Brendan Behan's 1956 Panorama interview (lost interview footage of Irish playwright; 1956)
Brendan Behan is an Irish playwright known for works such as The Quare Fellow and An Giall. On 18th June 1956, Behan was invited to be interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge on the BBC program Panorama. Behan turned up drunk for said interview, which became famous as it contained the earliest known instance of the word "fuck" being uttered on British television.
Earlier in 1956, Behan's The Quare Fellow was being played in London theatres, receiving wide acclaim and further promotion for the West End and Stratford East. The Observer's Kenneth Tynan deemed the play as a "supreme dramatic achievement", even going so far as to say it was Behan's Irish duty to "save the English theatre from inarticulate glumness". With his new-found fame, Behan was invited for an interview on Panorama to discuss the play. This interview, conducted by journalist Malcom Muggeridge, was held on 18th June 1956.
Behan suffered from alcoholism. When he arrived for his interview, he was inebriated. This was because he and Muggeridge met at the Garrick Club to discuss the broadcast, drinking Scotch at the bar. Despite Behan arriving shoeless and with a messed-up shirt, Muggeridge insisted to BBC executives that the interview commence. Thus, the interview occurred, devolving into Behan slurring much of his speech and singing a well off-key rendition of The Old Triangle to the majority of viewers.
At some point during the interview, Behan also let out the expletive "fuck", which was reported in the majority of newspapers the following day. Fellow guest, actor Jackie Gleason, summarised the interview as "It wasn’t an act of God but an act of Guinness!". Despite the word being especially taboo back in the 1950s, there were no complaints surrounding the swearing. In fact, the only complaints were regarding Behan's incoherent speech. For Behan, the interview actually generated him more popularity among the British public. He recalled that a Cockney approached him in London, stating to him that while he could completely understand Behan's words, he was unable to comprehend what "that bugger Muggeridge was on about!". Ultimately the effects of alcoholism claimed the playwright's life on 20th March 1964, aged 41.
First Utterance of "Fuck" on British Television
Some television historians have researched when the word "fuck" was first uttered on British television. One of the earliest known instances was on the comedy sketch show BBC-3, where upon being asked whether he would allow sexual intercourse to be depicted on-stage, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan responded "Well, I think so, certainly. I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word 'fuck' would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden. I think that anything which can be printed or said can also be seen." This garnered not only complaints, but also threats of physical harm against Tynan. Miriam Margolyes, who appeared on an 1963 episode of University Challenge, claimed she uttered the expletive upon getting a question wrong.
However, in his book Armchair Nation, Joe Moran identified two earlier examples. One was in 1959, where Ulster Television program Roundabout interviewed a man regarding whether it was boring to constantly paint the same railings at Belfast's Stranmillis Embankment. The man responded "Of course it's fucking boring", which reportedly received no complaints. Ultimately, Moran declared that the aforementioned Behan interview is the earliest known instance of "fuck" being uttered on British television.
Ultimately, much of Panorama's earlier episodes no longer exist within the BBC's archives. While Behan's 1959 interview with Tonight survives, the 1956 instance does not. The other early examples of "fuck" being uttered on British television are also lost media. Nevertheless, a recreation by Peter Sellers can be listened to online.
- A Drinker's History of London detailing the prelude to the interview, including how Behan became inebriated. Retrieved 17th Jul '22
- The Best Are Leaving detailed how Behan's popularity increased following the interview. Retrieved 17th Jul '22
- The Guardian providing a biography of Behan, documenting the interview and providing newspaper clippings of it. Retrieved 17th Jul '22
- The Digital Fix analysing the earliest known instances of "fuck" being uttered on British television. Retrieved 17th Jul '22
- Armchair Nation detailing the first instances of "fuck" being uttered on television. Retrieved 17th Jul '22
- Poetry Dispatch detailing Jackie Gleason's comments and the Cockney story. Retrieved 17th Jul '22
- BBC Archive providing the 1959 Tonight interview. Retrieved 17th Jul '22