If In Doubt, Cut It Out: The New Entertainment Censorship 2

The Arts

There can be no single defining rule to censorship. Mickey Rooney’s horrible impersonation of an Asian man in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ doesn’t get removed, probably because there’s no way of doing so without destroying the treasured film. Yet I remember the single shocking instance of the verb ‘fuck’ in ‘Cabaret’, which was changed to ‘screw’ and undermined one of the film’s most Isherwood-esque scenes. (It’s at the moment when both main characters admit they’ve been sleeping with the same man.)

When networks digitally censor shows, does someone remember to keep the original? Less and less often, apparently. The sheer volume of digital material means that work gets lost. Censored work may not always be preserved in their pre-censorship form. Film stock survives better than digitally stored shows simply by being a physical object. And writers are pre-censoring more to fit market needs. Many of the Netflix shows may be slutty trash, but they still fit carefully into a playbook of societal do’s and don’ts.

I don’t use the word ‘fuck’ in the Bryant & May books for a specific reason. I’m so bored with its lazy use that I wanted to be more imaginative with my insults. But over the years it’s become harder to avoid, so that I now feel like I’m writing something lipogrammatic. The word has become noticeable by its absence.

Streaming is simply the latest in a very long line of technical changes to the same material – I’ve lost count of the versions I own of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Perhaps the next version won’t have an Arabic Alec Guinness in it. Where do we go from there?

Censorship is paradoxical. You only have to look at the ‘Carry On’ films or ‘On The Buses’ to see the problem. The straight white male gaze is stamped through the films and books of the 1970s like a stick of rock. No scene is censorable because this was the prevailing attitude of the times.

Disclaimers on old material indicate a better way forward, and unless someone has been living in a cave for the last few years they innately understand that the past was different. While I dislike romanticised views of America’s past I’m enough of an adult to know that the Deep South wasn’t exactly as it was portrayed in the potboiler ‘Gone with the Wind’.

I grew up with a surprising amount of black balance in London because I was in the south, where many post-Windrush families settled, and there was never a sense of segregation. However, there were no real images of gay men. Even in well-meaning liberal films like ‘A Taste of Honey’ (featuring both black and gay outsiders) the gay man was a limp-wristed whisp. By the sixties gay men were loved for their camp and exoticism, and ‘Round the Horne’ was adored.

But the male gaze then was all-pervasive, a one-size-fits-all format that dominated literature and film. It persists now; I watched a European film last night and couldn’t help noticing the absence of the male gaze. Checking the credits, I saw that it had a female director. It still had a shower scene for the lead, but at least it wasn’t uncomfortable.

Censorship will remain paradoxical. But for every person who cries ‘political correctness gone mad’ I could point out that for most of our lives it’s been ‘Straight white male gone mad’. Balance is all.


20 comments on “If In Doubt, Cut It Out: The New Entertainment Censorship 2”

  1. chazza says:

    “Arabic Alec Guiness…” What about his Julius Streicher- like Fagin in Oliver Twist? He seems to have a history of crude racial stereotypes but who would censor him – not that I would want too! And Robert Morley’s hilarious gay persona in “Theatre of Blood”? It has become a habit now to take offence which makes it less effective. Anyway, I concur with the quote “There is no bigger hypocrite than an indignant man..” – or women to be inclusive!

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Paradoxical indeed. And dead right about the straight white male gaze too. I automatically incline towards freedom of speech, but am forced to make exceptions of course. Same with censorship in general, but a “Warning” notice on old films would help, it often appears nowadays as a sort of disclaimer on reprints of 1930s-40s murder mysteries (Sayers, Allingham, and lesser known authors). On the whole, sanitising history, films, books doesn’t allow future generations to get a full appreciation of the offence, the prejudice, the bias that passed as “normal”, and that distorts their view and opinion of what actually DID heppen then.
    And that makes it easier to repeat the whole damn thing again.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    The past is another country – you can’t go back and change it to suit your personal feelings or needs.

    Previously we had to rely on texts to learn about the past but for 140 years we’ve had cinema and TV to give us a different perspective to the past.

