It is now known that a major new crisis is about to engulf the BBC. A producer has been suspended. There are threats of sackings. Unions are involved. According to the chorus of critics of the Corporation, who are ever on hand to make things worse, the latest revelations reveal a profound moral and managerial crisis within the corporation.
The story that has caused the rumpus is undeniably shocking, but it must be told. There was this cat. It was to be part of the presentation team on the children’s series Blue Peter. Some foolhardy idiot at the BBC came up with the reckless idea of inviting the programme’s young viewers to select a name for it.
This is where it gets ugly. The name the children came up with is so utterly inappropriate that the production team were unable even to consider it. The BBC says that the name preferred by the young audience was “Cookie”. The newspapers, however, have said that it was something more challenging, or as one broadsheet newspaper carefully referred to it, “a variant of ‘Puss'”. Or, to put it more frankly,the name the children chose for the cat was: “Pussy”.
It was an impossible situation, clearly. As the crisis deepened, there must have been some kind of top-level cat-naming meeting because soon the Blue Peter team turned to a public figure who had nothing the slightest bit sleazy about him – Bill Clinton. The former president had a cat called Socks (as in “I did not have Socks with that woman”) and that was the name that the BBC claimed, a touch implausibly, the majority of their viewers had selected.
The subsequent scandal – Pussygate, as it has become known in the media – has largely centred around this deception, but surely it is the reason behind it which is more interesting. It appears to have come as a shock, a surprise to the programme’s production team that an audience of young children, when asked for a name for a cat, might come up with “Pussy”.
When they did, a perfectly innocent decision was deemed by these dirty-minded people to be too risqué to be used. In other words, it was not the children who made the connection between the name for a pet and a rather old-fashioned term of sexual slang, but the adults. For people working at the BBC, it seems that a pussy is only secondarily a cat.
Blue Peter has not always been so wet when it comes to dealing with its young audience. In the early 1980s, one of its presenters, Simon Groom, acquired something of a reputation for smuggling mildly dodgy adult jokes into the programme – referring to a lovely pair of knockers while looking at the door to Durham Cathedral, and so on. The difference now is that dirty-mindedness has lost its innocence. When Mrs Slocum in Are You Being Served? asked if anyone had seen her pussy, she was tapping into the traditional English view of sex – giggly, naughty, a bit nervous. The Carry On films were based entirely on this anti-erotic, dirty postcard perspective. Today, we are more nervous about sexual jokes.
The real oddity here is that in many ways the Carry On attitude lives on. To take a particularly embarrassing example, can one imagine any other country holding an annual Rear of the Year competition, which is reported, coyly but prominently, in the mainstream media? The top bottom, in case you have missed the event, will not belong to the genuinely perky, hunky or gorgeous, which would at least be an honest expression of shared desire, but to public figures. Carol Smillie has won it in the past, as has Ian Wright and, creepily at the age of 16, Charlotte Church. This year, the Rear of the Year belongs to the weather-forecaster Sian Lloyd.
Bizarrely, these people do not respond to comments about their bodily shape with a few sharp words but simply point their bottoms to the camera and smile over the shoulder, in the manner of porn models. Invariably, they speak of how privileged they feel.
It sometimes feels as if we are living in a Carry On film but without the jokes. When the Home Secretary spoke in the House of Commons, showing an inch or so of cleavage, it became a matter of national debate. A newscaster who sat on the edge of a desk revealing her lower leg for a TV trailer, prompted several complaints from viewers.
No wonder that the mere mention of the p-word set off alarm bells at the Blue Peter office. In the nudge-nudge world in which we now live, it would be seen to have all the wrong, non-feline connotations. Those now tackling the Pussygate scandal may argue that, thanks to their efforts, they are striking a blow for maturity in these matters. Personally, like Joan Sims’s mother in Carry On Camping, I have sore misgivings.