The BBC's ``Green Book''
Date: Tue, 1 Mar 94 12:30:08 PST
Subject: The BBC's ``Green Book''
[This is long and not particularly funny, but it's intriguing to see what was
politically and socially correct in Britain (oops! almost said "England") in
the middle of the 20th century. There are some surprises... -psl]
Resent-From: yost <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: Russell Street <email@example.com>
For your amusement, below is the guidelines for BBC producers and
writers that were in force in the 40s and 50s.
This was taken from Barry Took's excellent book on British radio
comedy ``Laughter In the Air''. Barry Took was one of the writers of
`Beyond Our Ken' and `Round The Horne', and later went on to be a BBC
producer. If memory serves, he was also involved in the early days of
Private and Confidential
BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide
For Writers and Producers
This booklet is for the guidance of producers and writers of light
entertainment programmes. It seeks to set out the BBC's general policy
towards this type of material, to list the principal 'taboos', to
indicate traps for the unwary or inexperienced, and to summarise the
main guidance so far issued of more than a short-term application. It
is however no more than a guide, inevitably incomplete and subject of
course to supplementation. It cannot replace the need of each producer
to exercise continued vigilance in matters of taste.
The BBC's attitude towards its entertainment programs is largely
governed by the fact that broadcasting is a part of the domestic life
of the nation. It caters in their own homes for people of all ages,
classes, trades and occupations, political opinions and religious
beliefs. In that respect it has no parallel among other media of
entertainment and the argument, frequently advanced, that the BBC
should be ready to broadcast material passed for public performance on
the stage or screen is not valid. The Corporation must have its own
standards moulded in the light of its own circumstances. The influence
that it can exert upon its listeners is immense and the responsibility
for a high standard of taste correspondingly heavy. Its aim is for its
programmes to entertain without giving reasonable offence to any part
of its diversified audience. It must therefore keep its programmes
free from vulgarity, political bias, and matter in questionable taste.
The claims of sectional interests to special consideration need
constantly to be weighed but at the same time the BBC must not be at
the mercy of the cranks. On more or less controversial issues the
Corporation confines itself to what it regards as fair comment in the
context. On matters of taste it has to set itself a standard that will
be accepted by most rational people.
These are the principal factors influencing BBC policy. The
responsibility for enforcing it, since in normal times there are no
official censors, is very largely vested in producers themselves and
it is therefore of paramount importance that they should be aware both
of the Corporation's general attitude towards the subject and of the
detailed rules which have been drawn up during some 25 years'
Producers are not asked to be narrow-minded in their approach to the
problem but they are required to recognise its importance and to err,
it at all, on the side of caution. Material about which a producer has
doubts should, if it cannot be submitted to someone in higher
authority, be deleted, and an artist's assurance that it has been
previously broadcast is no justification for repeating it. 'When in
doubt, take it out' is the wisest maxim.
Programmes must at all cost be kept free of crudities, coarseness and
innuendo. Humor must be clean and untainted directly or by association
with vulgarity and suggestiveness. Music hall, stage, and to a lesser
degree, screen standards, are not suitable to broadcasting. Producers,
artists and writers must recognise this fact and the strictest watch
must be kept. There can be no compromise with doubtful material. It
must be cut.
A. General. Well known vulgar jokes (e.g. the Brass Monkey) 'cleaned
up', are not normally admissible since the humour in such cases is
almost invariably evident only if the vulgar version is known.
There is an absolute ban upon the following:-
Jokes about -
Effeminacy in men
Immorality of any kind
Suggestive references to -
Ladies' underwear, e.g. winter draws on
Animal habits, e.g. rabbits
Extreme care should be taken in dealing with references to or jokes
Pre-natal influences (e.g. 'His mother was frightened by a donkey')
Good taste and decency are the obvious governing considerations. The
vulgar use of such words as 'basket' must also be avoided.
B. Sophisticated Revue and Cabaret. A great deal of the material
performed elsewhere in these types of entertainment is just not
suitable to be broadcast. There can perhaps be a little more latitude
in the editing of 'sophisticated' programmes which are billed and
generally identified as such but not sufficiently for them to reflect
all the accepted characteristics of this kind of show. The fact is
that radio revue and cabaret must be tailored to the microphone in
much the same way as other programmes and deny itself may items
technically suitable which do not conform to established BBC
Advertising of any sort is not normally allowed and gratuitous
publicity for any commercial undertaking or product may not be given.
Occasionally, however, such references may be unavoidable where, for
instance, a commercial firm is sponsoring a public event, e.g. the
Star Dancing Championships, the Melody Maker Dance Band Contest. In
such cases mention of the sponsoring body must not go beyond the
proper courtesy and essential programme interest.
Otherwise mention of all firms, trade and proprietary names is barred.
