I’ll never know what it feels like to be a black or a brown man. Because I’m white. I’ll never know what it feels like to be verbally abused or physically assaulted because of the colour of my skin. Because my skin is white.
I know, however, what it feels like to be a young, working-class white boy of 10 or 11, whose next door neighbour and best friend is a black boy. I know, too, what it feels like when someone calls your best friend the N-word or some other, equally revolting, racial slur.
I know, in other words, what racism looks like and sounds like, and the vile, sickening words it shapes itself in the mouth of a moron. I recognise its odious, unmistakeable stench.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get rid of that stench, if we’ll ever stamp out racism completely and for all time. America has had a more than 100-year run at it since the abolition of slavery, yet the poison of racism is as prevalent and toxic now as it’s ever been.
But I’m hopeful that the anti-racism protests ignited — first in America and subsequently around the world — by the killing, by a white policeman, of George Floyd last month and intensified by the killing, by another white policeman, of Rayshard Brooks last week, signify a turning point.
In the midst of all this, the question arose of what to do with old TV shows featuring problematic racial material.
The so-called solution was to use the bluntest of blunt instruments: a blanket ban. At a stroke, Netflix removed the BBC-made shows Little Britain, Come Fly with Me (both written by and starring David Walliams and Matt Lucas), The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen.
ITV’s golden boys Ant and Dec apologised for doing impersonations of "people of colour" on Saturday Night Takeaway, and requested ITV remove the sketches, dating from 2003 and 2004, from its catch-up service. This followed an emotional Instagram apology by Leigh Francis, best known these days as comic character Keith Lemon, for using grotesque rubber masks to portray black celebrities, including Craig David and Trisha Goddard, in his 2002-2004 Channel 4 series Bo’ Selecta. He requested it be removed from the All4 streaming service.
What drew the most headlines, though, was UKTV’s decision to drop the most famous episode of Fawlty Towers, 'The Germans', from its streaming service, on the grounds that the character of the dotty old Major uses the N-word (three times), and another racial epithet, when talking about the West Indies cricket team.
UKTV has since restored the episode, but with an on-screen warning that it "reflects standards and attitudes of its time which viewers may find offensive".
It’s possible to find racism in any form abhorrent, while at the same time recognising this as a sensible solution, one-size-fits-all censorship, doesn’t work.
Admittedly, hearing the N-word used in a sitcom, even one made in 1975, is shocking. But Cleese argues that it wasn’t black people he was mocking; it was the Major’s outdated racist and imperialist attitudes. I’m inclined to take him at his word, even if this part of the episode makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.
Little Britain and Come Fly with Me, on the other hand, don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. No show featuring white comedians donning blackface does. It wasn’t acceptable when Spike Milligan did it in the 1970s, and it sure as hell wasn’t acceptable — or excusable — when Walliams and Lucas did it in these shows, which were made between 2003 and 2010. The "times were different" argument won’t wash. That said, an increasing number of BAME leaders are arguing that burying these shows in a hole in a ground and pretending they don’t exist is counterproductive in the battle against racism.
We can’t rewrite television history. What we can do is learn from even the most objectionable aspects of it, how to write a better future.
The oft-misquoted mantra of Det Sgt Joe Friday in creaky old US cop show Dragnet, an ancient relic from the days when television naively portrayed all police as flawless knights in shining white skin, was: “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”