The permissive society comes to Torquay



In the early 1970s the permissive society came to Torquay, and some amongst us didn’t like it. In the front line of the conflict was a local entrepreneurial pub landlord, while ranged against the collapse of our town’s morals were Torquay’s Churches.

Admittedly, sexual shenanigans on the TV and in the movies had been around for some time before the 1970s. However, no-one had really organised a concerted backlash until the launch of the Nationwide Festival of Light. This was a grassroots movement formed by Christians concerned about the onward march of what they saw as the excesses of a permissive society.


As an evangelical campaigning organisation, the Festival was opposed to homosexuality, abortion and other manifestations of the nation’s falling away from God, such as what they saw as the media’s explicit depiction of sexual and violent themes.


Its leading lights included the clean-up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge and a number of leading clergymen. Cliff Richard (pictured above with Mary) was a leading supporter. Its culmination was a series of mass rallies in London in September 1971 (also pictured above). Predictably, there were those who saw the Festival as being reactionary and hostile to their hard fought for  freedoms.  At one Festival  rally, for example, the Gay Liberation Front invaded dressed in drag and released mice, sounded horns, and turned off the lights.


Supporting the Festival in Torquay was the Reverend Harold Smith. In a speech at the RAFA Annual Battle of Britain service held at Upton Church, he described the parallels between the Battle of Britain and the 1971 fight to stem the tide of social permissiveness. Quoting from a Festival of Light poster, he said that, “Moral pollution needs a solution. Christian people know where the solution lies. Though faith has declined in these 30 years, God has not died – whatever humanists or radical theologians may say. We are concerned at the glorified violence, sadism, incest and perversion invading public entertainment. Our protest is not a rightwing backlash of intolerance. It is a protest, not primarily about sex at all. It is a protest against all that degrades human dignity and destroys human relationships.”

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After describing permissiveness in the theatre, he went on to condemn the Little Red School Book, which gave information on sex and drugs, and the 23 minute sex education film Growing Up, “We are concerned about the invasion of the schools. It will not be long before someone in Torbay wants the film Growing Up so that our children can watch a naked woman teacher practicing masturbation, and be told that intercourse is a valuable aid to teenage development. And there will be advocates for the Little Red Book and its proposals – contraceptives issued at the tuck shop and VD (already more common than measles) to be regarded as no greater cause of shame.”

Meanwhile, across town, the permissive society was in full swing. Ernie Garnham, the larger-than-life landlord of the Yacht on Victoria Parade, had put on strippers to entertain his Sunday lunch time crowd. With some relish, the Torquay Times journalist sent to review the entertainment wrote of how, “Paddy the stripper gyrated her way through the customers”.

Ernie described what he was trying to achieve: “I am trying to get the pub known as a place where a bloke can come for a drink and a laugh without being in danger of getting thumped by layabouts… If you give them all the goodies at the beginning they go home early and we don’t sell any beer which is the whole object… So the afternoon starts off with a talent spot. The microphone is passed around to anyone with a joke to tell… In the last show, just before closing time, she takes the lot off. That way everyone stays till the end.”

Apparently, a few women came to the show. Said one: “So nice looking fellers will come up and ask what I’m doing at a strip show.”

Perhaps provocatively, the Torquay Times ended their article by saying, “None of the customers seemed to see any difference between Sunday and any other day of the week – certainly for a town with so many churches, there were no religious qualms.” 


On cue, the Reverend Peter McCrory of the Torquay Christian Council issued a statement:  “Torquay’s many churches appeared largely at a time when, for all his faults, Man did aspire to something higher than his purely animal nature when he realised that there were values of mind and spirit which could raise him to some relationship with his Creator… If many of the world’s human population still grovel in a lower state of being than they need, if the satisfaction of animal passions are all that is needed for us to grow into wholeness, then the strip joint and the brothel will continue to flourish as they have done since time immemorial on Sundays and any other day of the week… God made man a little lower than the angels in order that he may lord it over nature, not that nature should lord it over him.”


The Little Red Schoolbook never did make it to Torquay’s schools. It was the subject of a successful prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act, though the government did allow a second, censored, edition to be published.

Growing Up, “the most explicit and frank film ever made for use in schools”, received positive feedback from teachers and pupils. However, it was widely suppressed after being condemned by a range of clerics and politicians, including an up-and-coming MP called Margaret Thatcher.


Kevin Dixon went to Audley Park – now Torquay Academy – and South Devon College when it was at Torre. After studying at Birmingham City University, he returned home because there’s nowhere else quite like Torquay. He then became involved in community and adult education, completed a PhD at Exeter University , and started writing about the weird and unknown side of town. He now Chairs Healthwatch Torbay and is involved in health and social care in the Bay.