N.B. The following trade names are now regarded as generic terms:-
The inclusion of any of these is therefore permitted in scripts but
derogatory references to them must be avoided as constituting a form
of 'trade slander'.
American material and 'Americanisms'
Various fairly obvious factors, such as American films and the fact
that much modern popular music originates in America, tend to exert a
transatlantic influence upon our programmes. American idiom and slang,
for instance, frequently find their way quite inappropriately into
scripts, and dance band singers for the most part elect to adopt
pseudo American accents. The BBC believes that this spurious
Americanisation of programmes - whether in the writing or in the
interpretation - is unwelcome to the great majority of listeners and
incidently, seldom complimentary to the Americans.
There is and always will be a place in programmes for authentic
American artistes and material but the BBC's primary job in light
entertainment must be to purvey programmes in our own native idiom,
dialects and accents. The 'Americanisation' of British scripts, acts
and performances is therefore most actively discouraged.
Libel and slander
Actionable references in Variety Programmes have been few since
broadcasting began. Producers must, however, take all possible steps
to ensure that defamatory material is not included in scripts. The
three most likely forms for it to take are:
(a) an uncomplimentary gag by one artist about a fellow artist or
(b) impersonations which may be taken as derogatory.
(c) the use in a fictional setting of a character identifiable with a
living person (particularly, of course, if the character is 'bad').
Consideration of taste are usually a safeguard against (a) and (b),
though the possibility of defamation makes caution on the producer's
part more than ever necessary. Against (c) there can be no complete
safeguard, but producers and writers must be scrupulously careful to
see that characters in plays and sketches are not given names of
living people whose circumstances are remotely similar to those in the
fictional plot. In the case of title people reference books must be
consulted. In other cases all reasonable checks that are possible must
This is by no means easy, so many biblical phrases having long since
passed into the language and being therefore for the most part
admissible in any context. The criterion should, generally speaking,
be whether a phrase or saying is still largely identified with the
Bible. In that case it should not be used in a comedy setting - though
it may still be quite suitable for a programme of a more serious
Sayings of Christ or descriptive of Him are, of course, inadmissible
for light entertainment programmes.
Jokes built around Bible stories, e.g. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel,
David and Goliath, must also be avoided or any sort of parody of them.
References to a few biblical characters e.g. Noah, are sometimes
permissible but, since there is seldom anything to be gained by them
and since they can engender much resentment they are best avoided
Reference to and jokes about different religious or religious
denominations are banned. The following are also inadmissible:-
Jokes about A.D. or B.C. (e.g. 'before Crosby)
Jokes or comic songs about spirtualism, christenings, religious
ceremonies of any description (e.g. weddings, funerals)
Parodies of Christmas carols
Offensive references to Jews (or any other religious sects)
No precise general directive can be given since each individual case
needs to be considered on its merits and the performer, the manner of
delivery, and the context all need to be taken into account. General
guidance is however given in the following quotation from a directive
issued on 2nd July, 1948: 'We are not prepared in deference to
protests from one Party or another to deny ourselves legitimate
topical references to political figures and affairs, which
traditionally have been a source of comedians' material. We therefore
reserve the right for Variety programmes in moderation to take a crack
at the Government of the day and the Opposition so long as they do so
sensibly, without undue acidity, and above all funnily.
'Generally speaking, political issues should not be made the running
theme of any light entertainment programme or item, and references
should be no more than incidental. Occasionally, of course, a sketch
or comedy sequence based on, e.g. the National Health Service, is
'We must guard against the over-exploitation of songs with a political
theme. Usually these are MS numbers sung by comedians and are
legitimate enough for one or two performances when strictly topical,
but undesirable if "plugged" in many programmes.
'We must bar altogether:
(a) anything which we adjudge to go beyond fair comment in this sort
of context on a matter of general topical interest;
(b) anything that can be construed as personal abuse of Ministers,
Party Leaders, or M.P's, malicious references to them or references in
(c) anything which can reasonably be construed as derogatory to
political institutions, Acts of Parliament and the Constitution
(d) anything with a Party bias.
'To sum up, our approach to the whole subject should be good humoured,
un-partisan, and in good taste.'
Members of Parliament may not be included in programmes without
special permission. This permission will not be granted, whether or
not the M.P. concerned is willing, for programmes the BBC considers it
unsuitable or undignified for a Member of Parliament to appear.
Physical or mental infirmities
Very great distress can be caused to invalids and their relatives by
thoughtless jokes about any kind of physical disability. The
temptation to introduce them is the greater because in the milder
afflictions they often represent an easy source of comedy, but, as a
matter of taste, it must be resisted. The following are therefore
Jocular references to all forms of physical infirmity or disease, e.g.
blindness, deafness, loss of limbs, paralysis, cancer, consumption,
Jokes about war injuries of any description.
