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11 Reasons the BBC Has Banned Hit Songs

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The BBC, Britain’s sometimes old maidish, publicly-funded broadcaster, was in a tough spot last week. Following the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former Prime Minister and controversial Iron Lady, anti-Thatcherites campaigned to get the song, “Ding-Dong, The Witch is Dead,” in the top spot on UK music charts.

The 74-year-old song, celebrating Dorothy’s timely squashing of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, nearly made it, topping out at number 2, which meant that the BBC would eventually have to play it on its Sunday music chart show. The mere notion that the BBC would air a song mocking the death of Lady Thatcher resulted in complaints from Thatcher supporters that the broadcaster was letting the charts be “hijacked” for political purposes; anti-Thatcherites threw around the words “freedom of speech.”

On Sunday, April 14, BBC Radio 1 Controller Ben Cooper responded to the controversy on his blog, explaining that he was sensitive to all sides of the argument and had decided to treat the rise of the song “as a news story.” They played a 5-second excerpt of the song, rather than the full 51-seconds of high-pitched Munchkin crooning, and explained why the song was at the top of the charts. “Most of [our audience] are too young to remember Lady Thatcher and many will be baffled by the sound of the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz,” he said. “To ban the record from our airwaves completely would risk giving the campaign the oxygen of further publicity and might inflame an already delicate situation.” 

It’s obviously not the first time—nor will it be the last—that a song has caused the BBC a spot of bother. That’s because for pretty much as long as the BBC has been in business, it has been in the business of censoring. But that doesn’t mean that the BBC’s treatment of popular music over the last 90 years has always been understandable—sometimes, it’s been downright manic, careening from thinking that whatever the kids were into these days was clearly objectionable to worrying that it lived up too much to its old maid Auntie image.

Here are a few things that got songs banned from the Beeb.

 

1. Prostitution

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In 1930, just eight years after the BBC was launched on the world, Cole Porter’s ballad about a happy hooker, “Love for Sale,” was banned from the Beeb’s airwaves for its ambiguity about prostitution.

2. Drugs 

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Illegal substances are a perpetual sticking point for the Beeb. In 1931, Cab Calloway’s classic “Minnie the Moocher” was kept off the air, probably owing to its drug references and depiction of generally loose morals. Just over 60 years later, in 1993, obvious references to drugs got The Shamen’s “Ebeneezer Goode” banned—the refrain went “eeeezer Goode, eeeezer Goode." Get it? “E’s are good”?

3. Violence

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Louis Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife,” from The Threepenny Opera, was banned in 1959 because of worries that its jazzy tune might incite gang violence. To be fair, it’s a pretty catchy tune about a violent murderer.

4. Sex

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Oh, Auntie Beeb. If there’s one thing that the British public, according to Auntie Beeb, can’t stomach, it’s references to sex. In the 1930s, ukulele-player George Formby and the BBC had a wary relationship, since a whole bunch of Formby’s cheery tunes were all about the fuzzy double entendre. In 1937, his jam, “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” (Blackpool Rock is a popular seaside candy that comes in stick form) was permitted, provided the version aired excised the lyrics: “With my little stick of Blackpool Rock, along the promenade I stroll/ In the ballroom I went dancing each night/ No wonder every girl that danced with me, stuck to me tight.”

The Beatles’ 1967 “I Am the Walrus” was banned for the words “pornographic priestess” and “knickers”; the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was banned that same year for, well, everything. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s breathy, velvety, overtly sexual “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” (with its lyrics, “I go and I come, between your kidneys,” which sounds plainly ridiculous and somewhat painful) was pulled from the airwaves in 1969, solidifying the French opinion that the Brits were all a bunch of repressed weirdoes.

Paul McCartney’s 1972 Wings-era jam “Hi, Hi, Hi,” written with his late wife Linda, was banned for its sexually suggestive lyrics and references to drugs. (According to McCartney, the Beeb just misheard the words: One line the BBC heard as “get you ready for my body gun” was actually meant to say “get you ready for my polygon.” Obviously.)