    Its interesting to see the differences between Miami Vice, CSI, Z-Cars, The Sweeny etc even though they were made within a 30 year timeframe.

  4. Roger says:

    In American cinema gays didn’t exist for many years.
    One way round it was to have upper-class Englishmen! There was something ambiguous about some of David Niven’s roles and George Sanders specialised in playing characters who were archetypally (or stereotypically) gay, except that it was made very clear they weren’t and Sanders was built like a boxer and doubled up playing action heroes, just to make sure. Addison DeWitt is the best – or best-known – example. There’s a similar question mark about Eve Harrington: in fact, one loss as a result of Hollywood’s prissiness then is that we never do see what they got up to in bed together!
    I’ve always thought there’s a – repressed, shall we say? – sub-plot to Red River too…

  5. John Griffin says:

    Writing as a lefty snowflake, I hate ‘woke’ with a vengeance for all sorts of reasons (hypocrisy, bad grammar, Americanism etc) just as much as I decry ‘political correctness’ for its career, from Mao to Mail to ‘Gammon’ I believe (at least ‘Gammon’ has a venerable literary history), and ‘cultural Marxism’ for its invention by a neoFascist American, as was ‘cancel culture.
    I’m with Peter Dixon on this, rewriting the past is nonsense, learning from the past is everything. As a straight white man, I find many stereotypes in films appalling and the invention of ‘male gaze’ in 1975 (I think) inevitable and correct. HOWEVER ‘male gaze’ then was imported into Sociology in the 90s and thereon into teacher training….every male became a potential rapist or paedophile, males were bullied out of primary schools at training level, a situation that is only now resolving. So it was with “health & safety gone mad” (no doubt from asbestophiles), PC, cancel-culture and so on. Once you start down a path, the trajectory is in the realms of chaos.
    So count me as a vote against censorship, from the left.

  6. Paul C says:

    There’s no simple answer to censorship. I’m against it but would happily burn the negatives of Salo and Nekromantik – two thoroughly disgusting films. During a showing of Salo I was dragged to in the wonderful Tyneside Cinema (BFI) in Newcastle many years ago a girl in the audience near me threw up – I don’t blame her.

  7. Roger says:

    I saw Salo years ago, Paul C, when I had aspirations to be an intellectual and thought I ought to watch things I knoew I wouldn’t like. The most frightening thing, though, was that the man next to me enthusiastically ate popcorn all the way through it.

  8. Brooke says:

    “Woke” like “cool” is appropriated from its specific meaning in black U.S. experience. See 21 June, 2018 post.

  9. Jan says:

    Very interesting reading what you said there John (Mr. Griffin).

    It cuts across political divides this feeling that the elimination of the past and similarly elimination of the earlier “straight white male view”and cancelling out the past centuries events in the end makes little sense.

    What is it here that we are trying to achieve exactly?

    Does anyone really know?

    How will denial of views that were at one time held, or the destruction of humour that was current about two decades ago improve the future? If someone really does know could they please explain it in simple terms to a thicko like me?

  10. Helen Martin says:

    There is a wish to avoid any appearance of approval of attitudes that are currently deemed incorrect or insulting to others. There is a feeling that people wishing to express undesirable attitudes will write stories set in other time periods and then claim “historic accuracy”. One can usually recognize this sort of thing by checking the % of text expressing racist, sexist or other attitudes. Historical accuracy should not result in a dominantly -ist text.
    There is a reverse technique, too, which is found when authors want to write a YA novel with a strong female so they have their young woman acting in ways that would have been considered so undesirable at the time that the author has to spend an inordinate amount of time/space in justifying her actions or providing unlikely circumstances to enable the character’s actions. Surely a strong character can operate more or less within the outermost constrictions of the time since otherwise you are asking girls to take impossible positions.
    Looking at one -ist attitude. It’s an eggshell situation. I think.

  11. Dawn Andrews says:

    Interesting points Helen, strong women in the past did have to often act in outlandish ways to do what they wanted or to achieve their goals. Of course a lot of the famous ones were from privileged backgrounds, so could still eat while rebelling against convention and causing scandals. The lower class rebels could just starve like everyone else.

