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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

Sex and Rolf

What's gone wrong with men? This month the Marquess of Blandford ('the junkie peer') rang Richard and Judy's phone-in on This Morning and whinged about his father's refusal to cuddle him. The unloving father has become the emotional foundation of every mainstream movie from Strictly Ballroom to Beauty and the Beast (her ineffectual father hands Beauty over to the Beast, who is himself the epitome of the angry-but-vulnerable-and-useless modern father).

This is before we even mention Woody Allen. Then there is J Edgar Hoover, the forbidding Stern Father of Western culture, who turns out to have been a transvestite. Suddenly the whole Untouchable, macho purity of the G-Man is exposed as a camp, gang show. The nation seems to have dropped politics in favour of a kind of vast oedipal psychodrama. What are the attacks on the monarchy and the rumours about John Major but attempts to demean the strong parent? Major and the Queen are discredited - like our own parents - by the exposure of their sexuality. Surely these events make The Good Sex Guide the most crucial TV programme of our time.

The Guide (ITV) takes the uselessness of men as its central theme. The programme includes lots of interviews with members of the public, but these are never shown as couples. Men ('fellas' as the presenter calls them) and women ('girls') are asked for their views separately. As a result you never see anyone in a sexual relationship, only a forlorn pageant of lonely people in unlikely settings talking wistfully about the sex they are not getting. They never talk to or touch each other on screen. Sex itself is thus reduced to an operation performed by men upon women, a question of surgery, and incompetent surgery at that. It is left to Margi Clarke to liaise between the sexes ('No fellas, this is what you've gorra do...').

The show seems to be saying that sexual frustration and inability have reached crisis proportions. We are in a sex emergency. Like Comic Relief or Challenge Anneka, The Guide is studded with TV celebs giving up their valuable time to help us sort out our problem. The sense of urgency is intensified by the appallingly low standards of these celebrity sketches. It is as though there was simply no time to rehearse or think of something funny. They had to 'Act now, before it's too late!'.

The most worrying sign is the presence of Tony Robinson, the Rolf Harris of his generation. Are we so remedial that we need a presenter from children's BBC to help us through?! Yes we are, says The Guide. For while the celebs speak with benign expertise about orgasm, ecstasy and fulfilment, the ordinary folk are left to grumble with diagrammatic bluntness about impotence, premature ejaculation and being too small. In a bizarre twist that brings all these themes together, one 'member' of the public is suing the producers for showing his willy without his permission. He was filmed at his gym, where he thought the cameras had been set up to shoot...Lady Di!

The Guide set out to cash in on the vogue for sex education videos, wrongly assuming that people bought these because they needed education. In fact, people bought them because they needed sex. The 'education' videos are incredibly explicit, and feature incredibly beautiful young people who are a transfiguration and a celebration of the couple on the couch at home. There is nothing celebratory or sexy about The Guide. More or less everyone on the show is in a cardigan or buried under layers of foundation. The question is not where to touch them, but why anyone would want to, unless it was unavoidable, in a crowded lift perhaps, or on the tube. The programme constitutes the most gross and disturbing underestimation of any audience (and of TV) since Eldorado.

Much of my own effectiveness as a father I put down to my early (and continuing) devotion to Rolf Harris. Thanks to him, whenever I am in a tight corner, I can wobble a board, make a lagerphone, eat Hula Hoops from each of my finger-tips or catapult chocolate buttons into my mouth from my palm. If times are really hard, I can sing 'Two Little Boys' and get tearful compliance. On The Word this month, Rolf performed this role of kindly liberator for a whole generation.

In Greek myths, the first Stern Father was Chronos, the Titan father of Zeus and, significantly, the figure of Time. Zeus had to slay Chronos in order to free himself, to give himself some space. On The Word, Rolf performed his version of 'Stairway to Heaven' and slew Chronos for a second time.

'Stairway' is the most requested rock song of all time. It is also one of the most masculine, with its phallic, thrusting guitar, its muscle-bound percussion and its monumentally pompous lyric. Here is a song that not only represents, but actually enacts the tyranny of the Stern Father. At the time of its release, it must have been the occasion of many a rift between father and son - rock more than anything else was the instrument and symbol of the generation gap.

Pomp rock created a particularly cruel generation gap because it bugged not only the parents, but also the younger brothers and sisters. My generation started telling Led Zep fans that they were old beyond hope when they were in the sixth form and we were in the fourth. And now that those children are parents themselves, the song pounds out its banal tattoo, a hideous reminder of the baby boomer's refusal to grow up, its grim, sad clinging to youth. Behind that refusal, of course, is a deeper fear, the fear of becoming the Father, of daring to stand alongside the Father.

Rolf slaughtered this song, and - like Alexander - cut through the knot of neuroses it represented. He ditched the drums and guitar, in favour of the wobble board and didgeridoo - the gentle instruments of childhood. He warbled the lyrics so that they stood exposed, ridiculous and vulnerable as genitals.
'Oooh', he sang, 'it makes me wonder'. Then he turned to the backing singers and said, 'How does it affect you fellas?'. 'Oooh', they shrugged, 'it makes us wonder'. 'Fascinating', said Rolf, and at that moment, the kindly, loving father vanquished the stern, forbidding one.

It was like waking from a nightmare and finding yourself in the warm, strong arms of a loving parent. It made you feel that love was possible, and more important than surgery. It was a healing moment for TV too. The next day, everyone was talking about it. The first time I can remember this happening for years (except the morning after Anna Lee: Girl Detective when everyone was saying, that is it, I will never turn the TV on again, so help me God).

Rolf went the Marquess of Blandford route and appeared on Richard and Judy. There was a telephone poll to see which version of the song people preferred. I can tell you that Rolf's 'version' (which is actually a deconstruction) is now officially definitive. This morning I found that I have accidentally taped over it and I am glad. The moment will now sing forever in the crystal streams of memory and never gather dust upon my office shelf. The single is at number nine as I write and no doubt this will be seen as a Rolf revival, but I want you to know that Rolf, like your father, always loved you and never really went away. It's just that now you're old enough to appreciate that he was better than Led Zep all along.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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