What with the BrokenTV team being a great big bunch of foulmouthed ne’er-do-wells, one thing that has always fascinated us is the history of swearing on various mediums. In the UK, as every schoolboy knows, Kenneth Tynan was the first person to say ‘fuck’ on British television, in 1965, and a Frost-baiting Felix Dennis was the first to say ‘cunt’ on-air, in 1970. The latter of these can be seen here, in the brilliant Without Walls documentary ‘The Greatest F***ing Show On Television”, put together by Britain’s Minister Of Swearing, Jerry Sadowitz. Both uses were broadcast live and very much against the wishes of the respective programme makers.
The first scripted use of the word ‘cunt’ came in 1979 ITV Playhouse one-off drama ‘No Mama No’, which we remember seeing in a clip show once (the programme on swearing preceding that Sadowitz prog, if our sketchy memory is correct). POP FACT: That episode of ITV Playhouse was directed by Roland Joffe, whose most recent directorial work was the terrible, awful t.A.T.u-based movie “You & I”.
Strange thing is, we’ve never been able to find out a few other sweary ‘firsts’ that you’d expect to be just as well known. We’ve heard from a few sources that John Cleese was the first person to say the word “shit” on television (not least from Cleese himself, when delivering his famous eulogy to Graham Chapman), but never where it was actually used. If it had been vetoed from use in episodes of Python, we can’t really see him having used it when appearing in other, tamer shows of that era, like At Last The 1948 Show, The Frost Report or the made for US television How To Irritate People. We’d guess that the only possible place it could be from would be a broadcast of a Secret Policeman’s Ball, or maybe a clip of it shown in an arts programme. Anyone know any different?
Similarly, we can’t seem to find any record of the first scripted use of the word ‘fuck’ on British television. We expect it would certainly have to pre-date 1979’s ‘No Mama No’, and if so, given the first time the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ were used on the BBC was in a 1980 dramatisation of the ‘Penguin Books/Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ trial, it would have to be from an ITV programme. Anyone? Maybe Charlie Drake really did whisper it to Henry McGee during that Sunday Night At The London Palladium sketch shown in ‘The Greatest F***ing Show On Television”, of course.
When it comes to cinematic fuckery, it’s generally accepted that two films from 1967, a US/UK adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘isname (the latter being one of the examples proving that yes, surprisingly, Michael Winner did once have a point for existing), were probably the first motion pictures where the word ‘fuck’ was used. It also seems to be the consensus view that the first major Hollywood picture to use the word was in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, from 1970, with actor John Schuck ad-libbing the line “All right, Bud, your fucking head is coming right off!" during the football scene, and director Altman deciding to keep it in. So, that’s that settled, then.
OR IS IT? There may well be a use of the F-bomb that predates those. By quite a margin, and from quite a surprising source.
Bosko was an early Looney Tunes character, created by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. Created in 1927 while Harman and Ising were working at Walt Disney Studios, you might expect the case to be that Bosko is some kind of wacky talking animal. A mole, or something. Erm, you’d be wrong. When Harman registered the drawings of his new character with the copyright office in January 1928, it was under the description of ‘Negro boy’. Which might explain why there aren’t any Bosko stuffed toys, lunchboxes or theme park rides around these days.
Anyhoo, after moving studios a few times, Harman and Ising ended up at Warner Brothers, taking Bosko with them, and ‘the Talk-Ink Kid’ (as he was dubbed) starred in 39 early Looney Tunes shorts, the last of which was released in 1933, and was called ‘Bosko’s Picture Show’.
This seemed to be pretty much a thrown together collection of odd ideas (and re-used sequences from earlier cartoons) presumably getting them out of the way before the character was retired, with Harman and Ising about to move to MGM. The plot – such as it was – saw Bosko hosting a movie show at his own fleapit cinema. After some tatty curtains are drawn, we cut to Bosko, sitting at his ‘Furtaliser’ organ, imploring everyone join him in a singalong of “We’re In The Money’.
We then cut to a newsreel (from ‘Out-Of-Tone News’), including stories from a peace conference between World leaders in Geneva (i.e. a pleasingly old-school punch-up), and a visit to “Epson Salts, England”, which basically turns out to be an excuse to throw in a crowd pleasing spoof of the Zeppo-era Marx Brothers. There is also one of the first ever instances of Adolf Hitler being satirised, in a scene where “Famous Screen Lover” Jimmy Durante goes on European Vacation:
Now that’s that’s pretty cutting-edge satire (er, no pun intended), considering it would be another five years before Charlie Chaplin even started planning The Great Dictator, and most other animated swipes at Hitler merely portrayed him as a hapless dummkopf. So, a cartoon ‘Negro boy’, and an animated Hitler chasing a (fairly offensive stereotype of a) Jewish entertainer with an axe. Have we got to the offensive bit yet? No.
