Letter From London

‘Rolfy and C0’ – did the sexual dam burst in 1963?

By Tom Aiken in London

To begin with words from (in his way) a wise man and prophet:

rolf harrisAnnus Mirabilis

By Philip Larkin

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
 (which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Philip larkinThus, in his late forties, Philip Larkin encapsulated the cause and consequences what he saw as the missed opportunities of his youth. In large areas of British society, including Larkin’s own childhood in Coventry, sex had been a naughty secret.  Few people felt able to ask the right questions and those who tried were often puzzled by the answers.

In 1963, in sexual matters as in most others, Britain was still living in the aftermath (or, as Beyond the Fringe had it) the after-myth of war. Sex had certainly played a considerable part in those tumultuous years. To give a bomber or fighter pilot a good time, before he went of on what might be his last flight, was practically a patriotic duty.

However, after the sex in the street that for some marked VE Day in or near the Mall, people had to buckle down to a long exercise in reconstruction. Sex became once more an embarrassing secret.

Lady ChatBut in 1960, when D. H. Lawrence’s previously banned novel was published by Penguin Books following a court case that had shocked and outraged some, but seemed a hugely enjoyable giggle to others, sex and the moral issues attendant upon it became a fit subject for discussion, some of it high minded, some of it very bawdy.

And in the middle of all this, up popped John Profumo, Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler (pictured below), and Mandy Rice-Davies. (If you don’t know about them, Google. I haven’t the space.)

Christine keelerIn Larkin’s second stanza he fillets the relationship between sex and marriage which, it seemed to him, had previously prevailed. The significant words are ‘bargaining’, ‘wrangle’ and ‘shame’. For vast numbers of people in Britain and many other western countries, those words summed up the path to marriage – the only context, at least theoretically, in which sex was permissible.

But, in 1963 swinging London was born, and the enthusiasm was contagious.

In Larkin’s third stanza, the eighteen words beginning ‘Everyone felt the same…’ sum up the change in British attitudes that, I would have to argue, had many beneficial consequences, but also helped create the atmosphere in which allowed the activities of Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and many others in or connected with show business, especially television, and politics to flourish.

Larkin’s bitter irony

Jimmy SavileLife was, as Larkin with bitter irony summed it up, ‘a brilliant breaking of the bank, a quite unlosable game.’

Larkin’s life included sexual relationships, but he was not a man made for happiness and contentment. Whether or not Saville, Harris and Co, were happy with their own lives I cannot say.

Nevertheless, the reasons why they were able to act as they did are summed up by ‘breaking of the bank, a quite unlosable game.’ Both presented on screen a cosy, benevolent image. (I never watched Jimmy Saville if I could avoid doing so, but I liked, even admired, Rolf Harris.)

It would have been unsurprising, and to many people unexceptionable, had they enjoyed the favours of women over the age of consent, who might have been expected to recognise that what was on offer was not ‘happy ever after’ but ‘a good time tonight.’

But what can be said about the under age thing?

  • Why did they want that? Why did they take such risks?
  • Were they carried away by some sort of gambling instinct?
  • Or did they want to avoid adult conversation and responsibilities?

The picture that is generally painted, suggests that all of these factors played a part.

The men concerned wanted sex with large numbers of females. The younger they were the more impressionable they were. Their seducers were on television. That’s glamour for you… (To me, however, the word ‘glamorous’ always seems ludicrous caricature of mankind embodied in Jimmy Saville).

What he did represent, however, was fantasy land. He was, although I gag to say it, Prince Charming. And he was famous. And wealthy.

Aphrodisiacs all

But although the change in social climate and peoples’ expectations re having a good time offer a sort of explanation for what happened, what can we say about production colleagues who must have known what was afoot but chose to ignore it?

The answer, I feel sure, is that many of them, much less well paid than the feted ponces whom they served, just wanted to hang on to their jobs. In the BBC it was – probably still is – more or less suicidal to upset the ‘talent’.

It is not a sufficient answer to this aspect of the problem to say that there was plenty more ‘talent’ available. So there may have been, but large sums had been invested in the promotion of the existing ones. To throw them out would in itself have caused a scandal.

It is worth bearing in mind, too that for reasons connected with their lifestyle and peripatetic commitments, many show business people prefer the idea of transient liaisons without financial or other responsibilities attached.

None of this explains the child sex thing. But although we don’t understand it we have to face the fact that many men for some reason (their own immaturity, perhaps) like it.

(Perhaps they wanted to prove that life was indeed ‘a quite unlosable game’ and the game they were playing was ‘a brilliant breaking of the bank’. And girls, in the presence of someone they hero worship who shows an interest in them, may allow any sense of danger or disgrace to be overcome by the thrill of being taken notice of by someone they hero-worship.

Why do we hero-worship people? Aye, there’s the rub…

It is now clear that similar things were happening within the ‘hallowed halls’ of Westminster.

It’s also clear that Philip Larking skewered the period with pinpoint accuracy.