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Coolness and cancellation

We should not judge people with problematic pasts by how much we like their work

Artillery Row

On the same day that The Times published its major investigation into Russell Brand, it also ran another piece about another prominent figure with a problematic sexual history.

The subject was Who guitarist Pete Townshend who, you may recall, in May 2003 was cautioned by the police and placed on the Sex Offenders’ Register. For five years he had paid to access a website that was offering child pornography — something he later claimed was for research to support a campaign against such material. This Times article, a two page spread, made no mention of this sordid episode in its prolonged plug for his current project.

Brand (who has not been charged, let alone convicted) and Townshend’s cases are of a different order, from different eras — and one was a major new story, the other old news.

Nevertheless, the episode made me reflect on cases where there has been some proximity in both offence and contemporaneousness, but with differing reputational outcomes.

Gary Glitter was first exposed as a paedophile when he took his computer in for repair at PC World in 1997. The technician, on checking its contents, rang the police. It set in chain a series of events that eventually revealed Glitter had been grooming and sexually abusing underage fans. He became an international pariah — to the extent that there was an outcry when his Rock n Roll Part 2 was used in the soundtrack of the 2019 film Joker.

Another glam rock star who is also believed to have slept with at least two underage fans enjoyed quite a different outcome. David Bowie’s star has risen steadily since his death in 2016. His face has been on stamps, public murals, his name in lists of greatest Britons.

DJ Dave Lee Travis was a major BBC star over four decades until he was swept up in the post-Jimmy Savile police investigation, Operation Yewtree. In 2015 he was convicted of a single count of indecent assault and given a suspended sentence. This was sufficient to see the many episodes he had hosted of Top of the Pops dropped from the ongoing repeats slot on BBC4.

There was no appetite to lump Bowie in with Glitter or Savile

Travis’s Radio 1 colleague John Peel was never prosecuted. It was only after Peel’s death in 2004 that it emerged that, like Bowie, he had had sex with at least two underaged girls — or statutory rape, as it’s known in the US. This didn’t prevent Glastonbury naming one of its stages after him, an honour only finally removed this year. Even then, it was described as a rebrand rather than a mark of disgrace. Similarly the BBC had named a wing of Broadcasting House after Peel in 2012. It only finally dropped the name this year, also denying this was in response to a campaign. Unlike Travis, he’s still shown — a TOTP episode from 1984 fronted by Peel with Janice Long was screened on BBC4 just two weeks before the Brand story broke.

Broadcasting House was the scene of a prominent direct action last year, when a lone man climbed up it and attacked the Grade II-listed sculpture Ariel and Prospero with a hammer. It was targeted because its creator, Eric Gill, had been revealed as having had a long history of grotesque sexual conduct, including sustained abuse of two of his daughters and even the family dog. There has lately been increasing clamour for his work not to be shown — and much of it has been withdrawn.

Contrast the treatment of Gill with that of Lawrence Durrell. The novelist was predeceased by his daughter, Sappho, who died by suicide aged 33 in 1985, four years before Durrell’s death from a stroke. It later emerged that her diaries included allusions to what appeared to have been an incestuous relationship with her father.

Admittedly, the case against Durrell was rather less clear cut than that against Gill, but it was still a disturbing question. That didn’t prevent ITV depicting “Larry” as a loveable character, played by Josh O’Connor, in their Sunday night family favourite The Durrells, which ran for four seasons from 2016.

At the same time that The Durrells was enjoying popular success, the BBC felt forced to completely reshoot, at considerable expense, parts of a show aimed at pretty much the same audience: a 2018 version of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence. A cast member, Ed Westwick, faced as yet untested rape and sexual assault allegations. (American police eventually decided not to pursue the cases against Mr Westwick.)

These various cases demonstrate that there is no standardised outcome for well known men whose deviant sexual practices (or the allegation of them) become publicly known. Some ride it out and return to more or less the same status they enjoyed before; others have the door closed on any public life forever. Travis’s sexual misconduct was demonstrably less grave than Peel’s, yet the former is banished from the BBC.

The tipping point of a prosecution seems to be a factor in how public opinion coalesces, but I also suspect there is another, stranger ingredient: how cool the person is perceived to be. There was simply no appetite to lump David Bowie in with Glitter or Savile. Commissioning editors were too fond of his work, I suspect, to want to go there.

I’m torn here. I have no desire to see Bowie cancelled either, none whatsoever. I’ve been listening to him since 1974 — he’s part of the soundtrack of my life. I grew up on John Peel, and I was deeply fond of him. Gill is probably my favourite British artist of the 20th century. I’m not lobbying for the rehabilitation of Dave Lee Travis either; memories of his “video show” still make me cringe. When I wrote about Gill last year, though, I spoke to a campaigner and abuse survivor who told me she feels physically pained when she sees his work on display. It triggers her that it’s still outside Broadcasting House.

I’m not sure where this leaves me — but I thought of her when I saw the Townshend Times piece.

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