Censorship Is A Funny Thing

Media, The Arts


There’s been a lot in the academic press lately about the ways in which public-driven censorship is destroying free debate. Although this is currently more of a US talking point, what starts there usually ends here. Currently there are over a dozen books featuring drugs, abortion, race and LGBT issues on the US college libraries’ ‘most banned’ lists, along with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, which faces calls for withdrawal in, of all places, the American south.

Ignoring the nonsense of clickbait press items about trigger warnings and safe spaces, you still reach an uncomfortable truth; while the religious right is out to stop controversial books, there’s no-one quite as censorious as a good liberal.

The argument has spread to ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for its male gaze – something I pointed out in my review, although I think in that case it’s not pernicious, as it is in Matthew Vaughan’s crude, hate-filled ‘Kingsman’ films. But if the argument is that we need more films like ‘Wonderwoman’, let’s not pretend that kick-ass gals in leather boots are the future of feminism. Still, in a world with bigger things to worry about, we’re all walking on eggshells about sex, race and gender.

All of which creates a problem for comedy, which has always taken its cues from working class subjects and traded in stereotypes. In ‘Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall: The Dark Side of Victorian London’, Barry Anthony looks at the through-line from the twice-nightlies to variety to film, to which we could add television. If the traditional structures of comedy are no longer acceptable, where does it go from here?

I’ve always responded best to comedy of character or its complete opposite, surrealism. Comedy occasionally straddles both extremes of the surreal and observational successfully with TV shows like ‘Green Wing’, ‘The League of Gentlemen’, ‘The Brittas Empire’, ‘W1A’, ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Toast of London’. But it also needs good situations to work with. ‘Count Arthur Strong’ is a good example of rethought comedy, and treads a clever line between a sitcom and something more bizarre. In this clip, thanks to a mix-up with the clocks going back, both characters think the other is their flying instructor.

Humour becomes organic when rooted in character, so that you should need only suggest a situation to see how the characters will play it out. This approach is evident in the Ben Elton sitcom ‘Upstart Crow’, which works on a simple premise; that we know Shakespeare better than his own family.

Shock-comedy becomes dated as censorship changes (with the possible exception of the genuinely disturbing ‘Nighty Night’) but characters can live on forever. I opted on a far more realistic approach to character for the Bryant & May books than may first appear, and base all of the leads’s personalities on the traits of friends.

Happily the days when women were the butt of cheap jokes is fading (although shows like ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ still use drag and stereotypes as mainstays), but the search for new ways forward in comedy continues. Mel Brooks and John Cleese argue that much of their best work would be inadmissible now because of censorship. Brooks, who was just in London retooling ‘Young Frankenstein’ for a more music hall-style West End production of the show (at 91!) reminds us that the liberal agenda of ‘Blazing Saddles’, in which a black sheriff becomes a hero in a racist frontier town, is paradoxically reduced if it is censored.

‘The League of Gentlemen’ is coming back for a Christmas special, and I wonder how on earth it translated to the US because it seems to have more in common with the folk-horror and paganism of, say, ‘The Wicker Man’ than anything traditional. Yet within the framework it also makes fun of ‘local’ parochialism.

While smart, socially awkward comedy can be fun it’s very rare now to see or hear something that makes you helpless with laughter. Perhaps we have become too knowing, too aware for such simple pleasures. Sometimes it’s worth putting on Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ to remind ourselves how it can be done best.

I wonder if we’re seeing a step away from edgy comedy toward something more traditional. In ‘Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control’ by Matthew Fellion & Katherine Inglis, we see that in the Western history of literature it’s far rarer now for the state to step in, because individuals are doing a perfectly good job censoring themselves. And so, sadly, we see that in retrograde action again with the ‘Mockingbird’ debate.

16 comments on “Censorship Is A Funny Thing”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Alas, the remake of ‘Porrige’ is truly dreadful and misses the mark on all fronts.

  2. Adam says:

    Although I’m not its target demographic,the last comedy to reduce me to tears was ‘The inbetweeners’. On the face of it, it was a crude comedy about adolescent schoolboys, but if you dig a bit deeper it was really about friendship and confusion of teenage years. The characters all rang true (albeit with some exaggeration), but I could see a bit of my younger self in all of them. They actually talked like real teens, which made a refreshing change. Most of all, it was very, very funny.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    Rachel-Even the trailers for “Porridge” showed how bad it is, so I’m not surprised.

    “Count Arthur Strong” is a fantastic creation, though I find him even funnier on radio than TV where his persona is somewhat toned down.

  4. keith page says:

    ‘Count Arthur’ and ‘Detectorists’ were both excellent in their own ways.Why the BBC bothered to try and remake ‘Porridge’ I do not know; even less funny than ‘Still Open All Hours’.One comedy series that is not often mentioned is ‘Friday Night Dinner’ , a good cast with some quite clever scripts which really worked in a limited format.I agree with Admin; there’s nothing quite like a know-all finger-wagging liberal fascist, is there?
    One final thought; surely ‘Upstart Crow’ should have been better than the repetitive Blackadder-lite it turned out to be?

