Child Of Four 

1 January 2002

Under certain conditions, you could describe the period of Thatcher’s rule in this country as very hard.

If you weren’t a union man, or were employed in a service industry, Thatcherism was good for you. If you were a white, employed, 2.4 kids family man, or a housewife with a husband in middle-management in a large private company, you had it made.

If you deviated from this cosy middle-England view of life, the period of the Thatcher and Major governments were difficult. If you had the misfortune to be a state employee in a nationalised industry, decades of under-investment were followed by you being thrown to the wolves in the market when privatisation became doctrine.

If you chose not to marry but still had children, or found your vocation in life disappeared when the mines and the steelworks closed, you were a sponger, seeking aid from a state that had spent the post-war period promising to provide but had now changed its collective mind.

If you were seriously to deviate from the accepted norm, an ever-decreasing list published quite often in the Daily Mail, you were out on your own.

Not only was society – that apparently non-existent place we all live – likely to condemn you, but the government had also decided to take against you.

If you were born in the mid-1970s, you grew up knowing nothing of the world except a Conservative government. The history books in school presented the period before 1979 as one of poverty, industrial strife and a horrifying collectivisation of the populace, where individual thought and deed were subsumed under the might of the state.

If, god forbid, you were born gay, you were to be pilloried and denied the simple basic human rights allowed to others growing up without your ‘condition’.

Would you like information on avoiding that gay plague called ‘Aids’? Tough. Would you like to see others of your ‘sort’ represented in the classroom as being the 10% of the population they are? Also tough. Would you like to talk to someone about how isolated and sometimes suicidally lonely your ‘deviation’ makes you? Get lost.

And thus were Thatcher’s Children made – a whole generation of people who believe that any government interest is unnecessary red tape, that giving someone less well off a helping hand is only for the charities you don’t give money to, that individualism is king but differing from a prescribed view of individualism is evil.

But an appreciable number of people in the UK are not Thatcher’s Children, despite the rewriting of history books and the fact that the Labour party is now apparently a right of centre organisation. But why should this be? The answer is Channel Four.

Channel Four was born from a Conservative government. In a unique move, the Home Secretary of the time, William Whitelaw, decided that the previously unallocated fourth frequency at each UHF transmitter should go to a channel devoted to programmes by and for minorities.

These minorities included people of colour, women (despite them being the majority), the young and those interested in odd hobbies – railway journeys, word games and black and white films.

But the channel – under the stewardship of the television hero Jeremy Isaacs – wanted to reach all minorities. And, despite the tabloid headlines, this was to include the largest minority of all – gay men and lesbians.

Until the birth of Channel Four, homosexuality had been treated by television as a mental disorder or a disease. John Freeman, later head of LWT, had interviewed television’s first celebrity Gilbert Harding in 1960, and had asked nasty, if feline, questions designed to produce answers that would lead to Harding coming out.

Later programmes – ‘Are You Being Served?’ springs to mind – had featured effeminate men, presumed rather than declared gay, as objects of ridicule. If a gay man was to be featured on television, he must be tortured about his sexuality or he must be so ‘flamboyant’ as to please your grandmother (‘such a nice young man’) and offend nobody.

But Channel Four’s view was different. If people who liked word games were to be catered for, men who liked other men and women who liked other women and all in-between would also have to be shown.

And Channel Four saw no reason to show gay people as an object for ridicule. Or to show programmes that presented gay people as some lowly underclass hidden in a shadowy twilight world to be displayed as if in a zoo for the viewing public’s delight and mortification.

Instead, Channel Four decided to make a magazine programme for gay people by gay people. Covering current issues, progressive politics and gay history, the first gay-targeted series of note was called ‘Out on Tuesday’.

For those of us still in single figures in age but already knowing ‘something is not quite right’, the discreet cough, a yawn and a declaration of “I’m tired, Mum, so I’m off to bed” at 8.55pm on a Tuesday took us away from the family hearth and in front of the portable in our rooms for 9pm.

