BBC backs down on plan to censor 'Fairytale of New York'

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The Independent Online

Embarrassed BBC bosses have climbed down over attempts to ban words it deemed offensive in the Christmas hit song "Fairytale of New York".

The emotionally gritty song boils over as the late Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues' Shane MacGowan engage in a vocal domestic that rings bells in households across the world every year.

But to chiefs at BBC Radio 1, the duet has suddenly posed an embarrassing problem thanks to two words they initially deemed offensive, but have since changed their minds about. Earlier this week, for the first time since its 1987 release, managers at the radio station decided to fade out the words "faggot" and "slut" in order not to offend listeners.

But after a deluge of complaints controllers backed down, and said the song would be played uncut. On Monday, listeners of the station's flagship breakfast programme with Chris Moyles flooded the show with complaints after it broadcast the censored version of the song, which culminates in a Christmas Eve argument between two Irish immigrant lovers in New York.

In the uncensored version that Radio 1 had, for the past 20 years, been happy to play, Shane MacGowan's character calls MacColl "an old slut on junk" to which she memorably replies: "You scumbag, you maggot you cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it's our last."

But on Monday, Radio 1 broadcast a version that muffled the words "faggot" and "slut" prompting an angry response from listeners, Kirsty MacColl's mother and even the show's presenter. Moyles, who is supporting a campaign to make the 1987 song this year's Christmas number one, called the ban "ridiculous" whilst Jean MacColl, whose daughter was killed in a speedboat accident in Mexico seven years ago, told BBC Radio 5 Live's Breakfast: "These are a couple of characters, not in the first flush of youth, I would have thought, and this is the way they spoke. They are what they are. These are characters and they speak like that."

Many listeners expressed their confusion at why the ban had only been placed on Radio 1, the BBC station with the highest proportion of young listeners. Yesterday morning Ken Bruce played the song in its entirety during his breakfast slot on Radio 2 and an online poll on the BBC news website yesterday showed 95 per cent of readers disagreed with the ban.

Last night, Andy Parfitt, the controller, said the original decision to ban the words was wrong. "The unedited version will be played from now on."

When "Fairytale of New York" was released in 1987 it went straight to the top of the Irish charts but in the UK it was beaten into second place by the Pet Shop Boys. At the time Shane MacGowan reportedly quipped: "We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine."

Now, a dispute over the word "faggot" could push his tune back to the top of the charts.

The origins of 'faggot'

* Faggot can be traced back to 1279 when it meant a bundle of sticks (Italian fagotto) but in modern times it came to be used as a pejorative term for homosexuals in the United States and crossed back over the Atlantic.

* It has been suggested that faggot became a negative word because "fire and faggot" was a phrase in the Middle Ages to describe the punishment of burning heretics and occasionally homosexuals at the stake. Some etymologists have suggested the word comes from the Yiddish faygele (lit. a little bird) also used to describe homosexual men and women.

* The word also describes, among other things, a meatball dish popular in the West Midlands.