Don’t Mention the War: Has Censorship Gone Too Far?

February 14, 2013 12:59 pm


TV censorshipWarning: this article will contain the ‘n-word’, and other similar words, because, put simply, it’s about the ‘n-word’. It relates to the recent story about the BBC editing out a scene of an episode of the repeated series of ‘Fawlty Towers’ because of censorship.

Now I don’t like that word, and never have any reason to use it, mainly because of its social, racial, political and historical implications. To me, it’s an insult and degrades both the recipient and the person who uses it. There are far better ways to insult people and it is archaic, spiteful, mean behaviour to insult someone over things they can hardly control – such as their skin colour, sexual orientation, gender, age etc. – something that is intrinsically them.

There are, of course, times when it is right to use such language – in a film where characters use that kind of language, in a similar kind of book, in an article – it’s all a matter of context. Which is why, to me, the editing out of that scene in ‘Fawlty Towers’ was far too, well, ‘nannyish’. Auntie Beeb, all too often under attack for indiscretions or imagined indiscretions, tried too hard not to offend. I think they got it wrong.

Class-ridden society

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of  ‘Fawlty Towers’. I think it’s a genius of a sitcom, the mother of all sitcoms. Without Basil and his crew there would not have been Alan Partridge or David Brent. John Cleese’s portrait of a middle class, hen-pecked, cowardly, bullying social snob showed a perfect, comic exaggeration of some of the middle layers of our class-ridden society.

It nails perfectly the stereotypical ‘petit bourgeoisie’, the curtain-twitchers, the ‘disgusteds of Tonbridge Wells’, the narrow-minded, bigoted, repressed Little Englander. Basil would vote UKIP, without a doubt! (Nigel Farage was the one missing guest in the ‘Anniversary’ episode, surely)

Each episode reveals Basil’s failings and foibles to great effect. All too often he’s featured in the endless diet of ‘clip shows’ shown on TV – ‘Top One Hundred Comedy Clips’s ad nauseum.

There’s  Basil thrashing his car with a branch. Here’s Basil banging his head on the desk to check he’s not having a bad dream. And what about Basil faking a faint to escape the embarrassment of a posh guest’s facial twitch? Not forgetting, of course, the ‘uber-Basil’ scene par excellence – that frenzied goosestep for his German guests, the result of a bang on the head, of course.

Social safety valve

Comedy allows us to laugh at ourselves and others. It works as a sort of social safety valve that relieves pent-up rage or simply breaks ‘the ice’. It can also prick the bubble of pomposity and disarm the offensive, the self-important. Most of all, it can render ridiculous the ideas of the bigot, the racist, the fascist.

There are limitations, of course. You can joke all you like about fascists; comedy won’t , in the final analysis, be the weapon to stop them. You can laugh all the way to the firing squad, comedy won’t stop the bullets. Only collective mass action can do that. But I digress.

The issue was about the scene where hotel resident Major Gowan talks about his date with a woman at a cricket match. The Major is ‘old school tie’, presumably, a retired military officer. He’s a relic from the empire days who pops up to inquire about the papers or mention the cricket score.

He often plays a useful foil in several strands of the sitcom’s plots. He has the perceived outlook of his class stereotype. He’s a comic character and virtually every line his character spouts ranges from either silly, surreal, misunderstood or downright stupid.

Churchill wasn’t black

In the scene in question, Fawlty is preparing for the arrival of some German guests. The Major goes off at a tangent about how he went to the Oval cricket ground with a woman called ‘Winnie’ – ‘Strange creatures women. Went to powder her nose and… didn’t come back.’

Fawlty then enquires: ‘Winnie’? Was she black?”

‘Churchill wasn’t black, old boy. No, we called her ‘Winnie’ because she looked like Churchill’  Then the Major digresses: “Funny thing is, she used to call the Indian players niggers. No, no, no, I said. West Indians are niggers. These are wogs

He looks concerned when Fawlty tells him there will be German guests. The Major grumbles that they are ‘not to be trusted’, they are ‘bad eggs’. At that, Polly (the waitress played by Connie Booth) appears and asks ‘what about women’? He claims he loves women. “What about German women?’ Polly/Booth asks.

‘Good card players!’

