever justified? Can the famous quote, wrongly attributed to Voltaire, that ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it’ still be appropriate today? Free speech is regarded as sacrosanct and, for the most part, it should be, but so often it is abused. Under its protective cover, one believes that one can say what one likes. But surely racial incitement can never be justified as neither can an advocacy for violence. They both run contra to the laws of public decency and welfare.

Censorship arises as a result of cultural or political tensions and is, invariably, used as a means by which the powerful can impose their views on those who lack power. Over the centuries, music has been viewed with suspicion because it has a strong and egalitarian communication and can suggest new and different ideas as well as illicit and unfettered notions that those in control fear. The BBC took advantage of its position and power in dictating what was suitable music, and, more relevantly unsuitable, for us to hear.

The Corporation is still sometimes referred to as ‘Auntie’ and it offered an explanation as to the origin of this nickname: " A phrase of obscure origin: presumably journalistic, possibly from cartoons. Increasingly used in the 1950s to contrast BBC’s prudish, cosy, puritanical ‘refained’ image with that of the much brasher ITV". The Corporation was clearly aware of its perception involving a policy which would remain entrenched well into a time when one would have expected and hoped that they would be more enlightened. Auntie, they were declaring, knew best!

From the outset, the BBC enforced a policy regarding music that regulated what must not be broadcast. In the 1930s, the Dance Music Policy Committee was set up whose remit was to act as cultural guardian monitoring what or was not fit to be aired. For example, there is the following directive, issued in 1942, from Sir Arthur Bliss, Director of Music, to the Committee:

"The BBC’s policy is to encourage a more virile and robust output of dance music to accord more closely with the present spirit of the country. To this end any form of anaemic or debilitated vocal performances by male singers will be excluded. Performances by women singers will be controlled to the extent that an insincere and over-sentimental style will not be allowed. No numbers will be accepted for broadcasting which are slushy in sentiment or contain innuendo or other matter considered to be offensive." This was reinforced, some months later, by an equally pompous note:

"We have recently adopted a policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of the war."

And this opinionated piece from a Committee member which shows an utter dislike of dance music and reads like a religious rant:

"No one is more alive than I to the need to buttress the forces of virtue against the unprincipled elements of the jungle"

The BBC could not have been more misguided in regard to those ‘slushy’ songs. They were just what listeners wanted to hear, especially to build wartime, public morale.

Arthur Bliss, unsurprisingly, also decreed that "no number will be accepted for broadcasting which is based on a tune from standard classical works usually found in the concert hall or opera house programmes". Accordingly, Song of India; I’m Always Chasing Rainbows; Baubles, Bangles and Beads; (why, however, did another song from the Borodin-laden ‘Kismet’, And This Is My Beloved, escape the axe?) The Story of a Starry Night; Brahms’ Lullaby and other classics-based songs were forbidden. It seems curious then that Kay Starr’s Comes Along a Love (an adaptation of Rossini’s overture to ‘Semiramade’) and Midnight Sleighride, recorded by the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, an arrangement that made no bones about it originating in Prokofiev’s ‘Lieutenant Kije’ suite, slipped through the net. It appears that the Committee’s forensic experts did not realise what they were.

Needless to say, songs with a religious nature were anathema to the Committee. Answer Me, a ballad with a deliberately religious content, had been recorded by David Whitfield and Frankie Laine in 1953. It was immediately banned by the Head of Religious Broadcasting who regarded it as "a sentimental mockery of Christian prayer", adding almost apologetically that "it is conceivable that a disappointed lover might sincerely utter such a prayer, if he was totally ignorant of the real nature of prayer". However, a song with such high expectations could not be allowed to die and some small but crucial changes were made to the lyric, notably with its opening line becoming ‘Answer Me, My Love’ instead of ‘Answer Me, Lord Above’. Laine and Whitfield recorded this revised version and the coda to this episode was that, for the first and only time in British chart history, both recordings would share the top spot together.

From 1953 again, Crying in the Chapel, recorded by Lee Lawrence was deemed "nauseating and theologically unexceptional". Strong criticism and yet, twelve years later, Elvis Presley’s recording was permitted, without any apparent explanation. The verdict on St Theresa of the Roses was that it was unsuitable "because the lyric is contrary to both Roman Catholic doctrine and to Protestant sentiment". However, double-standards were evident with It Is No Secret, written by Stuart Hamblen in 1951, an earnest, hymn-like ballad. "A sincere, if misguided presentation of a very personal aspect of the Christian gospel" was the opinion of the anonymous Head of Religious Broadcasting. He suggested, though, it could be featured in request programmes when the responsibility would not lie directly with the BBC. Shifting the blame is hardly a Christian sentiment.

George Formby fell foul of the authorities on two occasions. With My Little Ukelele in My Hand and With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock had deliberate sexual innuendo in the lyrics. Did George honestly believe he would get both songs aired? As must have Stan Freberg with the very suggestive John and Marsha. Ella Fitzgerald found her recording of Bewitched banned because it included an explicit verse that was never in included the more familiar bowdlerised version. Presumably when the infamous Je t’aime was released, the Committee took an absence of leave to go into therapy!

Some exclusions are bizarre and often risible. One of the big hits of 1942 was Deep in the Heart of Texas which has a four-note clapping motif just before its chorus. The BBC, in Orwellian mode, would not allow the song to be heard during working hours because factory workers would pause and clap their hands thereby neglecting their labours, albeit for a couple of seconds!

Believe it not but Henry Hall’s 1934 recording of his composition Radio Times was banned on the grounds of advertising whilst the reason for withdrawing Greensleeves by The Beverley Sisters was that it ‘has a special place as an endearing melody of peculiar significance’ and would be debased by dance bands whose treatments would be inappropriate. The Sisters had retaliated with We Have to Be So Careful, which good-naturedly and humorously ridiculed the Committee but, with the BBC not wanting to even admit that such a department existed, it remained unheard. Who were they trying to fool?

In retrospect, it all seems unnecessary and totally misguided compounded by the fact that the BBC felt, arrogantly, being what it was, it was their duty to decide on behalf of British listeners what was fitting and proper.

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of ‘Journal Into Melody’

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