  12. Dawn Andrews says:

    Thank you Brooke for the pointer back to that post in the archives, now clear on woke, and can see the importance of the word, in context.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke, that is what irks me about words that people take from some where and use for their own purposes. I know that’s how language grows when a word refers to something important then to have someone unconnected use it in some other half connected way takes the strength from it. It’s probably pointless to complain but I’m not about to use someone else’s word unless I know for sure that both it and I am appropriate. Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I saw ‘Salo’ many years ago. Sitting with a friend, we rather wickedly ran a small sweepstake on which of the people sitting in front of us would be the first to leave. We also had a side bet on when the first outraged utterance of ‘Disgusting!’ would be heard. Unsurprisingly, a lot of what we referred to as the ‘Art School Crowd’ left after less than an hour. I expect that some of the less worldly amongst them, were scarred for life.
    A few weeks later, I saw John Waters’ notorious ‘Pink Flamingos’. Hardly anyone left at all. It was quite disappointing. Very funny movie, though.

  15. Jon says:

    It’s a difficult one to get right. Obviously, stuff that is deeply offensive to sections of the community should be banned but censorship can go too far. Also it is era-reletive for want of a better description. I was watching some old Porridge episodes and was struck with how some of that classic comedy could be frowned upon in this era. The same is true of the Two Ronnies, you forget how “carry on” some of it was…though, Smith and Jones did point it out at the time with their own comedy sketch. As much as some stuff from previous periods, both in literature and other mediums, might make us cringe a little now, one can not censor the past, nor the attitudes that were existant then. We learn and we grow but, to some, extent, air brushing things from past films and novels is a dangerous venture.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    The Two Ronnies was a program of cringe making statements with the occasional harmless joke. I had a feeling in the late sixties that British comedy was comprised of sex and bathroom humour and I wondered at the BBC carrying all this stuff. I believe I had a sheltered life.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    That should be “…the late fifties…”. You know you’re getting old when you mix up whole decades.

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – There were strict BBC guidelines about what could and could not be allowed in radio, and early TV comedy – No mentions of sex, of course, which extended to things like ‘Wedding Night’. No mention of bodily functions, of being pregnant, etc., or of toilets. The oddest of all, though, was not being allowed to mention Travelling Salesmen at all.

  19. snowy says:

    [The infamous Green Book]

    Private and Confidential

    BBC Variety Programmes Policy Guide
    For Writers and Producers


    This booklet is for the guidance of producers and writers of light entertainment programmes. It seeks to set out the BBC’s general policy towards this type of material, to list the principal ‘taboos’, to indicate traps for the unwary or inexperienced, and to summarise the main guidance so far issued of more than a short-term application. It is however no more than a guide, inevitably incomplete and subject of course to supplementation. It cannot replace the need of each producer to exercise continued vigilance in matters of taste.


    The BBC’s attitude towards its entertainment programs is largely governed by the fact that broadcasting is a part of the domestic life of the nation. It caters in their own homes for people of all ages, classes, trades and occupations, political opinions and religious beliefs. In that respect it has no parallel among other media of entertainment and the argument, frequently advanced, that the BBC should be ready to broadcast material passed for public performance on the stage or screen is not valid. The Corporation must have its own standards moulded in the light of its own circumstances. The influence that it can exert upon its listeners is immense and the responsibility for a high standard of taste correspondingly heavy. Its aim is for its programmes to entertain without giving reasonable offence to any part of its diversified audience. It must therefore keep its programmes free from vulgarity, political bias, and matter in questionable taste. The claims of sectional interests to special consideration need constantly to be weighed but at the same time the BBC must not be at the mercy of the cranks. On more or less controversial issues the Corporation confines itself to what it regards as fair comment in the context. On matters of taste it has to set itself a standard that will be accepted by most rational people.

    These are the principal factors influencing BBC policy. The responsibility for enforcing it, since in normal times there are no official censors, is very largely vested in producers themselves and it is therefore of paramount importance that they should be aware both of the Corporation’s general attitude towards the subject and of the detailed rules which have been drawn up during some 25 years’ practical experience.

