When I was a nipper, Southend was a popular holiday spot for east Londoners.
Pubs, fish & chips, candy floss, funfairs, paddling in the Thames and, if you were lucky, even a bit of sun.
And something that was everywhere was saucy postcards, every gift shop and newsagent had racks of them.
They were simple, colourful cartoons with a cheeky (usually sexual) pun.
Part of a tradition of working-class humour, from the music halls to Benny Hill and Carry On films.
People would send them back home to friends and relatives to show they were letting their hair down and having a good time.
The main artist who drew these postcards was Donald McGill.
Over the years, he did 9,000 different cartoons which sold around 200 million cards to the working class.
But someone decided they offended public decency.
The sort of person who wouldn’t go to Southend, decided the working class shouldn’t be allowed to send rude postcards.
In 1954, Donald McGill was charged under the Obscene Publications Act 1857, he was found guilty and fined.
George Orwell was one of the main supporters of Donald McGill.
He felt those who wanted the cards banned were themselves guilty of two errors.
First, they were infringing other people’s freedom. Second, they didn’t understand humour.
The freedom part is obvious, but the part about humour is interesting.
Orwell points out the main subjects of the postcards are: sex, drunkenness, toilet humour, snobbery, the mother-in-law, hen-pecked husbands, clergymen, and “an endless succession of fat women in tight bathing-dresses.”
Orwell said the basis of all humour was a small rebellion, it was stepping over the boundary of what was allowed, in this case good taste.
He compared it to the Don Quixote – Sancho Panza relationship, the conflict between high-minded respectability and vulgar buffoonery.
He wrote: “Society has always demanded more from human beings than it will get in practice – that they should work hard, pay their taxes, be faithful to their wives, men should think it glorious to die on the battlefield and women should want to wear themselves out with child bearing. Such postcards are therefore symptomatically important as a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue.”
Orwell understood humour isn’t reality, it is a release, like a safety valve.
On holiday the working classes are free for two weeks, free of the restrictions of their daily lives, they can laze around, get drunk, and laugh at rude jokes.
That’s what Orwell’s ‘harmless rebellion’ is, that is the purpose of humour.
But the middle class have always had a problem with working class humour.
Most of the people in advertising and marketing are middle class, and so have aspirations beyond working class humour.
But many millions of people in the UK are still working class and, as the last few elections have shown, don’t think the same as the university-educated middle class.
Perhaps that’s why advertising is now less popular than it’s been in decades.
Up until 20 years ago, it was quite common to hear ordinary people say: “the adverts are better than the programmes”.
We don’t hear that now, because the middle class only allow their own taste.
And, like the Obscene Publications Act 1857, they will decide what everyone is or isn’t allowed to see.