“Will you stop talking about the war!”
Are we watching a Stalinist show trial, with hitherto dissident figures loudly recanting any support for past regimes?
In January, I wrote a piece for The Critic criticising the BritBox service for its apparent censorship of many of Britain’s greatest sitcoms, including On The Buses and Til Death Us Do Part. While I was unable to find any rationale for the likes of Heil Honey, I’m Home and Love Thy Neighbour to be included on BritBox – save, perhaps, for adults to make up their own minds as to how they entertain themselves in their homes – I concluded that “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.”
If I could have foreseen what was going to come a few months later, and in retrospect I should have guessed that the controversy that I hinted at was going to explode in full Technicolour splendour at some point in the not-too-distant future, I would have taken a more trenchant tone. That time is now upon us, but it is not merely BritBox affected by the terrified diktats of an angry and vocal mob dictating in the bluntest terms what is no longer acceptable. Instead, the entire canon of television comedy has been changed by a desperate attempt on the part of editors and producers to delve back into the archives and delete or hide episodes that are seen as “offensive” or “inappropriate”.
The artistic merit of these programmes is not being much discussed at the moment, but it undoubtedly ought to be. There is very little to be mourned by the absence of the Black and White Minstrel Show from our screens, now or in the future. And the once-popular Little Britain, one of the first programmes to disappear from streaming services such as Netflix, has dated appallingly badly, too, with its stars Matt Lucas and David Walliams too often thinking that donning female attire or blacking up is intrinsically hilarious. Describing it as “The League of Gentlemen for idiots” sounds about right, but the League have also been consigned to their digital Royston Vasey, too, with the terrifying character Papa Lazarou’s blackface make-up the reason for its removal from Netflix.
On and on it has gone. The Mighty Boosh have disappeared, because of the figure of the Spirit of Jazz (Noel Fielding blacked up), and the comedian Leigh Francis, creator of the character Keith Lemon, has issued a tearful public apology for his deeply caricatured presentation of black people in his series Bo’Selecta. Describing himself as being on a “constant journey of knowledge” – a line funnier than anything in his show – Francis has presented himself as contrite and deeply apologetic for his involvement in a programme that has given him a career for the past two decades. The sense of us all watching a Stalinist show trial, with hitherto dissident figures loudly recanting any support for past regimes, persists.
Yet there is also the possibility of this mass cancellation causing offence for more nuanced reasons. Fawlty Towers is rightly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest sitcoms, and the episode “The Germans” is perhaps its crowning glory, even if the humour has become somewhat deadened through overfamiliarity. However, it has now been taken off the BBC-owned UKTV platform, because the otherwise amiable character of the Major uses racial slurs to describe the West Indies cricket team. Even when the programme first aired in the Seventies, it was obvious that John Cleese and Connie Booth’s intention was to portray the most retrograde of social views, rather than getting cheap laughs out of racist humour. But times change, and language becomes unacceptable. Although the episode had previously been allowed to exist in edited form, an irritated Cleese commented about the current controversy to The Age newspaper that “One of the things I’ve learned in the last 180 years is that people have very different senses of humour. Some of them understand that if you put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of, you’re not broadcasting their views, you’re making fun of them.”
This disparity between what characters say and their creator’s own views has been a tenet of English humour since Chaucer and Shakespeare. Nobody watching a production of Henry V, with the ridiculous yet noble figure of the Welshman Fluellen, would seriously expect to be offended by his presentation, but it now seems likely that, if a Welsh Lives Matter movement emerged, his depiction on stage would become untenable. And so it has gone on for centuries; one thinks of the ludicrous Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger in Sheridan’s The Rivals, for instance, or the absurd Frenchman Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. They are broadly drawn and intentionally ridiculous comic characters, but it now seems entirely possible that their presentation could be seen as offensive, should the national mood forbid such frivolity.
The sense of us all watching a Stalinist show trial, with hitherto dissident figures loudly recanting any support for past regimes, persists
Acting to censor comedy, or to accuse those who have enjoyed once-permissible humour of latent racism, is never as intelligent or necessary an idea as the desperate and reactive censors of our time seem to think it is. It is regrettable that an episode of Fawlty Towers contains a word that will offend vast numbers of people today, but there seems little point in trying to shut this particular stable door many decades after the horse has bolted.
If there are audiences who would seek to watch a 45-year old programme and be genuinely surprised at different social attitudes, then they are guilty of assuming that their 2020 values have always existed, and always will exist. This is an act of foolishness far greater than Major Gowen’s attempts to discuss racial disparity, and one can only hope that wiser and less frantic heads put a halt to this never-ending desire to whitewash the humour of the past, however inclusive the intentions in doing so might apparently be.
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