    Producers are not asked to be narrow-minded in their approach to the problem but they are required to recognise its importance and to err, it at all, on the side of caution. Material about which a producer has
    doubts should, if it cannot be submitted to someone in higher authority, be deleted, and an artist’s assurance that it has been previously broadcast is no justification for repeating it. ‘When in doubt, take it out’ is the wisest maxim.


    Programmes must at all cost be kept free of crudities, coarseness and innuendo. Humor must be clean and untainted directly or by association with vulgarity and suggestiveness. Music hall, stage, and to a lesser degree, screen standards, are not suitable to broadcasting. Producers, artists and writers must recognise this fact and the strictest watch must be kept. There can be no compromise with doubtful material. It must be cut.

    A. General. Well known vulgar jokes (e.g. the Brass Monkey) ‘cleaned up’, are not normally admissible since the humour in such cases is almost invariably evident only if the vulgar version is known.

    There is an absolute ban upon the following:-

    Jokes about –


    Effeminacy in men

    Immorality of any kind

    Suggestive references to –

    Honeymoon couples


    Fig leaves


    Ladies’ underwear, e.g. winter draws on

    Animal habits, e.g. rabbits


    Commercial travellers

    Extreme care should be taken in dealing with references to or jokes about –

    Pre-natal influences (e.g. ‘His mother was frightened by a donkey’)

    Marital infidelity

    Good taste and decency are the obvious governing considerations. The vulgar use of such words as ‘basket’ must also be avoided.

    B. Sophisticated Revue and Cabaret. A great deal of the material performed elsewhere in these types of entertainment is just not suitable to be broadcast. There can perhaps be a little more latitude in the editing of ‘sophisticated’ programmes which are billed and generally identified as such but not sufficiently for them to reflect all the accepted characteristics of this kind of show. The fact is that radio revue and cabaret must be tailored to the microphone in much the same way as other programmes and deny itself may items technically suitable which do not conform to established BBC standards.


    Advertising of any sort is not normally allowed and gratuitous publicity for any commercial undertaking or product may not be given. Occasionally, however, such references may be unavoidable where, for instance, a commercial firm is sponsoring a public event, e.g. the Star Dancing Championships, the Melody Maker Dance Band Contest. Insuch cases mention of the sponsoring body must not go beyond the proper courtesy and essential programme interest.

    Otherwise mention of all firms, trade and proprietary names is barred.

    N.B. The following trade names are now regarded as generic terms:-


    The inclusion of any of these is therefore permitted in scripts but derogatory references to them must be avoided as constituting a form of ‘trade slander’.

    American material and ‘Americanisms’

    Various fairly obvious factors, such as American films and the fact that much modern popular music originates in America, tend to exert a transatlantic influence upon our programmes. American idiom and slang, for instance, frequently find their way quite inappropriately into scripts, and dance band singers for the most part elect to adopt pseudo American accents. The BBC believes that this spurious Americanisation of programmes – whether in the writing or in the interpretation – is unwelcome to the great majority of listeners and incidently, seldom complimentary to the Americans.

    There is and always will be a place in programmes for authentic American artistes and material but the BBC’s primary job in light entertainment must be to purvey programmes in our own native idiom, dialects and accents. The ‘Americanisation’ of British scripts, acts and performances is therefore most actively discouraged.

    Libel and slander

    Actionable references in Variety Programmes have been few since broadcasting began. Producers must, however, take all possible steps to ensure that defamatory material is not included in scripts. The three most likely forms for it to take are:

    (a) an uncomplimentary gag by one artist about a fellow artist or other person.

    (b) impersonations which may be taken as derogatory.

    (c) the use in a fictional setting of a character identifiable with a living person (particularly, of course, if the character is ‘bad’).

    Consideration of taste are usually a safeguard against (a) and (b),though the possibility of defamation makes caution on the producer’s part more than ever necessary. Against (c) there can be no complete safeguard, but producers and writers must be scrupulously careful to see that characters in plays and sketches are not given names of living people whose circumstances are remotely similar to those in the fictional plot. In the case of title people reference books must be consulted. In other cases all reasonable checks that are possible must be made.