I don’t know how I got away with it every season. I lay down on my bed in front of the television, with the volume turned so low I had to crane to hear every word. My finger remained, at all times, poised on the button for BBC-1 in case, implausibly tip-toeing and silently opening my door, my Mum would suddenly appear at my bedside and ask, all innocently, ‘What are you watching, dear?’. David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ seemed infinitely preferable as an idea to ‘Out on Tuesday’.

But hide what I was watching I did, and it was not until many years later I realised that the volume on a portable set would have to be painfully loud to me before my mother would have heard it downstairs.

And, in case you are wondering, headphones would not have done. If headphones were in use, how would I hear that door opening and the arrival of a parent if engrossed? That path was clearly folly, at the time, but again I realise in adulthood that even ‘Out on Tuesday’ could have been covered by pretending to have fallen asleep during the last 5 minutes of ‘Brookside’, easily done, thus rendering me unaware of what filth Channel Four was pumping into my ears.

So what separates me from the Thatcher’s Children previously described? Surely one programme can’t change a national ideology? Well, it didn’t.

But whilst my parents had the Daily Telegraph to tell them what was happening in the world and why, and my contemporaries at school had their parents’ prejudices and the prejudices of their parents’ newspapers ingrained into them, I got off scot free.

A week’s worth of propaganda in the Daily Mail and the condemnation of everything in the slightest bit ‘gay’ from my parents and school ‘mates’ was simply undone by Channel Four.

That hour every Tuesday (and later every Wednesday when ‘Out’ replaced the more time-specific ‘Out on Tuesday’) gave me more depth to what was happening ‘with my people’ than I was ever going to get – at my age – anywhere else.

In addition, Channel Four offered me segments in ‘Out on Tuesday’ about gay history. From this programme – and its successor – I learnt how Nazi Germany had sent homosexuals to the extermination camps, and how, whilst other victims of fascism were liberated by the allies and set free, those wearing pink triangles were returned to Germany and imprisoned in ordinary federal jails for the rest of their lives, on the pretext that homosexuality was illegal under pre-Nazi law so it didn’t matter.

I also learned ‘polari’, the slang language from pre-decriminalisation days made famous by Julian and Sandy on BBC radio’s ‘Round the Horne’. More importantly I learned why the language developed and the circumstances under which it was used.

‘Out’ taught me about the experiences of gay men and lesbians in World War Two, in the home front and how we – for it taught me a history of myself and that ‘we’ was the correct pronoun – were valued as fighters in all the services when war broke out, but hounded out afterward.

It also taught me how the father of modern computing – and the man ultimately responsible for you being able to read this now – was gay, and how he, Alan Turing, killed himself when the government discovered this fact, gave him hormone treatment to ‘cure’ it and took away his security clearance. He was a risk because he could be blackmailed, and he could be blackmailed because the government had decided he was a risk.

Channel Four also started Film on Four, which showcased movies that would otherwise have never been made, or would have been made but never achieved a television debut.

Thus films like ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ showed me two men kissing for the first time (‘Out’ was actually quite coy on this type of thing, being about current affairs and gay history as a rule, not about sex).

Films like ‘The Rejected’, which, whilst not gay, spoke to the tortured teenager within – and I and most teenagers, fans of The Smiths or The Cure or not, were – were also given a showing, and thus helped ‘independent’ directors like Penny Marshall, now famous for the Oscar-winning ‘Forest Gump’, into the mainstream.

BBC Four now carries such movies, and BBC Two and Choice now feature programmes like ‘Gaytime TV’ and ‘That Gay Show’. But these are not at primetime. And the BBC feature programmes are either trite (Gaytime TV) or all about the club-going, popper-sniffing, money-making people gay and lesbians are now considered to be (That Gay Show).

No single programme, no particular strand, now offers gay current affairs and gay history for gay people, the interested straight viewer, or the determined boy or girl eager to learn about the world they will eventually join.

We are poorer for that, but at least there is a generation that are not Thatcher’s Children, but are always ‘Out’.

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