How did smok­ing on TV be­come a hot­ter topic than live sex?

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

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.

Don­ald Clarke

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