It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time in the middle of the 1980s when all the artistic gains made in the name of 60s and 70s libertinism seemed in peril; we were on the cusp of a potential rewind back to the censorious era of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and the Hays Code. Channel 4, which has made its early 80s name as a fearless purveyor of ‘anything goes in the name of Art’, was a frontrunner in this sudden and abrupt reversal of attitudes when it introduced its red triangle season of films circa 1986. These were movies that nowadays wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) provoke outrage, but at the time appeared shocking even by the easygoing standards of a TV station that had promoted the brief usage of an expletive such as ‘frigging’ in a primetime soap opera (‘Brookside’). The fact that characters on soaps are generally the only people in Britain who never swear was something ‘Brookside’ momentarily challenged until it became as blandly unrealistic as the rest of them.
Channel 4’s red triangle season featured TV premieres for the likes of Derek Jarman’s Romanesque gay fantasy, ‘Sebastiane’, as well as Dennis Hopper’s ‘Out of the Blue’; for those who weren’t around, the red triangle in question would be a permanent fixture in the top left of the TV screen whilst the movie aired, which allegedly served as an early warning system for the unsuspecting viewer who might switch over from something less contentious on ITV or BBC1. Most of the films screened as part of the short-lived season weren’t that different in content from what had already been shown on Channel 4 – it had premiered the infamous Sex Pistols movie, ‘The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’, in 1985, for example; but the bizarre season can be seen in retrospect as a concession to the great moral backlash of the late Thatcher era, which also included Clause 28.
Back then, most of us watching thought that such unnecessary caution would be redundant by the time we reached the twenty-first century; we didn’t bank on our contemporaries raising children with so many layers of cotton wool wrapped around them that coming into contact with the classics by the time they reached university age would necessitate a revival of the same red triangle approach that Channel 4 had pioneered in the middle of the 80s. Lo and behold, however, the loathsome ‘trigger warnings’ have now even crept upon the works of one of England’s most revered wordsmiths like the kneejerk reorganization of the BBFC rules and regulations in the wake of the ‘Video Nasty’ moral panic of 35 years ago.
Apparently, students at Cambridge have been warned that certain masterpieces penned by an obscure playwright, name of William Shakespeare, might upset them; yes, the English lecture timetables have been marked with trigger warnings that take the shape of Ye Olde red triangle with accompanying exclamation marks. One play in particular has been singled out as specifically gory – and to be honest, it does read like the plot of an archetypal 80s Video Nasty in that a major female character is raped and then has her arms amputated by her rapists as well as having her tongue cut out.
Admittedly, ‘Titus Andronicus’ is a bit of a gore-fest, though is also one of the Bard’s most invigorating works, one in which the sibling perpetrators of the crime in question receive their just desserts by being baked in a pie that is then eaten by their mother. Elizabethan audiences were seemingly less squeamish than their equivalents 400 years later, perhaps because they didn’t question the eye-for-an-eye morality that was just as evident in the nursery rhymes they’d been raised on.
In defence, Cambridge University has claimed that such warnings are ‘at the lecturer’s own discretion’ and ‘not a faculty-wide policy’, though at the same time the esteemed academic establishment has admitted that ‘Any session containing material that could be deemed upsetting (and is not obvious from the title) is now marked with a symbol’. A representative from Derby University, Professor Dennis Hayes, commented ‘Once you get a few trigger warnings, lecturers will stop presenting anything that is controversial…gradually, there is no critical discussion.’ Critical discussion, for centuries a hallmark of university life, is now something to be avoided for fear of contaminating safe spaces. The impression given that universities today are akin to nurseries for mollycoddled adolescents who shirk from anything that contradicts the world as presented to them in infancy is hard to shake off when confronted by such ludicrous censorship; and if Shakespeare is fair game for the no-platform treatment, we really are f**ked.
The kind of guidelines familiar on the sleeves of DVDs now apparently apply to plays as well; if a sensitive seventeen-year-old objects to the content of something written by Shakespeare – and even the fastidious middle-aged Festival of Light brigade let the Bard off in the licentious 70s – chances are others will feel the need to be protected from centuries-old content that is hardly comparable to the kind of ‘adult’ material they’ve probably routinely scanned online. That ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ has been removed from some US school syllabuses on account of it being ‘uncomfortable’ is a classic example of illiterate idiots taking over the asylum; as some wag on Twitter pointed out in relation to the ‘uncomfortable’ factor in Harper Lee’s modern classic, ‘that’s the point’; but if even Shakespeare is targeted in this revisionist facelift, anybody seeking to say something about the here and now has no chance.
What that says about the world we live in, a world wherein British policemen are sent out wearing nail varnish to virtue-signal their stance against modern slavery when they’re in a better position to stamp out the practice than the rest of us, is profoundly depressing. But this be 2017 in the septic isle.
© The Editor