Operation Yewtree Is Tarnishing Your Childhood Memories
Robin Williams once said that if you remember the Sixties, you probably weren’t there.
I don’t remember the Sixties because I wasn’t there. I do remember the Seventies, however – not only because I was there, but also because I was a young child and thus hadn’t yet taken any substances liable to induce memory loss (although I suspect Space Dust came close).
I was born in 1971: the year of decimalisation, the year that Britain voted to join the EEC and the year that Jim Morrison died (clearly Britain joining the EEC was too much for him). I am the same age as Winona Ryder, Ewan McGregor and Disney World Orlando. Sadly I’ve never met Winona or Ewan, but if I did, I’m sure we’d have a lovely time, especially if we all went to Disney World Orlando together.
My childhood holidays in the 1970s were more likely to centre around static caravan parks than exotic sun-drenched resorts, but they were no less happy for that. I grew up in a safe, middle-class home where my siblings and I were loved – even if that love extended to taking us not to Disney World Orlando but to Butlin’s Minehead, instead. So, you know, we at least felt liked. In short, I was lucky enough to have a happy childhood.
Unlike some in the 1970s.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which I really wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re doing some sort of Bear Grylls-style endurance feat, in which case: hats off to you!) or living abroad (again, I really wouldn’t recommend this), you will have seen the almost daily headlines as a result of Operation Yewtree. And if you’re in your 40s, it’s likely that each of these headlines will have hammered a small but perceptible, unexpected nail into the coffin of your happy childhood memories of the 1970s.
Operation Yewtree was launched to investigate allegations of child sex abuse by Jimmy Savile, of course – a man whose life as a DJ, TV presenter, charity worker and marathon-runner had always seemed, until the abuse came to light, glittering. Literally, given those gold jackets of his. After the initial shock of the news wore off, many of us moved into “Actually… Jimmy Savile? That makes sense…” territory. But the initial shock was exactly that. Shock.
Because Savile had been the nation’s uncle. The creepy uncle, sure. But our uncle nevertheless. To those of us born in the early Seventies, our memories of him aren’t dominated by his Radio 1 work or even Top of the Pops, but by Jim’ll Fix It, quite possibly because it was a show which centered around us: children. Jim’ll Fix It made kids’ dreams come true and thus, as kids watching it every week, we were all touched by its magic. We giggled at the Boy Scouts eating their lunch on a rollercoaster. We gasped at the slow motion demolishing of cooling towers. We were, in short, green with envy at every kid who was lucky enough to get on the show. Everyone had a Jim’ll Fix It wish, even if they never wrote in. Mine was to perform the kid’s speaking part on The Land Of Make Believe with Bucks Fizz. Sadly, it never happened. Mainly because I never wrote in.
(Of course, we now know that Savile was displaying behaviour typical of an abuser. He actively sought positions where he was around young people; and he deliberately made himself appear exemplary – and thus, in theory, unquestionable – through his charity work. I highly recommend reading this fascinating New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about an American sports coach who behaved in a not dissimilar fashion.)
As Operation Yewtree’s investigations have widened, what we’ve seen is nothing short of an unraveling. An unraveling of behaviour that at the time, if it was seen, was either swept under the carpet or considered acceptable; or if it remained unseen, was kept that way until now in part due to (understandable) fear. It’s also been an unraveling of names – a “who’s next?!” roll call of male celebrities who were at their height of fame in the Seventies and Eighties. Celebrities who mean a lot to you if you grew up in those decades – although some more than others, of course.
The naming of Freddie Star, Jim Davidson, Jimmy Tarbuck, Gary Glitter and Dave Lee Travis – and I hasten to add that it’s only accusations against these men at the time of writing, and that they deny them – hasn’t affected me greatly because I don’t have fond childhood memories of any of them. As a kid, each of those men either gave me the creeps (Glitter), had a career aimed more at adults than children (Tarbuck) or both (Freddie Starr). That said, my first memory of observational comedy was Jim Davidson on The Comedians remarking that you always want to have a wee when you first step into a bath. I’m not sure my remembering this means that I was destined to work in comedy or simply that I did always want to have a wee when I stepped into a bath. Either way, I don’t think Davidson’s career ever improved on that high.
Rolf Harris – who has also been arrested, and who also denies the allegations against him – was something of a horrible shock, even for a nice middle-class girl who was more from the Tony Hart school of art. Rolf Harris, who delighted generations with his drawings of half-men, half-kangaroos. Rolf Harris, who pretty much single-handedly introduced the didgeridoo to the northern hemisphere. Rolf Harris, who seemed like the long-lost relative from Australia that we never fully ‘got’ and always vaguely baffled us. And by ‘us’, I do of course mean ‘me’.
But my biggest “Oh no! Not HIM!” moment came – as I’m sure it did for many others – with the arrest of Stuart Hall. Jimmy Savile might have been our creepy uncle, but Stuart Hall? Stuart Hall was our fun uncle. We all delighted in his irrepressible laugh at the shenanigans of It’s A Knockout – a family show that we did all sit round to watch as a family, and all enjoyed equally. And who could blame us? What’s not to love about grown men and women dressed in enormous Frenchmen/ogre/penguin outfits carrying buckets of blue or red water, falling over and spilling most of it? It’s A Knockout gave us lessons for life. Sometimes you will slip up. Sometimes you will do your best, but still spill most of the metaphorical blue water. Sometimes you’ll get beaten by a Belgian.
But the sheen has been taken off these memories by what we know now about these men, and it’s impossible not to feel betrayed somehow; or at least to think that we were naïve or impossibly innocent. And while we were those things, of course – we were only children, after all – our parents were innocent to it, too. Not only did we trust these men, our parents trusted them to ‘look after’ us through the medium of the television. And television – especially in the pre-satellite, three-channel era – was the source of so many shared experiences, not just with our own families but with our fellow Brits. As such, it was a hugely important and formative part of our growing up, of learning how to navigate the world and the people in it.
Of course, the tarnishing of our memories is nothing, nothing at all, compared to what the victims of these men actually went through – people who truly had their childhoods robbed and their lives ruined. Unlike some, I don’t regard Operation Yewtree as any sort of witch- hunt and I am, above everything, gratified to see arrogant, monstrous abusers being exposed and punished for the crimes they committed.
And I also don’t want to allow these revelations to affect my memories of what was a happy decade. For me, the Seventies were days spent watching Take Hart and reading (la la la la la) Look-In magazine; days spent roller-skating up and down – mainly down, to be honest – our little cul-de-sac; days spent recording the Top 40 by putting a cassette player in front of the radio and trying to cut out Tony Blackburn’s voice. Sunny days (quite literally – remember ’76?) and sunny memories.
Partly to remind myself – and my fellow fortysomethings – of this, I compiled a gallery this week for Huffington Post: 30 Great Things About Growing Up In 1970s Britain. I’ve included a few choice examples below (just click on each image to read its full caption). Yes, there might have been bad things about the Seventies – clogs, for example – but sometimes I thank my lucky stars that it was the decade of my early childhood. And given the recent revelations, I thank my lucky stars that I was safe.