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Why is a brilliant BBC serial kept in its most secret vaults?

Why is a brilliant BBC serial kept in its most secret vaults?

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

21 May 2022

9:00 AM

If someone had managed to bottle the essence of the 1960s – the exciting, adventurous bits – wouldn’t you want to take at least one deep draught? I certainly would. I sometimes long for the power to recreate that odd, dangerous, thrilling time, if only to see if I have got it right in my memory. In fact, they did bottle it. But nobody is allowed to taste the vintage. Well, almost nobody, as we shall see.

The BBC possesses, beyond doubt, a full recording of its 13-part 1970 dramatisation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Roads to Freedom trilogy. Set mainly in Left Bank Paris at the very end of the 1930s, its action prefigures the late 1960s quite remarkably. And having been made at the very end of that haunted era by men and women then in their prime, it is an astonishing, potent experience to watch it now in 2022, as I have, and you bizarrely cannot. It was first screened on BBC2, then a genuinely highbrow channel, in the late autumn of 1970, just as the 1960s were slipping unstoppably into the past. But mysteriously it has not been transmitted or made available on any platform since a repeat in 1977. We know a complete recording exists because the series was shown over a single weekend at the British Film Institute in 2012. There are no plans to repeat this.

The Roads to Freedom dealt mostly with the months between the Munich agreement and the fall of France. In 1970, these towering events were as recent as the fall of the Berlin Wall is now. Most adults actually remembered them. But the drama’s subject matter went beyond pure politics to deal with abortion, philosophy, general disillusion, homosexuality, the morality of war and of communism – and the desire for freedom for its own sake.

And when the TV version began, I and many others watched with amazement as a national channel gave itself over once a week to such subversion. There was not a taboo it did not break. The Paris of 1938, portrayed with sympathy and wit, prefigured the London of 1968, a place where the puritan morality we were all so busily throwing off had already been largely defeated. The Spanish Civil War, that gloriously simple good cause, runs through everything much the way that the Vietnam War still gave the feeling of moral rectitude and purpose to my radical generation. Half a century afterwards, I cannot get out of my head the strange, thrilling song ‘La Route est Dure’ which began and ended each episode. It was sung by the magnificent Georgia Brown, who played Sartre’s fading nightclub chanteuse, Lola Montero. The whole cast was an illustrious assembly of 1960s British acting talent, including Michael Bryant, Rosemary Leach, Alison Fiske, Daniel Massey, Simon Ward and Norman Rossington. Like so many of the best things made in the 1960s, it could not have been done any later. For it is the work of men and women properly educated and classically trained. You can tell from the styles of acting, from the literacy of the script and the things the viewer is assumed to know that this is the work of cultured and knowledgeable men and women. They are familiar with their Shakespeare and the other great writers, the Bible and the poets – the last generation who ever were.


I am not permitted to recount here the series of encrypted phone calls, street-corner encounters, passwords, whispered messages and late-night rendezvous by which I came to see the series after a gap of almost 52 years. I cannot say where I saw it or on what medium. Nor can I tell anyone else how they might see it. But I think I can explain why it still sits in the BBC’s most secret vaults, while comparable landmark series – The Ascent of Man or Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation – have long been available.

For it reveals the giant revolution in the Corporation’s thinking, and that of the British cultural left, since 1970. Radicals, you see, used to be far more conservative about sex and drugs than they are now, but they do not like to admit it. When I was a revolutionary Marxist in that period, many of the moral and cultural views now seen as essential on the left were not in fact held by ‘progressives’. Male comrades still often expected the women to make the sandwiches and the tea for their meetings and conferences, and had all the other attitudes which went with that. While officially broad-minded about homosexuality, plenty of left-wing people still freely used the Q word, not as it is used now but as a dismissive insult. And while they might have welcomed easier abortion in theory, they were squeamish about the act, and only managed to support it because they believed this would end an alleged epidemic of back-street operations. Abortion certainly had not been elevated into the sort of sacrament of ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ that it is now. And drugs were still considered pretty bad by most people over 30, especially heroin and cocaine. Rape was a terrible crime, but generally committed by strangers, much more narrowly defined than it is today.

Yet The Roads to Freedom was bold for its era. Quite a few characters were shown more or less unclothed in bed together. A dancer came perilously close to total frontal nakedness. Lola was plainly ruining herself through cocaine use. And one female character was shown being raped (and obviously losing her virginity too) in scenes cross-cut with the solemn talks in Munich – at which Czechoslovakia was also being raped.

Sartre’s anti-hero Mathieu Delarue, while seeking an abortion for his mistress, admitted plainly to himself that the act involved violent destruction. But I suspect the thing which keeps the tapes in their vault is the portrayal of a character called Daniel. He is a wealthy intellectual homosexual, both closeted and promiscuous, who also loudly despises himself and his desires. He even comes close to welcoming the arrival of the Nazi invaders in 1940, as a sort of deserved punishment for France and its failed military caste of super-masculine heterosexual generals. He was played with great wit and force by Daniel Massey, who nearly stole the whole show from the official star, Michael Bryant. You could not possibly cut his scenes.

Might there be a good reason for all this? Perhaps the series is lost, or damaged? Or seen as too niche? There’s even an online petition begging for its release. When asked (as it often is) the BBC simply says: ‘No comment.’ Of course, intelligent viewers in 2022 would grasp that Daniel was a creation of another time. They would know that, by showing the series, the BBC was not endorsing this portrayal of outmoded sentiments, let alone linking homosexuality with Nazism. But what about those, nurtured by 50 years of BBC cultural revolution, who constantly seek reasons for grievance, protest and boycott? I suspect the Corporation fears them. Worse, I must admit that it may be wise to do so, knowing how these things can turn out.

So we have the curious paradox of a radical institution censoring some of its own most radical and brilliant work, for fear of radicals.

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