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
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
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
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