Jokes about the more embarrassing disabilities, e.g., bow-legs, cross-
eyes, stammering (this is the most common 'gag' subject of this kind).
Jokes about any form of mental deficiency.
References to and jokes about drink are allowed in strict moderation
so long as they can really be justified on entertainment grounds. Long
'drunk' stories or scenes should, however, be avoided and the number
of references in any one programme carefully watched. There is no
objection to the use of well-known drinking songs, e.g. 'Another
Little Drink', 'Little Brown Jug', in their proper contexts. Trade
slogans, e.g. 'Beer is Best', are barred. Remarks such as 'one for the
road' are also inadmissible on road safety grounds.
Generally speaking the use of expletives and forceful language on the
air can only be justified in a serious dramatic setting where the
action of the play demands them. They have no place at all in light
entertainment and all such words as God, Good God, My God, Blast,
Hell, Damn, Bloody, Gorblimey, Ruddy, etc., etc., should be deleted
from scripts and innocuous expressions substituted.
All impersonations need the permission of the people being
impersonated and producers must reassure themselves that this has been
given before allowing any to be broadcast.
Artists' repertories of impersonations are usually restricted to:-
(a) leading public figures and political figures;
(b) fellow artists.
As to (a) the Corporation's policy is against broadcasting
impersonations of elder statesmen, e.g. Winston Churchill, and leading
political figures. Any others in this category should invariably be
As to (b) there is no objection, but certain artists have notified the
Corporation that no unauthorised impersonations may be broadcast. The
present list is given below but should be checked from time to time
with the Variety Booking Manager. A double check by producers as to
permission is advisable in these cases:-
Ethel Revnell (with or without Gracie West)
Nat Mills and Bobbie
Jeanne de Casalis (Mrs. Feather)
Very occasionally the question arises of the impersonation of people
now dead. There is, of course, no possible objection to the portrayal
or caricature of historic figures of the remote past, but the
impersonation of people who have died within living memory or whose
relations may still be alive, should normally be avoided altogether. In
any event only exceptional cases will be considered and the permission
of surviving relations, if any, must always be obtained.
Mention of charitable organisations
Appeals for charity are normally confined to 'The Week's Good Cause'.
No such appeals are allowed, save in the most exceptional
circumstances, elsewhere in programmes. Veiled appeals in the form of
incidental references to charitable organisations are also barred.
Special permission must therefore invariably be sought for the mention
of a charity, whatever the context, in entertainment programmes.
'British' and 'English'
The misuse of the word English where British is correct causes much
needless offence to Scottish, Ulster and Welsh listeners. It is a
common error but one which is easily avoided by proper care on the
part of the writers and producers. At the same time we should not
hesitate to use the word 'English' if it is the proper description.
Virtually all newly published dance numbers are approved for
broadcasting by the Dance Music Policy Committee before publication,
and it is unnecessary to detail here policy considerations affecting
the acceptance of such material. Two matters, are, however, worth
(a) British Music
It is the Corporation's policy actively to encourage British music so
long as this does not lead to a lowering of accepted musical
(b) Jazzing the Classics
The jazzing by dance bands of classical tunes or the borrowing and
adaptation of them is normally unacceptable. Any instances of this in MS
material submitted for programmes must be referred by producers to a
Avoid derogatory references to:-
Professions, trades, and 'classes', e.g. solicitors, commercial
travellers, miners, 'the working class'
Avoid any jokes or references that might be taken to encourage:-
Strikes or industrial disputes
The Black Market
Spivs and drones
Avoid any references to 'The MacGillicuddy of the Reeks' or jokes
about his name.
Do not refer to Negroes as 'Niggers' ('Nigger Minstrels' is allowed).
'Warming up' sequences with studio audiences before broadcasts should
conform to the same standards as the programmes themselves. Sample
recordings should be the subject to the same vigilance as
Special considerations for overseas broadcasts
Humour in other countries, as in our own, is limited by social,
political and religious taboos, and some sources of comedy legitimate
enough for this country are not acceptable abroad. The majority of
overseas audiences are not Christian by religion nor white in colour.
Disrespectful, let alone derogatory, references to Buddhists, Hindus,
Moslems, and so on, and any references to colour may therefore cause
deep offence and should be avoided altogether. It is impossible to
list in detail all potentially dangerous subjects but a few random
examples are given here:
Chinese abhor the description 'Chinamen', which should not be used.
Chinese laundry jokes may be offensive.
Jokes like 'enough to make a Maltese Cross' are of doubtful value.
The term Boer War should not be used - South African War is correct.
Jokes about 'harems' are offensive in some parts of the world.
© 1994 Peter Langston