Crude, violent - but quite brilliant

Watching an unforgettable `South Park', I realised it had some undeniably disgusting moments

FOR MANY years, it has been an established fact of national life that anyone who has edited the humorous magazine Punch will himself lose his sense of humour. It was Malcolm Muggeridge, a former Punch editor, who first identified this phenomenon in his essay "Tread softly for you tread on my jokes" and subsequently exemplified it by becoming a grouchy, marginal figure forever grizzling on about the amount of sex people were having and how all he longed for was the day when he would meet his Maker.

To judge by recent pronouncements, David Thomas, the man who presided over the death throes of Punch in 1992 (it was later revived as the Fayed house magazine), is no exception to the rule. This weekend, he excitedly seized upon a warning sent to parents of children at a minor public school in Cambridgeshire about the moral dangers of the hit record "Chocolate Salty Balls" by Chef and of South Park, the television programme from which it was taken. Here was yet another case, Thomas argued, of TV producers peddling filth to the young. It was all part of the dangerous downward spiral to which drugged-up, ignorant teenagers, divorced one-parent families and cynical trendies in the media were contributing. Something was going - altogether now - "terribly, terribly wrong".

There's a danger of over-reaction here. Thomas's sermon appeared in one of those middle-class tabloids in which the honest, solid values of decent, God-fearing folk are portrayed as being under siege from the forces of disorder and permissiveness. As is traditional on these occasions, the writer was photographed with his lovely young family, looking protective and concerned at the threat of Chef and his appalling chocolate salty balls.

Yet I found myself taking it personally. As it happens, I spent much of Christmas dinner discussing with my 15-year-old niece our favourite moments from one of the most unforgettable South Park episodes, "Mr Hankey, the Christmas Poo". There will be those who might argue that teenagers should be discouraged from watching a cartoon story in which a small, apparently dysfunctional, Jewish boy with something of a faecal hang-up is locked away in a mental home, only to be vindicated when his fantasy figure Mr Hankey (a festive turd) not only turns out to be real but also unites the parents at South Park School. However, as we enjoyed the episode on video later that afternoon, it seemed to me that, though brilliantly satirising parental anxiety, psychiatry and political correctness, it also had some undeniably disgusting moments - my niece was showing encouragingly good taste. After all, she could have been watching the bleary, sozzled sentimentality of Men Behaving Badly or even the smug, clever-dick sanctimoniousness of Have I Got News For You?

It is, I suppose, the incipient violence of programmes such as South Park that some people disapprove of. They point in particular to a running gag, repeated in almost every episode, involving the regular and ever- varying demise of a small, pathetic character called Kenny (who was spared, in a nice seasonal touch, for the Mr Hankey episode). Doubtless the same viewers are inexplicably shocked by the regular, absurdly over-the-top violence contained in another classic of modern television, Bottom.

What makes all this genuinely puzzling is the fact that, in feature films, torture and death have not only become acceptable to audiences but, without the release of the cartoonish idiocy contained in South Park or Bottom, are presented as witty, ironic, cool parts of the entertainment. When I first saw Reservoir Dogs, some members of the audience actually whooped with delight with every new shooting and evisceration. And while, three years later, I laughed along with everyone else at the scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta accidentally (and with hilarious consequences) blows out the brains of a passenger in a taxi, it occurred to me that something sinister and depressing had happened. In the past, violence had played a part in many of the great films - A Clockwork Orange, Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet and so on - but now it was cue for a cynical, knowing laugh, a cheap thrill.

Anyone who doubts the dangers of this trend might consider the case of the celebrity thug Vinnie Jones, a footballing hard man who has exploited a reputation for brutality on and off the pitch to become a screen idol - specialising, of course, in violence. A real person, and role model for young football fans, becomes the toast of the town while headteachers and former Punch editors fret about a well written and morally serious cartoon. It would make excellent material for a future episode of South Park.

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