Bill Turnbull famously conflated customers and clients; James Naughtie got culture and Jeremy Hunt entangled and reporter Norman Smith slipped, in a Freudian kind of way, over personality cult. Accidental use of the c-word has caused much embarrassment for the perpetrators but, in most cases, nothing worse than a snigger among the audience.
But deliberate use of the word on TV and radio is a whole different matter. Which is why BBC television’s highest ranking executive has had to consider a scene in a new BBC4 documentary about irreverent comedian Peter Cook being broadcast on Wednesday night.
The Undiscovered Peter Cook features a 70-second piece of dialogue between Cook and his comedy co-conspirator Dudley Moore that uses the c-word 12 times and the f-word 15 times. It’s rapid-fire vulgarity and is, almost certainly, the most profanity riddled rant ever broadcast on British TV.
Because of its potential to offend it’s only being shown after the express approval of the BBC’s head of television Charlotte Moore.
And the corporation insists it’s the right decision. “This goes out well past the watershed in a 10pm slot with a very strong language warning, on a channel whose viewers are very familiar with its content,” said a spokesperson. “Peter Cook’s unique brand of satire is well known to comedy fans who would be accustomed to the strongest language from his Derek and Clive sketches with Dudley Moore.”
The audio clip is carefully extracted from a 23-minute long sketch called The Horn on the pair’s 1978 Derek and Clive spoken-word album Ad Nauseam, whose release marked the end of Cook and Moore’s already combustible relationship. And, it’s fair to say, despite the c-count it’s probably one of the tamest bits (a film of the recording was banned in Britain for more than a decade).
The album track it’s taken from, opens with Cook, as Clive, describing being sexually aroused by the sight of a dead Pope lying in state. The line delivered immediately after the 70-second extract used in the documentary contains the racially offensive N-word.
So it’s clear that much editorial fileting of the sketch has already taken place – specifically no blasphemy or racially insulting language. What remains is essential, say the BBC, in helping chronicle Cook’s transition from early days satirist to latter-day comedy agitator.
“There is strong editorial justification for the inclusion of this material as it forms an important part of Peter’s legacy and, in a programme which presents a full picture of his life and work, it would be erroneous to omit mention of it or not include an extract of this iconic part of his career.”
Broadcast watchdog Ofcom effectively endorses the BBC’s position saying that bad language is acceptable on TV as long as it’s signposted, is after the 9pm watershed and has proper context.
The language that produced the most complaints to Ofcom – more than 45,000 of them – were the racial slurs used by the late Jade Goodey against fellow Celebrity Big Brother contestant Shilpa Shetty in 2007.
The history of the c-word
So, in these supposedly more enlightened and liberal times should we still be outraged by the c word? Susie Dent, who inhabits Dictionary Corner on C4’s Countdown and writes a column for RT, says it’s been causing offence for hundreds of years.
“The first printed record noted in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1230 – a street called ‘Gropecuntlane’ in Oxford. There were many other lanes with this name throughout the country, often used by prostitutes.”
She says that by the 1400s the word was being used among surgeons to describe a part of the anatomy – yes, that ‘part’ of the anatomy.
By the 1660s, a ‘c***’ described a woman in sexual terms.
She says: “Samuel Pepys writes in his diary ‘Mr. Batten..acting all the postures of lust and buggery that could be imagined, and..saying that he hath to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him’.
“Before long, it had become a firm taboo. When D.H.Lawrence published his sensational Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928, it had become legally obscene. (It wasn’t just ‘c***’ that people objected to in the novel either: the prosecution counsel urged the jury to hold ‘hidden from your wives and servants’ a book that contained ’30 fucks or fuckings, 14 c***s, 13 balls, 6 each of shit and arse, 4 cocks, and 3 piss’.)
C*** has barely moved since then: it remains at the top of our modern taboo list. Despite all its permutations it is considered the strongest swear word in English.”
The Undiscovered Peter Cook is on BBC4 at 10pm on Wednesday 16th November