In 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” was deemed too explicitly sexual (although “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to come” actually sounds not explicit enough—don’t do what?). In a move that probably did much for the song’s chart performance, Radio 1 DJ Mike Read called the lyrics “disgusting” and yanked the record off the turntable live on air.

5. Politics

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McCartney had a rough year in 1972 with the BBC: His “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was banned for its overtly political and anti-British message. Politics, especially of the kind that question authority, weren’t popular with the Beeb: In 1977, the Sex Pistols’ raucous “God Save The Queen” was banned for its anti-establishment message.

6. Sappy lyrics

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So, ok, sex, drugs, anti-establishment politics, violence—not fit for the public consumption, fair enough. But what could possibly be objectionable about Bing Crosby? During World War II, the blue-eyed crooner’s homesick “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” wasn’t allowed on BBC airwaves because controllers felt that the lyrics might lower morale in troops overseas. Indeed, during the War, the BBC was particularly mindful of what it thought that the country needed, and concluded that saccharine sweetness wasn’t it. In 1942, the BBC pursued a “policy of excluding sickly sentimentality which, particularly when sung by certain vocalists, can become nauseating and not at all in keeping with what we feel to be the need of the public in this country in the fourth year of war.”

7. Teen death

What is with teenagers, death, and eternal love? In the 1950s and ‘60s, “death pop”—songs about teenagers whose love is ripped asunder by untimely death—was as big of a thing as Twilight is now. But as much as the kids were totally into the tragic, Romeo and Juliet romance of it all, the BBC wasn’t a fan. In 1960, it banned Ricky Valance’s version of “Tell Laura I Love Her,” a song about a boy called Tommy who dies in a car crash during a drag race. Tommy was only racing—heartbreak alert—to win enough money to buy his lovely Laura a wedding ring. Sigh. In 1961, the BBC banned John Leyton and the Outlaws’ syrupy “Johnny, Remember Me,” a song about a young man who is haunted by his dead lover, promptly rocketing the track to the number 1 spot on UK charts. 

8. Spookiness

Bobby Pickett’s Halloween jam “Monster Mash” was banned from the airwaves in 1962 on the grounds that it was “too morbid.” Evidently, Auntie Beeb is of a nervous disposition because “Monster Mash” wasn’t the only “scary song” the broadcaster banned: Just the year before, it refused to play The Moontrekker’s “Night of the Vampire” on the grounds that the eerie sounds of a creaking door and spooky laughter on the rock instrumental might actually scare someone to death. Muhahahaha!

9. Irreligious references to Heaven

In 1954, Don Cornell's "Hold My Hand" was banned because in it, he compares his relationship to his ladylove to heaven and that didn’t fly with the Beeb. “So this is the kingdom of heaven/ So this is the sweet promised land/ While angels tell of love, don't break the spell of love/ Hold my hand." Syrupy, sweet—and breeding a generation of atheists who find divinity only in themselves and their lovers? You be the judge.

10. Satire!

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Comedy was also not permitted by the BBC—several of mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer’s songs, including “The Old Dope Peddler,” a 1960 sentimental song about the neighborhood drug dealer, were banned. Incidentally, rapper 2 Chainz sampled “The Old Dope Peddler” on his track, “Dope Peddler,” in 2012. Lehrer told the BBC in 2013 that he was “very proud” of his song’s being used more than half a century after he recorded it—his response to their request was, “I grant you motherf***ers permission—which is the word that they use constantly—to do this and please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

11. Awesome drum beats?

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Phil Collins’s “In The Air Tonight” was banned during the Gulf War, because... of its dark, atmospheric drumming? Spooky lyrics? Relationship to Miami Vice? Who knows? Incidentally, the Beeb also yanked The Cure’s “Killing an Arab,” for obvious reasons, and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” for not obvious reasons, off the air during the Gulf War. 