Now, how is anybody to take this character and what he says seriously? He is clearly a buffoon, as other, less controversial scenes illustrate. You’ll remember in the episode ‘The Fish and the Corpse’ when Fawlty is attempting to hide a guest’s dead body in the office and the Major asks casually whether it is going to stay there – ‘Attracts the flies, you know.’ Or the scene where Basil is desperately trying to get the Major to remember he was keeping the money for him that he won on a horse.

I know the series gets aired well before the ‘watershed’ and it is entirely possible young, impressionable people could be watching. But can’t they draw their own conclusions that this is all being uttered by a silly man? And if there are adults watching it with them, wouldn’t it be better to be able to discuss the implications of language and its use?

Just saying ‘that was the way people used to talk then’, isn’t enough. I was around in the Seventies. It was no more acceptable to use that language then than it is now, but perhaps TV was much more challenging at that time, I don’t know. Maybe it was a ‘wilder frontier’. It pushed more boundaries.



Distorted mirror

There was another sitcom in the 1960s/70s –  ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ –  featuring a vile rightwing bigot called ‘Alf Garnett’. He railed against black people, Asians, gays, leftwingers and anything progressive. He supported the Queen (‘Gawd bless ‘er’), the Tories, Empire and (gulp) Enoch Powell.

The series existed to puncture holes in all his arguments and belief system and made him ridiculous. Although its creator, writer Johnny Speight, spoke about times when members of the public would stop him on the street and say: ‘That’s right what your Alf was saying about immigrants’. Would it have been right, then, to bleep out this character’s dialogue because some people agreed with such backward views that were, after all,  being lampooned, or because more sensitive souls were offended? I don’t personally think so.

Comedy, like art, offers up a distorted mirror to society and reflects a flavour, a version, an ingredient of what is there and it’s up to us to make of it what we will – by discussion, debate, by actually thinking about it rather than someone snatching it away in case it scares the horses.

Double standards

television censorshipCuriously, in the second episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’  – ‘The Builders’ – Manuel, the hapless/hopeless but loveable Spanish waiter (‘he’s from Barcelona’), is called a ‘Dago twit’ by someone delivering a garden gnome.

Did the BBC see fit to edit this out? No, so certain double standards are being used here.

Basil himself refers to his domineering wife, Sybil, as a ‘tart’, a ‘cloth-eared bint’ – if the Beeb were being consistent, wouldn’t this have been edited out as these words could be quite insulting to some women?

Clearly, there’s a point where it all seems ridiculous. Comedy might be in danger of becoming  bland and neutered as pre-watershed drama programmes certainly are.

I can’t remember the last time I was in a backstreet pub in Manchester and heard someone use the phrase ‘flipping heck’ in the place of ‘f*cking hell’ as they do in ‘Coronation Street’. But then, hey, the Queen (‘Gawd bless ‘er’) watches ‘Corrie’ so we mustn’t give her a heart attack, especially not in her Jubilee year (‘Gawd bless ‘er’).

But, back to the ‘N-Word’.

Some people say it’s okay to use because ‘they’ use it themselves. A certain section of black people, indeed, do call each other ‘nigger’, and I’m thinking of rap artists who use it prolifically, or characters in Quentin Tarantino films. The argument goes that they use the word in order to disarm it, to ‘re-claim’ it and thus render it less harmful, less insulting. Some in the gay community are doing a similar thing with the word ‘queer’ now. But the word means something different coming out of the mouth of a white person than it does a black person, or, at least, a certain kind of white person.

This leaves me uneasy because it creates a kind of social minefield to try and negotiate. Therefore, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I’m not sure overuse does render it ‘less harmful’. I think it gives carte blanche for racists to carry on using it with a new confidence, a new disdain. They’re bolstered in the knowledge that, in certain circles, it’s still ‘verbal coinage’.

In other words, I feel even black people using it to ‘re-claim’ it give it some kind of currency. I know quite a few black people and I’ve yet to hear the term used in this way. I’d like a black person (or anyone out there, please) who uses it to explain to me how it works because I feel out of touch. I suspect many other people do.

In the meantime, as far as I’m concerned, yes, let’s use it in context (and maybe that is how some people use it). Otherwise, I’m minding my language.

‘I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it’ – Basil Fawlty.


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