    Biblical references

    This is by no means easy, so many biblical phrases having long since passed into the language and being therefore for the most part admissible in any context. The criterion should, generally speaking, be whether a phrase or saying is still largely identified with the Bible. In that case it should not be used in a comedy setting – though it may still be quite suitable for a programme of a more serious character.

    Sayings of Christ or descriptive of Him are, of course, inadmissible for light entertainment programmes.

    Jokes built around Bible stories, e.g. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, must also be avoided or any sort of parody of them. References to a few biblical characters e.g. Noah, are sometimes permissible but, since there is seldom anything to be gained by them and since they can engender much resentment they are best avoided altogether.

    Religious references

    Reference to and jokes about different religious or religious denominations are banned. The following are also inadmissible:-

    Jokes about A.D. or B.C. (e.g. ‘before Crosby)

    Jokes or comic songs about spirtualism, christenings, religious ceremonies of any description (e.g. weddings, funerals)

    Parodies of Christmas carols

    Offensive references to Jews (or any other religious sects)

    Political references

    No precise general directive can be given since each individual case needs to be considered on its merits and the performer, the manner of delivery, and the context all need to be taken into account. General guidance is however given in the following quotation from a directive issued on 2nd July, 1948: ‘We are not prepared in deference to protests from one Party or another to deny ourselves legitimate topical references to political figures and affairs, which traditionally have been a source of comedians’ material. We therefore reserve the right for Variety programmes in moderation to take a crack at the Government of the day and the Opposition so long as they do so sensibly, without undue acidity, and above all funnily.

    Generally speaking, political issues should not be made the running theme of any light entertainment programme or item, and references should be no more than incidental. Occasionally, of course, a sketch or comedy sequence based on, e.g. the National Health Service, is permissible.

    We must guard against the over-exploitation of songs with a political theme. Usually these are MS numbers sung by comedians and are legitimate enough for one or two performances when strictly topical, but undesirable if “plugged” in many programmes.

    ‘We must bar altogether:

    (a) anything which we adjudge to go beyond fair comment in this sort of context on a matter of general topical interest;

    (b) anything that can be construed as personal abuse of Ministers, Party Leaders, or M.P’s, malicious references to them or references in bad taste;

    (c) anything which can reasonably be construed as derogatory to political institutions, Acts of Parliament and the Constitution generally;

    (d) anything with a Party bias.

    ‘To sum up, our approach to the whole subject should be good humoured, un-partisan, and in good taste.’

    Members of Parliament may not be included in programmes without special permission. This permission will not be granted, whether or not the M.P. concerned is willing, for programmes the BBC considers it unsuitable or undignified for a Member of Parliament to appear.

    Physical or mental infirmities

    Very great distress can be caused to invalids and their relatives by thoughtless jokes about any kind of physical disability. The temptation to introduce them is the greater because in the milder afflictions they often represent an easy source of comedy, but, as a matter of taste, it must be resisted. The following are therefore barred:

    Jocular references to all forms of physical infirmity or disease, e.g. blindness, deafness, loss of limbs, paralysis, cancer, consumption, smallpox.

    Jokes about war injuries of any description.

    Jokes about the more embarrassing disabilities, e.g., bow-legs, cross-eyes, stammering (this is the most common ‘gag’ subject of this kind).

    Jokes about any form of mental deficiency.


    References to and jokes about drink are allowed in strict moderation so long as they can really be justified on entertainment grounds. Long ‘drunk’ stories or scenes should, however, be avoided and the number of references in any one programme carefully watched. There is no objection to the use of well-known drinking songs, e.g. ‘Another
    Little Drink’, ‘Little Brown Jug’, in their proper contexts. Trade slogans, e.g. ‘Beer is Best’, are barred. Remarks such as ‘one for the road’ are also inadmissible on road safety grounds.


