A lot has been written about Stuart Hall over the past week, following his convictions for sexual assaults on young women and girls. Before Hall's work as a broadcaster is forgotten, I want to say a few words about his work on television and radio.
Anyone growing up in the North West of England in the 1970s or 1980s will have memories of the BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall. In one of the earliest pictures of this blogger, I am standing up in a tin bath in a front room in Wilmslow with tufts of unruly hair, resplendent in my birthday suit. On the black and white television set behind me in the top of a black and white photograph, is Stuart Hall. He is probably in his mid-late forties, and to be honest looks pretty much the same as he did until well into his 70s.
Stuart Hall was a big name. In an era when there were only three or four TV channels, he was the BBC’s lead for local news in the North West, whilst he had a national profile presenting It’s A Knockout on BBC1. Sadly I remember little about that spirit of the age game show. What I do recall is that it nearly always seemed to be filmed outside, and for some reason had a pan-European competitor base. It involved lots of silly games involving water and paper mache figures. Inevitably participants would fall into the water and/or trip over at vital moments. Whenever this happened Stuart Hall would be roaring with laughter like a deranged laughing policeman on acid, as one team (invariably the Belgians) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
English culture is predominantly anti-intellectual. As children, we bully the geeky boy with glasses, and afford status to those who are physically brave or good at sports. Other cultures are different – in France, when Jean-Paul Sartre died, the automobile factories of Paris fell quiet, as the workers walked out on strike to attend his funeral. The closest we have come to that in the UK was in 1968, when London dockers and market porters downed tools in support of Enoch Powell’s speech against immigration. Even that political action is largely a myth – thousands of men left work, yet it was hundreds who made it to Parliament in support of Powell – most of the others were down the pub. In contrast to these traditions, Stuart Hall always wore his learning on his sleeve – he knew his Shakespeare, and wanted everyone else to know that he did.
In the years before
mobile phones, if you wanted to hear the football results as you travelled home
from a match, you needed to stand next to, or follow, a ‘tranny man’ – a fan
with a transistor radio. There were many times in the 1980s or early 1990s I travelled
from Warwick Road station to Manchester Piccadilly, after a United match, and
observed a train carriage descend into hushed silence for one of Stuart Hall’s
radio reports on a game.
Not everyone understood what Hall was talking about. Once an interview with Liverpool manager Roy Evans descended into farce after a typically florid introduction threw Evans completely. Lost for words he simply said “You don’t half talk some rubbish you, Stuart”. When Paul Ince played for Manchester United, plenty of commentators will have observed his ‘donkey work’ in midfield. Only Stuart Hall described him as “toiling like a Stakhanovite”. In a way, the era when Stuart Hall presented Look North West, now looks a golden age in terms of the seriousness of the presenters. On ITV, Granada Reports had the late Tony Wilson, another man who was desperately keen to show not only how clever he was, but how important it was to be clever. Looking last year at the local news programmes in the region, both ITV and BBC had a double act of presenters, both had one male and one female presenter, both had one white and one ethnic minority presenter. I doubt any had read a book since their student days. Style matters more than substance.
Long after television put Stuart Hall out to grass, his intelligence ensured that he maintained a viable career within the BBC. His football reports continued, on Radio 2 and then on Radio 5. When Old Trafford began to style itself as ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ Hall delighted in telling listeners that he was reporting from Maine Road ‘The Theatre of Comedy’. Perhaps because of his age, his views on football could be both insightful and rounded. During one of the periodic panics about cheating and foreign players, he simply recalled the Manchester City team of the early 70s “Franny Lee was the biggest diver ever”. In more recent years I started buying the Radio Times again, largely because of Hall’s rambling column on sport and TV, which often contained a beautifully written unrequited love for Claire Balding, and always ended with his exit, pursued by a bear.
After last week’s court case in Preston, we now know there was another Stuart Hall. A man who forced himself on women, teenage girls and children. The way legal proceedings have ended – with Hall pleading guilty to several assaults, with more serious cases now not being prosecuted, appears generous towards him. More so, given the damage he did to his victims, than he deserves. Stuart Hall’s reputation is destroyed. It seems fitting he should die in prison, although whether a judge will see fit to jail an 83 year old man, remains to be seen.
We seem to be living in age where the rather unhealthy celebrity culture we have experienced since the 1950s, is being hacked at by unwelcome and unpleasant home truths. What the motor is for this, is unclear. It shows little sign of abating. I can’t say that I am particularly bothered at the destruction of Jimmy Savile’s reputation, or for that matter those of some of the celebrities currently awaiting court cases for serious sexual offences. But, for a variety of reasons, both personal and political (with a small p) Stuart Hall’s downfall is saddening.