We Need To Talk About Context
The removal of the Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Germans’ for a racial slur was the standard reaction one would expect about now, while the BLM movement gets up to speed, no problem there, although I’m sure a lot of sclerotic shires folk exploded with rage about it.
The action provided a talking point. Ultimately Black Lives Matter will grow and strengthen, statues of our past robber barons will be removed and lessons will be learned. Common sense prevailed and UKTV reinstalled Fawlty Towers pretty sharpish, making me wonder if they dreamed the thing up as a publicity stunt.
Cleese himself says the contextual material in Fawlty Towers makes it abundantly clear where our sympathies lie. The Major is the kind of dino-bore that once existed in every coastal B&B. If a character can’t express a viewpoint, objectionable or not, you have censorship. I’ve worked with John several times and he’s on the left of liberal, so I imagine he was upset by what happened.
To be fair to the young who professed to be offended, how could they hope to understand a half-century old character based on even earlier stereotypes? The clumsy major was a clichÃ© when my mother lived in Brighton in the 1940s.
Context does not excuse Little Britain, a far cruder show that seems built around its leads’ desire to dress up, sometimes in blackface. I tried to find any justification for the various camouflages but came up empty handed. Interestingly, the one contextually positive sketch ‘The only gay in the village’ does not come in for censure because it makes a clear point – that being different is no longer enough to make you special.
Which leaves the more surrealist ‘The League of Gentlemen’, and here I find it hard to understand the blackface removal since there whole point of the kidnapping carnival character is to give us nightmares. This, in a show where one of the key characters is a German paedophile? The BBC has always pushed the envelope on shocking humour, but even the disability jokes in Nighty Night never caused it to be taken off.
The British comedy shows of the 1970s were jaw-droppingly offensive, but seemed to think they were helping race relations by using the terminology of bigotry. Watching them now is like seeing a clumsy child trying to dance and failing at each step.
I have a problem with US action movies wherein black women are always sexualised and black men are always lawbreakers, and don’t tell me this is ‘set on the streets’ as an excuse. In war films the black man always dies early and if someone proves untrustworthy it’s because they have a foreign accent – usually English.
As a child I sat through the homophobia of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and countless other films in which gay men were simpering non-beings who were beaten up, to the point where I fully expected to be beaten up too. In the 1990s, the annual London Pride parade ended in a park beyond Brixton, and parade attendees had to run the gamut of teeth-sucking name-callers. To be honest it wasn’t that big a deal because we were a lot more confident than today’s young. Now, at least, the ghetto walls have largely fallen.
Multiculturalism has ended making fun of difference because it’s more interesting learning from others. If the genesis of Pride is an analogy, BLM rallies will pass through protest to reform and finally celebration.