    Generally speaking the use of expletives and forceful language on the air can only be justified in a serious dramatic setting where the action of the play demands them. They have no place at all in light entertainment and all such words as God, Good God, My God, Blast, Hell, Damn, Bloody, Gorblimey, Ruddy, etc., etc., should be deleted from scripts and innocuous expressions substituted

    All impersonations need the permission of the people being impersonated and producers must reassure themselves that this has been given before allowing any to be broadcast.

    Artists’ repertories of impersonations are usually restricted to:-

    (a) leading public figures and political figures;

    (b) fellow artists.

    As to (a) the Corporation’s policy is against broadcasting impersonations of elder statesmen, e.g. Winston Churchill, and leading political figures. Any others in this category should invariably be referred.

    As to (b) there is no objection, but certain artists have notified the Corporation that no unauthorised impersonations may be broadcast. The present list is given below but should be checked from time to time with the Variety Booking Manager. A double check by producers as to permission is advisable in these cases:-

    Gracie Fields
    Ethel Revnell (with or without Gracie West)
    Renee Houston
    Nat Mills and Bobbie
    Vera Lynn
    Jeanne de Casalis (Mrs. Feather)
    Harry Hemsley

    Very occasionally the question arises of the impersonation of people now dead. There is, of course, no possible objection to the portrayal or caricature of historic figures of the remote past, but the impersonation of people who have died within living memory or whose relations may still be alive, should normally be avoided altogether. In any event only exceptional cases will be considered and the permission of surviving relations, if any, must always be obtained.

    Mention of charitable organisations

    Appeals for charity are normally confined to ‘The Week’s Good Cause’. No such appeals are allowed, save in the most exceptional circumstances, elsewhere in programmes. Veiled appeals in the form of incidental references to charitable organisations are also barred.

    Special permission must therefore invariably be sought for the mention of a charity, whatever the context, in entertainment programmes.

    ‘British’ and ‘English’

    The misuse of the word English where British is correct causes much needless offence to Scottish, Ulster and Welsh listeners. It is a common error but one which is easily avoided by proper care on the part of the writers and producers. At the same time we should not hesitate to use the word ‘English’ if it is the proper description.

    Popular Music

    Virtually all newly published dance numbers are approved for broadcasting by the Dance Music Policy Committee before publication, and it is unnecessary to detail here policy considerations affecting the acceptance of such material. Two matters, are, however, worth noting:

    (a) British Music

    It is the Corporation’s policy actively to encourage British music so long as this does not lead to a lowering of accepted musical standards.

    (b) Jazzing the Classics

    The jazzing by dance bands of classical tunes or the borrowing and adaptation of them is normally unacceptable. Any instances of this in MS material submitted for programmes must be referred by producers to a higher authority.

    Miscellaneous points

    Avoid derogatory references to:-

    Professions, trades, and ‘classes’, e.g. solicitors, commercial travellers, miners, ‘the working class’

    Coloured races

    Avoid any jokes or references that might be taken to encourage:-

    Strikes or industrial disputes

    The Black Market

    Spivs and drones

    Avoid any references to ‘The MacGillicuddy of the Reeks’ or jokes about his name.

    Do not refer to Negroes as ‘Niggers’ (‘Nigger Minstrels’ is allowed).

    ‘Warming up’ sequences with studio audiences before broadcasts should conform to the same standards as the programmes themselves. Sample recordings should be the subject to the same vigilance as transmissions.

    Special considerations for overseas broadcasts

    Humour in other countries, as in our own, is limited by social, political and religious taboos, and some sources of comedy legitimate enough for this country are not acceptable abroad. The majority of overseas audiences are not Christian by religion nor white in colour. Disrespectful, let alone derogatory, references to Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, and so on, and any references to colour may therefore cause deep offence and should be avoided altogether. It is impossible to list in detail all potentially dangerous subjects but a few random examples are given here:

    Chinese abhor the description ‘Chinamen’, which should not be used.

    Chinese laundry jokes may be offensive.

    Jokes like ‘enough to make a Maltese Cross’ are of doubtful value.

    The term Boer War should not be used – South African War is correct.

    Jokes about ‘harems’ are offensive in some parts of the world.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    Addendum to the Green book: ‘You are allowed to breathe without permission.’

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