  5. admin says:

    Fair point, Keith. The problem with ‘Upstart Crow’ is that it’s a one-joke series, like ‘W1A’. I still can’t get through on your email, BTW.

  6. Steveb says:

    What are the traditional subjects of comedy? Going back to the 40s and 50s we have ITMA, Take it from here, Sykes, Hancock? Surely it was Frost, Not only but also, and Monty Python and so on that changed the template. Maybe it’s a (one-way?) pendulum?

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I liked Count Arthur Strong from when he used to appear on Mark Radcliffe’s radio show, where his rambling, off-at-a-tangent answers to interview questions, used to make me cry with laughter. What sealed my like of him, was his answer to a question from Mark Radcliffe, enquiring whether he knew any first aid. Count Arthur replied: “Why, certainly, I’ve been a member of the Saint Am’s Johnbliance for many years”. The term has stuck, and my brother and I often point them out at airshows, etc. “It’ll be fine – The St.Am’s Johnbliance are in attendance”.

  8. Ken Mann says:

    The new Porridge is actually a variant of the plot of the Owl Service. Three people are thrown into a situation where they find themselves acting out the part of mythic archetypes.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    One of my favourite insults comes from ‘The Inbetweeners’. It’s the childish, but very, very funny. It’s the immortal: “Bus Wankers!”

  10. Ian Luck says:

    One of my favourite insults comes from ‘The Inbetweeners’. It’s childish, but very, very funny. It’s the immortal: “Bus Wankers!”

  11. Joyce says:

    I just bought “The Love Match’ (1955) on dvd from a charity shop. It stars Arthur Askey and Thora Hird and is hysterical. I haven’t laughed so much in years. It’s a gem. I suspect this is because it’s brilliantly written and acted. Today the stereotypical male and female roles might be frowned upon but it’s such a kind film no one appears to be ridiculed – except perhaps the stammering man. I recommend it for a dreary afternoon or evening.

  12. Joyce says:

    Apologies for misplaced “brilliantly” . I just read the comments on grammar for another post and felt guilty.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I’d like to apologise for the two extremely similar entries above. My phone goes through phases where one has to hit the screen very hard – or merely coughing loudly near it will make the damn thing work. Looking at the first entry, it didn’t look right, and the merest touch to pick up the phone threw it into the ether. Sorry.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    We didn’t get any of those tv programs. The flying lesson had me giggling wildly and I enjoyed Upstart Crow although I can see where stretching it beyond one season would be difficult. I think the League of Gentlemen did show here but there was no promo and I had the impression it was connected to that Victorian era set film about gangs in New York so I never saw it. I loved Black Adder & Monty Python, Hancock & Penelope Keith in almost anything.
    I told friends that one of my favourite films was Blazing Saddles and they looked at me in horror because “it’s so terribly racist!” I sometimes wonder at people.
    Drag has never been part of main stream humour here nor is bathroom humour. Never been able to see the point of the first and the second should be relegated to sniggering 6 year old boys.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    The League Of Gentlemen originated as a BBC radio show. It was, even then, nudging the boundaries of what could be allowed. It’s transfer to TV gave the performers free rein. Having loved the radio show, I knew I’d enjoy the TV show – and when the first thing you see is a hearse driving by with a floral ‘tribute’ inside, that reads ‘BASTARD’, you know that some people are going to be annoyed. (Not me). The three cast members chameleon like ability to inhabit menacing characters wholly, is astonishing. Some of those characters are far more disturbing than those in any horror movie, too. Some are utterly terrifying, inasmuch as they get too close to real monsters. The creepy paedophile Herr Lippe, for example. Starts off as a figure of fun, and gets gradually darker, and darker in tone, until… No spoilers, sorry. The local farmer, who keeps his wife’s lovers trapped on his farm, disguised as scarecrows. Mr Chinnery, the lethal vet, cursed forever to accidentally kill every animal he encounters. Hilary Briss (if you know Jewish tradition, that name will give you a smile), the local butcher, with his under the counter ‘Special Stuff’, that causes an outbreak of the rare disease Kuru in the town. And the inbred, pig-nosed Edward and Tubbs. Proprietors of the ‘Local Shop’. Their son has a tail, and they have killed many, many times for him. Yes, this is a comedy. It’s humour comes from the things British people put up with every day, petty annoyances stretched to ridiculous degrees. A working knowledge of British horror movies, and genre TV can enhance your enjoyment of the show immeasurably. It’s well worth watching from episode 1. It is, however, the only TV I’ve watched that left a dirty taste in my mind.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Don’t like dirty tastes in my mind – I know what you mean. Perhaps I’ll skip that one.

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