After a fairly tame spoof of Laurel and Hardy (named ‘Haurel and Lardy’), it’s on to the main ‘feature’, a ‘TNT Pictures’ presentation of “He Done Her Dirt… And How!”, where devious villain Dirty Dalton plots to kidnap Bosko’s girlfriend Honey. The cur!
No idea if legendary Mad Magazine artist Don Martin ever cited Harman-Ising as an inspiration for his style, but Dirty Dalton does look very Don-Martin-y there. Anyway, at this point in the cartoon we cut to a furious Bosko, standing on his stool and shaking his fist in anger, shouting an exclamation of… well. It’s here things get a little muddy.
According to the subtitles on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 6 box set, what he utters is “The dirty fox!”. Upon actually watching the cartoon, it’s quite clear this isn’t what Bosko is actually saying. Listen for yourselves, here’s the cartoon in full, and the interesting bit comes at 5 minutes and 51 seconds.
So, did you arrive at the same conclusion as us? As far as we’re aware, the word ‘fox’ has never, ever actually ended with a hard ‘K’ sound like that. While it’s true Bosko doesn’t clearly say the F-bomb itself (the sound is a bit scratchy even in this remastered version, meaning the middle vowel of the offending word sounds a bit distorted), what he says is closer to that than pretty much any other word in the dictionary. And hey, ‘fock’ is how people from Northern Ireland say ‘fuck’. Maybe he was from Northern Ireland, and had simply lost his Norn Iron accent for every word in the English language apart from that one.
Animation fans over the years have suggested this was placed deliberately by Harman and Ising as a swipe at Warners’ animation head Leon Schlesinger, who the pair had quarrelled with numerous times throughout their spell at Warner Brothers. Though, equally, Schlesinger and Warners did see fit for the cartoon to be distributed, which does dilute this theory somewhat.
It’s all a bit curious, to be honest. Nickelodeon re-edited the cartoon after it’s first screening on the network, copying Bosko’s later use of the word “cur” and pasting it over the word “fock”, though this is no guarantee that there was a great big swear, just that it sounded like one. The Bosko shorts were designed for adult audiences (hence the whole ‘Hitler chases Jewish entertainer with axe’ bit), but even so, using the word ‘fuck’ would still have been taboo. Hmm, eh?
Here’s our crackpot theory. Harman-Ising deliberately put that word in there, claimed “no, it doesn’t say that, he’s saying ‘fox’, clearly. Anyway, we’re off now, bye!”, and no-one really bothered to question it. This kind of undercover filth can slip past The Man from time to time, such as the Monty Python team getting the name “Mrs. B.J. Smegma of 13, The Crescent, Belmont” past naive BBC producers, or Ben Elton’s ‘Happy Families’ originally airing uncut in a pre-watershed slot on BBC One in 1985, despite containing a scene where Hollywood executives snort cocaine. Now, why isn’t Happy Families available on DVD, eh? It was brilliant.
Yes, we know that wasn’t a very satisfying ending to this piece. Shut up. To try and make up for that, while trying to fill some of the swearing-related gaps in our TV knowledge, we stumbled over what might just be the most fascinating document on the entire Ofcom website. Dating from 1998, a 74 page PDF all about swearing on telly. Get in!
The results of a survey on which kinds of programming could acceptably contain swearing:
The results of a survey where swearwords are ‘scored’ by offensiveness:
A similar table, but for the regional reactions to swear words. People in Scotland find the word ‘bastard’ more offensive than than southerners, for example:
But our favourite, by a long way, is a list of individual broadcasts containing swearing, from which clips were used for the qualitative research. It includes the time of broadcast, the programme, and the individual words used. This is marvellous, and something we could spend an entire update deconstructing. It’s on page 68, if you want to see it in full:
Yep, that show at the top of the list is correct, a kids show, going out at 3.55pm, containing the phrase “dirty slut”. It was a reading of a Roald Dahl book, if you’re curious. Even more interesting was an episode of Noel’s House Party where the phrase “sack of shit” was uttered. Man, we pity whoever was in the gunge tank for that episode.
Finally, a table on the strength of swearwords from a 1994 study on “Radio and Audience Attitudes”:
So, 3% of people still considered ‘damn’ to be a strong swearword in 1994, and 6% still thought ‘bloody’ was shocking. 11% of people didn’t know what a tosser was (and, having just typed it, neither does the inline spell check on Windows Live Writer), while one person in 20 didn’t know what a wanker was. [Clears throat, smiles wryly.] After all, Piers Morgan didn’t have his own television series until fifteen years later. [Crowd boos, throws rotten vegetables.] Ah, please yourselves.
The full Broadcasting Standards Commission report on “Bad Language – What Are The Limits” can be downloaded here.