What won’t get you banned

But where it banned some songs for what seem like weird reasons, the BBC certainly didn’t ban every song in questionable taste—even after complaints by certain members of the aghast British public. In 1973, broadcasting standards campaigner Mary Whitehouse, a woman with a seemingly bottomless capacity for moral outrage who spearheaded several very public campaigns to ban “filth” from radio and television throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, complained about rock legend Chuck Berry’s performance of “My Ding-a-ling” on Top of the Pops. Watch the performance here:

"One teacher," Whitehouse wrote to the BBC, "told us of how she found a class of small boys with their trousers undone, singing the song and giving it the indecent interpretation which—in spite of all the hullabaloo—is so obvious … We trust you will agree with us that it is no part of the function of the BBC to be the vehicle of songs which stimulate this kind of behaviour— indeed quite the reverse." But the BBC refused to apologize or disallow the song; then-director Charles Curran wrote to Whitehouse, “We did not think it would disturb or emotionally agitate its listeners and we believe that the innuendo is, at worst, on the level of seaside postcards or music hall humour.”

The BBC didn’t ban other songs that were controversial. Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” a song that some thought celebrated misogyny, despite the “shock” ending of the video, wasn’t exactly banned, although the BBC did limit its airplay and in some cases, only played a lyric-less version. And The Kinks’ “Lola,” the best, most melancholic song about falling in love with a trans-woman ever, was only briefly banned, not because of content that the 1970’s audience might have objected to, but because it made a reference to “Coca-Cola.” BBC Radio had a strict no product policy, so singer Ray Davies was forced to interrupt the band’s American tour to fly back to London and re-record the lyric to say “cherry cola” instead.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
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While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
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Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
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Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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11 Thrilling Facts About Dial M for Murder
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In 1953 Alfred Hitchcock was looking for a new project after a film he’d been developing fell through. Sensing a need to go back to his safe space of murderous thrillers, he opted to adapt a stage play that had already proved to be a hit on British television. Though he had no particular attachment to the project, Dial M for Murder would ultimately become one of Hitchcock’s best-known—and best-loved—classics.

From the film’s use of 3D to the debut of Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s filmography to a pivotal murder sequence that made the director lose weight from stress, here are 11 facts about Dial M for Murder.

1. IT’S BASED ON A STAGE PLAY.

Dial M for Murder is, in terms of locations and number of characters, a relatively sparse film that barely leaves its primary set. This is because it was based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, which premiered as a BBC TV special in 1952 and later opened at London’s Westminster Theater and, eventually, Broadway. After seeing the BBC production, producer Sir Alexander Korda purchased the rights to make the film version, and later sold them to Warner Bros. for $75,000.

2. ALFRED HITCHCOCK THOUGHT HE WAS “COASTING” WHEN HE MADE THE FILM.

By 1953, when Dial M for Murder arrived at Warner Bros., Hitchcock was developing a project called The Bramble Bush, the story of a man who steals another man’s passport, only to find out that the original owner is wanted for murder. Hitchcock wrestled with the story for a while, but was never satisfied with it. When Dial M for Murder landed at the studio, Hitchcock knew the play had been a hit, and opted to direct it. As he later told fellow director François Truffaut, he found the film to be “coasting, playing it safe,” as he was already known as a thriller filmmaker.

3. IT’S HITCHCOCK’S ONLY 3D FILM.

In the early 1950s, the 3D movie craze was raging, and Warner Bros. was eager to pair it with the fame of Hitchcock. So, the director was ordered to use the process on Dial M for Murder. This meant Hitchcock had to work with the giant cameras necessary for the process, but there was also a trade-off that makes the film fascinating—even in 2D. In order to make the film look appropriately interesting in 3D, Hitchcock added a pit into the floor of the set, so the camera could move at lower angles and captures objects like lamps in the foreground. As a result, the film looks like no other Hitchcock ever shot, particularly for the infamous scissors murder that’s the film's thrilling centerpiece. Unfortunately, by the time Dial M for Murder was released in 1954, the 3D fad was dying out, so the film was shown in 2D at most screenings.

4. IT WAS HITCHCOCK’S FIRST FILM WITH GRACE KELLY.

Of all of the iconic blonde stars Hitchcock cast in his films, the most famous is almost undoubtedly Grace Kelly, the actress-turned-princess who first joined him for this film. Hitchcock once described Kelly as a "rare thing in movies ... fit for any leading-lady part,” and it was said he had the easiest working relationship with her of any star. They worked so well together that they went on to make two more films, Rear Window in 1954 and To Catch a Thief in 1955.

