Michael Deacon: Why can't we laugh at the old jokes any more?
A 'RACIST' joke in Fawlty Towers has been cut because it might offend. Well, it might - if you didn’t get the joke
Strange place, the past. It appears to have been full of people who had next to no understanding of 21st-century mores. For some reason, they all seem to have carried on as if it didn’t remotely matter how their 20th-century attitudes and language would be judged by us, their descendants and superiors, in 2013.
This week the BBC was confronted with this problem when airing a repeat of Fawlty Towers. The episode had a scene with the words “wogs” and “niggers” in it. The old major, played by Ballard Berkeley, is explaining the difference between the two. The line gets a big laugh from the studio audience. Or it used to. This time, the BBC cut the line out.
The reason given was that it contained language that might offend. Well, I’m sure it might, if you didn’t get the joke. The joke's on the major. At first it looks as if he’s about to scold someone for being racist – but then he turns out to be racist himself. So we laugh at him. The joke’s actually quite PC.
But still it was cut, because these are words the BBC now feels uncomfortable airing, certainly at 7.30pm. It’s happened before. In 2007, a joke about gay men being sticklers for cleanliness was removed from a repeat of Porridge. It makes you wonder what’s next for the cutting-room floor.
Take Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In 1979, Life of Brian was thought shocking because it mocked man’s weakness for superstition and doctrine. Today, I suspect a broadcaster would be more shocked by the scene in which a male character is ridiculed for his desire to change sex. “I want to be a woman,” he says. “From now on, I want you to call me Loretta… It’s my right as a man… I want to have babies… It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them… Don’t you oppress me…” Plainly, we’re meant to find him absurd, and to agree with the male colleague who grumbles about the man’s “struggle against reality”. (“What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?”)
Given the outrage this month when the columnist Suzanne Moore joked about transsexuals – and the even noisier outrage when another columnist, Julie Burchill, used the phrase “chicks with d----” – I doubt such a scene could be written today. Lynne Featherstone, a Lib Dem minister, demanded that Burchill and her editor be sacked. What would she do with John Cleese? Hang him by his tonsils from Tower Bridge?
Soon, we’ll start to find Nineties comedy failing the 21st-century rectitude test. For some, this process has already begun.
Last year, Word magazine ran an article claiming that the “Scorchio!” sketches in The Fast Show – first broadcast in 1994 – were xenophobic. “Humour born of bored English comedians sat in luxurious holiday villas,” it growled. “Greek, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish people all sound the same! How hilarious.” Maybe if the BBC repeats The Fast Show it could edit those sketches out. I’m pretty sure the Ralph & Ted ones were OK. Hang on, though – the joke is that a man has an unspoken crush on another man. Is that homophobic? Oh dear. Future generations are going to be very cross with us.
Lines like the major’s in Fawlty Towers might not be very nice. None the less, this is how a lot of people used to talk (it’s how quite a few people still do talk), and it’s not much use pretending it isn’t. Because that’s what this type of editing is: a pretence.
George Orwell, incidentally, used to write disparagingly of “the pansy Left”. He was, by 2013 standards, homophobic. Should publishers erase his prejudice from his essays? Or would that be a little, well, Orwellian?