How did smoking on TV become a hotter topic than live sex?
Hello, is that 1957? We need one of those people who is always being summoned forward in time to comment on contemporary discontents for a column such as this. Once they’ve finished whingeing about mobile phones, kids not getting enough exercise and the rise of fidget spinners, they may like to have a look at Love Island. There’s plenty to fume about there.
So grim and predictable is reality TV – the millennial craze that just won’t die – that, if you haven’t seen the thing, the title will tell you all you need to know. Nonentities are dumped on an island and encouraged to pair off to entertain the sorts of people who would once have enjoyed witch dunking. The prize is to become . . . Well, entities, I suppose. See the winner next year on Celebrity Love Island.
So, Person from 1957, what do you think will have drawn the most complaints? The intimations of actual sexual sex will certainly have shocked many. (I’m told Jess and Dom got it on early in the series.) There is a fair bit of swearing. Let’s get out the Basildon Bond.
It transpires that more than half the complaints have been about contestants smoking. More viewers now worry about cigs than actual sex between sexy people. The United Kingdom once came to a shuddering, panicked halt when the Sex Pistols said a bad word on television. Nowadays, to generate that filth and fury, you’d merely need to whip out a Golden Carcinoma No 7. (I have invented a cigarette brand here, as I suspect editorial rules prohibit mentioning the real things.) Person from 1957 would find this almost impossible to believe. He or she would need to suck down a whole packet of gaspers just to pull themselves together. Here we have a show that, if broadcast to other planets, might convince aliens that the species had advanced little further than their own lichen, and, rather than whinge about social decay, we’re worrying about consenting adults sucking down the smooth taste of Emphysema King Size.
A Person from 1977 would be almost as astonished. A Person from 1987 would be only a little less gobsmacked. The change in attitudes towards smoking has, over the past few decades, been jarringly dramatic.
The stories the people on Mad Men told you are all true. People used to smoke absolutely everywhere. In the 1970s I attended a very respectable school in Northern Ireland. It was the sort of place that forced us into smart blazers and colourful caps. (I’d better not be any more precise.)
Yet the man who taught us in P6 smoked throughout class with a ferocity that would put steam locomotives to shame. In between fags, globules of spume would be coughed into paper handkerchiefs that, now wadded into tight, damp balls, would be flung towards, though rarely into, a distant waste-paper basket. My memory was that, by the time the lunch bell sounded, the floor was littered with small green pestilent spheres.
There used to be little kidney-shaped ashtrays on the back of cinema seats. The beam from the projector would be plainly visible in the mass of blue smoke that hovered over the wheezing cinemagoers. Can it really be so recent that we were allowed to smoke on aircraft? A particular class of nervous flyer would begin the journey with his or her eyes fixed furiously on the No Smoking light. Once it went out a mass of clicking and inhaling announced the arrival of another colossal fire risk.
If you’re really old you’ll remember cigarette commercials on television. The ad for a South African-based brand promised that its wares were particularly popular with airline pilots. That’s right. They were even smoking in the cockpit. In the United States, characters from kids’ shows such as The Flintstones used to advertise cigarettes.
There was smoking all over the telly. You might expect that in drama, but it was prominent in early political shows and panel shows. In the first few series of University Challenge the students sucked tabs when trying to remember the atomic weight of caesium. (I’d like to tell you that the presenters puffed coffin nails on Blue Peter, but I don’t think that’s true.)
All of which is a way of saying that the olden days were absolutely horrible and we’re better off as we are now. Back then people whinged about stray nipples in I, Claudius and interracial kisses on Emergency – Ward 10. Sexual swear words are today infinitely more acceptable than racial slurs or misogynistic debasement. Train carriages can be endured without the donning of professional breathing apparatus.
Whingers are a menace, but, if they must complain, then they may as well do it about smoking.