Hung-up Brits did not cope well with sexual liberation in '68
Sunday May 25 2008
I was one year old in 1968, thus the myth of that year passed me by.
I have hazy impressions: revolting students, Vietnam, assassinations,
free love. So when Radio 4 asked me to make a documentary about arts
and culture in Britain in 1968, I expected to cover the usual Sixties
In fact, the plays, films, telly and books of the time were
remarkably stressed. Particularly when it came to sex. Sex had a
bizarre power back then. Hair, the swinging musical, promoted the
idea that if only uptight politicians could have it away with a
hippie they'd stop waging war.
So, to a lesser extent, did Peter Brook, who directed a production of
Seneca's Oedipus that climaxed (sorry) with an enormous golden
phallus being wheeled onstage. Artists believed sex was a magical
act, and if you got it right it would lead to personal freedom.
Others angsted about sexually liberated young women. The Pill was
available, and in April 1968, abortion was legalised. Finally, women
could have sex as they wished. Male writers were terrifically
exercised about this, especially older ones. It's bizarre how many
older man-younger girl set-ups there were: in Kingsley Amis's I Want
It Now, in Terence Frisby's comedy There's A Girl In My Soup. And
David Mercer, the respected TV playwright, had Glenda Jackson and
Denholm Elliott get it together in Let's Murder Vivaldi, with
In all of these works, sex is portrayed as a power game; as paranoid,
one-sided, difficult. Disturbingly, there's a lot of casual violence
against women. All in all, a weirder, darker response to the previous
year's summer of love than I'd imagined. Maybe the British were too
hung up to rut like real revolutionaries.
· 1968: Sex, Telly and Britain, a three-part series on Radio 4,
starts on Saturday, 10.30am