Don’t mention the war, or Alf Garnett
The ‘offensive’ TV landmarks censored from Britain’s answer to Netflix
It might seem Orwellian to find our favourite television programmes saddled with “content warnings”, but that is what the new, much-heralded BritBox is offering, along with its comprehensive archive of content from bygone days. At a time when every media company wants its own piece of the increasingly lucrative market in streaming television, it was inevitable that British TV channels would eventually unite to offer classic and much-loved shows. For £5.99 a month, the same price as a basic Netflix subscription, the service will feature the likes of Downton Abbey, Doctor Who and Brideshead Revisited, the first time shows from different UK channels have all been consolidated together.
This seems reasonable value, if not as exciting as the breathless press releases might indicate. But for anyone over the age of 40 who wishes to watch sitcoms of an older vintage than Gavin and Stacey, there is a problem. Although the likes of Fawlty Towers and Only Fools and Horses will be available, warnings will sternly inform incredulous viewers that these programmes contain potentially offensive material.
In our brave new world of unlimited choice and unfettered options, this subscriber, surely, has a right to be offered the opportunity to immerse themselves in a nostalgic Britain
At least these comedies are deemed permissible. Many others, including Love Thy Neighbour, Till Death Us Do Part and On The Buses, will be banned. As Reemah Sakaan, the executive in charge of BritBox, said at the launch, “Changing tastes have been taken into account.” With a touch of post-woke authoritarianism, she spoke of “bespoke warnings” and “re-compliance procedure”, before happily concluding, “The great thing about on-demand is that you’re not forcing anyone to watch anything.”
The obvious flaw in Sakaan’s argument is that BritBox has been censored. Therefore, while viewers may not be offended by what remains, those who are less appalled by the Schrodinger-like existence of Mrs Slocombe’s pussy are likely to be disappointed. Given that the target audience for BritBox is older than Netflix and Disney+, many who would have considered subscribing may now prefer to get their now forbidden treats of nostalgia free on YouTube. Although, given their failure to engage in re-compliance, their viewing will be conducted in secrecy, with many a fearful glance at the door for fear that this verboten content will result in rather more than just a bespoke warning.
However, it is also true that a great deal of “classic” comedy is simply not very good and richly deserves its place in the elephant’s graveyard of light entertainment. Nobody, apart from masochists, ever needs to watch Geoff Atkinson’s 1990 show Heil Honey, I’m Home!, an entirely regrettable sitcom that attempted to have its stale cake and eat it. It was (mis)conceived as a broad parody of American comedies such as I Love Lucy, but also wanted to shock its audience with near-the-knuckle jokes about antisemitism.
After its first episode, which ended with Hitler, Eva Braun and Neville Chamberlain dancing the conga around the sitting-room, was aired, the entire series was cancelled. It exists, if it still has corporeal form at all, in some fascist entertained-themed vault, next to Jerry Lewis’s notorious concentration camp “comedy” The Day The Clown Cried, and it’s probably better that it remains there.
Nonetheless, for every truly unspeakable programme, there are several more which have been unfairly maligned by history. While it would be stretching the point to describe Love Thy Neighbour as anti-racist, its intention was a reasonable one; it was the execution that was tin-eared. For 1972, when the programme first appeared on our screens, was an era when the average man or woman was having to come to terms with the social effects of immigration, and this led to simmering tension which exploded into violence. The Notting Hill race riots of 1958 were still fresh in public consciousness, and tensions in often deprived areas continued throughout the Seventies and Eighties.
Thus, given laughter’s perceived ability to defuse awkward situations, it seems understandable why Vince Powell and Harry Driver were commissioned to write a show that would eventually run for eight series, 53 episodes and launch a cinematic spin-off. Its problem is that it isn’t very good. The central idea was reasonable — a bigot, Eddie Booth, and his more liberal wife Joan, have a pair of West Indian immigrants, Bill and Barbie Reynolds, move in next door, and the two men clash. It was, in fact, a tweaked version of Driver and Powell’s earlier Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width, a comedy about the tension between a Jewish tailor and his Irish-Catholic rival. Unfortunately, the jokes are repetitive, and there is a gleam in Eddie Booth’s eye, when he spouts his bigoted invective about “Sambo” and “King Kong”, that suggests that he, like the audience, is supposed to find racial abuse intrinsically funny. Despite Rudolph Walker’s remarkably dignified and suave performance as Bill, this one’s excision from BritBox is hardly a tragedy.