5. IT TAKES PLACE ALMOST ENTIRELY INDOORS.

Because Dial M for Murder is based on a stage play, the original script had very little in the way of outdoor set pieces. Hitchcock wanted to keep it that way, as he later explained to Truffaut:

“I’ve got a theory on the way they make pictures based on stage plays; they did it with silent pictures, too. Many filmmakers would take a stage play and say, ‘I’m going to make this into a film.’ Then they would begin to ‘open it up.’ In other words, on the stage it was all confined to one set, and the idea was to do something that would take it away from the confined stage setting.”

Hitchcock wanted to keep the confinement intact, so almost all of the action in the film takes place indoors, largely in the Wendices' apartment. This adds to the intimacy and tension.

6. HITCHCOCK PERSONALLY CHOSE EVERY PROP.

Hitchcock was always known as a meticulous director obsessed with detail, but on Dial M for Murder he was particularly detail-oriented, in part because the 3D cameras were going to capture objects in a way his other films hadn’t. As a result, he selected all of the objects in the Wendice apartment himself, and even had a giant false telephone dial made for the famous “M” close-up in the title sequence.

7. KELLY’S WARDROBE GROWS DARKER ON PURPOSE.

Grace Kelly in 'Dial M for Murder' (1954)
Warner Home Video

Hitchcock’s exacting eye also led to an elaborate “color experiment” to portray the psychological condition of Kelly’s character. As the film begins, the colors she wears are all very bright, suggesting a happy life in which she doesn’t suspect anything is wrong. As the film grows darker for her, to the point that she’s framed for murder, the wardrobe grows darker and “more somber,” as Hitchcock put it.

8. KELLY WON A PARTICULAR WARDROBE ARGUMENT.

For the scene in which Swann (Anthony Dawson) attempts to murder Margot (Kelly) by strangling her (until she manages to stab him with a pair of scissors), Hitchcock had another exacting wardrobe request. He had an elegant velvet robe made for Kelly, hoping to create interesting textural effects as the lights and shadows played off the fabric while she fought for her life. Kelly reasoned that, since Margot was alone in the apartment (as far as she knew) and was only getting out of bed to answer the phone, she wouldn’t bother to put on a robe.

“I said I wouldn't put on anything at all, that I'd just get up and go to the phone in my nightgown. And [Hitchcock] admitted that was better, and that's the way it was done,” Kelly later recalled.

9. HITCHCOCK WAS SO NERVOUS ABOUT THE PIVOTAL SCENE THAT HE LOST WEIGHT.

Dial M for Murder was shot in just 36 days, but the director took special care with one scene in particular: the murder sequence in which Margot stabs Swann with the scissors. Not only was it a key scene in the film, but it was also a moment that required particular care to make the 3D effects work. Hitchcock agonized over the scene to such a degree that he apparently lost 20 pounds during filming.

"This is nicely done but there wasn't enough gleam to the scissors, and a murder without gleaming scissors is like asparagus without the hollandaise sauce—tasteless,” he reportedly said after one take.

10. HITCHCOCK MAKES HIS CAMEO IN A PHOTOGRAPH.

Hitchcock became known throughout his career for making cameos in his films, ranging from the very subtle (you can see his silhouette in neon outside the window in Rope) to the more elaborate (missing the bus in the opening sequence of North by Northwest). In Dial M for Murder, his cameo falls somewhere in between. He appears in a class reunion photo in the Wendice apartment, seated at a banquet table among other men.

11. IT’S BEEN REMADE FOUR TIMES.

Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in 'A Perfect Murder' (1998)
Warner Bros.

Dial M for Murder was a film adaptation of a stage play that had also already been adapted for television in Britain, and it proved popular enough that four more adaptations followed. In 1958, NBC broadcast a Hallmark Hall of Fame production, in which both Anthony Dawson and John Williams returned to play Swann and Chief Inspector Hubbard, respectively. A 1967 ABC television production of the play co-starred Laurence Harvey and Diane Cilento. A television movie starring Angie Dickinson and Christopher Plummer was produced in 1981, and in 1998 the play served as the inspiration for the film A Perfect Murder, starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.

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