The Silencing of the Great British Comedy | Alex Johnson


The United Kingdom has always been known for its rich history of film and television comedies – Monty Python, Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Porridge and The Young Ones being only a few of many examples. They are a representation of that unique humour the small but influential set of isles has possessed, which still enjoys a worldwide appeal. If anything, it is something to be proud of.

Yet, as people’s sensitivities grow as susceptible as that of a plastic bag being blown by a hurricane, the war to isolate one’s feelings from being offended has now made our comedic heritage an unlikely victim. On the 11th June, the BBC announced it was going to remove the Fawlty Towers episode “The Germans” because of Basil Fawlty frequently mentioning the war in front of German guests, along with the old Major voicing several racial slurs. Thankfully, the episode has since been reinstated thanks to John Cleese’s rational observation of the characters’ portrayals, arguing that he “would have hoped that someone at the BBC would understand that there are two ways of making fun of human behaviour …. one is to attack it directly …. the other is to have someone who is patently a figure of fun, speak up on behalf of that behaviour”.

The BBC’s public embarrassment by Cleese’s response is a brief victory for the advocates of free speech. But the campaign of censorship is far from ending its iconoclasms towards British comedy. It has already succeeded in silencing Little Britain and even The Inbetweeners on YouTube. Despite the latter having no racial jokes, it seems that the fear of being perceived as racist has now mutated into a paranoia of facing false accusations on other sensitive issues. As a result, the procedure to ban all things offensive has now become a behemoth that is indiscriminate in its choice of prey.

You may be asking yourself this question as you read my protests against such measures – “why shouldn’t we throw such humour into the dustbin of history when it is no longer funny nor relevant to us?”. If you are thinking such a thought, then I would simply retort by saying that there is no such thing as a dustbin of history – as all history is useful to us in one way or another. Whether one finds the content appealing or not, the media of the past is a medium of our past attitudes and a conduit towards understanding them. Conservatism can be easily delineated as being the belief of preserving traditions, but it is something far more. As the late Roger Scruton once said, “the greatest conservative thinkers have devoted much of their attention to the nature of art and the messages contained in it”. Comedy is no exception to this, for it allows us to understand the respective types of humour in different societies and how they may differ from each other.

Much of the comedic style portrayed in sketches and sitcoms is not to be mere jokes that solely produce laughter, but instead as a social commentary through parody. “The Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers, if anything, is supposed to be more of a mockery of the British obsession with winning WWII than as a harsh reminder of Germany losing it. Cleese made it very clear that the Major is not meant to be a character to be sympathised with, as “the Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them”. Little Britain, which was mostly criticised for its references to the Black and White Minstrel Show, was a commentary on the public’s rejection of the latter show and its controversial use of blackface. A misperception of references to anachronisms or to the downright offensive is dangerous, for it is the employment of such issues that adds to the comedic value of portrayals that are implicitly criticising them – not supporting them. If eradicated, all sense of humour may be lost.

The recent bans on such valuable comedic commentaries on British culture and its links to other nations is therefore regressive, for it silences what can be learned about such topics in the form of parody. There will always be a minority of individuals who misunderstand the message of these types of media, whether it consists of the extremist sect of political correctness’s acolytes or the far-right who are naïve enough to believe that such portrayals support their disdainful beliefs.

It can only be hoped that these Salem Witch Trials against comedy do not expand further. But as the Whig politician Horace Walpole once remarked, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel”. With events continuing to develop, it is becoming ever more apparent that most are proliferating towards the latter of Walpole’s maxim and are losing any sense of possessing the former.


Photo by Dame Agnes Guano on Flickr.

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