This is not true of some of the other programmes missing, most notably Till Death Us Do Part and On The Buses. The former was explicitly conceived by Johnny Speight as an attack on intolerance, and the lead character, Alf Garnett, was intended to be a representation of a limited, disappointed man, frustrated by the changing world. Warren Mitchell, who won a Bafta for the role, plays Garnett with total commitment, giving credence to the character’s grotesque and inconsistent views (he votes Conservative but despises Mrs Thatcher for not being “chained to the bloody kitchen sink” and sneers at Edward Heath as a “grammar school boy”), but also shows his arrogance and stupidity.
As Speight said in an interview, “If you do the character correctly, he just typifies what you hear, not only in pubs but in golf clubs around the country. To make him truthful he’s got to say those things, and they are nasty things. But I feel as a writer that they should be out in the open so we can see how daft these comparisons are.”
It was unsurprising that when Garnett played a not dissimilar character, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1979, his performance was given the credit it deserved, and an Olivier Award. The difference was that Garnett became a heroic figure to those too stupid to get the joke, resulting in a programme designed to satirise intolerance being accused of propagating it. As a certain newspaper columnist puts it, you couldn’t make it up.
Yet the programmes are not simply important as comedies but examples of social history. On The Buses, if it is remembered today, is usually thought of as a slightly milder version of Love Thy Neighbour, with its superannuated bus driver Stan (Reg Varney) and his buck-toothed conductor Jack (Bob Grant) always on the look-out for “crumpet” and falling foul of the long-suffering inspector “Blakey”, played, with some brilliance, by Stephen Lewis.
With his stubby Hitler moustache, rheumy-yet-cunning expression and thwarted catchphrase of “I ’ate you, Butler!”, Lewis managed to interpret the character, as created by the Ronalds Chesney and Wolfe, as little less than a bus station Malvolio. He conjured laughs from the most unpromising material and made him unexpectedly sympathetic and poignant.
However, the programme achieves its most inadvertent pathos in the scenes of Stan’s domestic life, as he lives with his sister Olive, brother-in-law Arthur and mother Mabel and they perpetually squabble over nothing. The hopelessness of their wasted existences and the Beckettian futility of it all, occasionally interspersed with moments of low domestic farce, was reflected in the real-life fates of the actors in the programme. Grant, a RADA graduate and successful playwright, was so dispirited by his typecasting that he killed himself, and Varney spent the decades after Stan in a state of ill-health, busying himself by painting oils.
He commented, miserably: “Whatever I did after On the Buses, nobody wanted to know about it.” His only concerted attempt to break free from the programme’s shackles, playing a depressed alcoholic female impersonator at a holiday camp in 1973’s The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, was not a success, and thus he was doomed to be defined, forever, as Stan Butler, bus driver, surprisingly adept Lothario and representative of a bygone world.
It would be a strange kind of BritBox subscriber who, granted access to these previously barred programmes, spent their days glutting themselves on the inadvertent melancholy that these sitcoms offer. Yet, in our brave new world of unlimited choice and unfettered options, this subscriber, surely, has a right to be offered the opportunity to immerse themselves in a nostalgic Britain of corned beef from the tin, three-day weeks and casual racism, just as the other viewers of the service can amuse themselves with less problematic content.
Reemah Sakaan and her ilk are operating from motives that, in 2020, seem understandable, if regrettable. However, their ignorance and disapproval of anything that existed before most of them were born is a greater tragedy. Like so much in our society, this airbrushing of “unacceptable” material will inevitably lead us to a Stalinist misunderstanding of what we should and should not be comfortable with. The result of this will be considerably more problematic than whether or not we should be allowed, as consenting adults, to hear Alf Garnett’s rants once more.
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