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January 25th 2013 print

Philippa Martyr

Beeb Boobs Bowdlerise Basil

The campaign to regulate speech and save the preciously sensitive from offence has added the name of Basil fawlty to its long and growing list of unlikely martyrs. What's next, neutering Mrs Slocombe's animal companion?


The BBC has recently decided to censor an episode of Fawlty Towers because of its use of discriminatory and racist language.


It is the classic ‘The Germans’ episode, and the Beeb has chosen to cut the scene where the Major suggests that a female friend of his was wrong for describing the Indian cricket team as the N-word. He pointed out to her, he says, that the West Indian team were the N-word; the Indian team were the W-word.

You can watch the whole unedited scene here, so the faint of heart had better block their ears. Or better still, exercise their free will as an adult and choose not to watch this scene.

Yet the rest of the episode remains intact, including the goose-stepping, the Hitler moustache and Basil’s deranged rantings about not mentioning the war, the equally racist slurs directed towards Manuel, and the derogatory bile directed towards Sybil and Polly.

In fact, if you cut everything racist, sexist and offensive out of Fawlty Towers, you’d be left with very little material from the entire collection – possibly about 20 minutes’ worth of remarkably unfunny documentary-style footage of a small and shabby hotel in Torquay, run by an irate and frustrated man and his bitchy wife. This would be marvellous if you’d gotten all comfy on the couch and were looking forward to a mid-1970s production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party with audacious casting. Just not so hot if you wanted to watch something actually funny.

Fawlty Towers was a comedy. Like most comedies, it shows its age in some ways, but not in others. Again like most comedies, it tells us a great deal about the world in which it was made.

I love British comedy of the 1970s, especially the early series of Are You Being Served? and On The Buses. The reason why I love it so much is that it reminds me first-hand of what Britain was like in the 1970s. It’s hideous – the bad food, the bad teeth, the NHS spectacles, the high prices, the shambling inefficiency, the industries held in hostage to do-nothing unions, the whole air of shabby desperation that seems to infest those wobbling sets and flared suits. Against this background, Margaret Thatcher’s arrival seems to be lit up with a fluorescent halo of incoming daylight, prosperity, and decent dentistry.

All comedy, no matter how ‘timeless’, is a product of its time. Get over it. Doing the 1984 trick of trying to edit out the inconvenient products of the past is simply going to leave everyone involved with egg on their faces.

You can guarantee, though, that we can look forward to a lot more of this if Nicola Roxon’s Anti-Discrimination Bill becomes law. How about anyone offended by anything they see on television claiming that they were discriminated against?

I really can’t see much room to move in the new bill for satire, as well as for legitimate political comment. Can you? And any situation where David Marr agrees with me is a dire one. 

 

Philippa Martyr blogs at Transverse City, where she happily avoids the tedium of Monty Python like the plague.