David Lister: Sorry, but comedy can be offensive

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Harry Enfield is in a spot of bother with the government of the Philippines over a sketch in his Harry and Paul show. In that sketch, Harry tried to mate his pet Geordie, played by Paul Whitehouse, with a Filipina maid.

I can't say that I was too bothered by this little fuss, until I read a small aside in the news story about it, in which Enfield was quoted as saying that he had already been prevented from playing a sex-crazed Muslim hoodie in another sketch.

Let's, with great respect, forget the Philippines, for a moment. I'm rather more concerned about what are own comedy police are doing. What Enfield's aside reveals is deeply serious. It reveals a climate of fear in the arts and the media about causing offence to one specific ethnic minority.

In the Harry and Paul show, which I enjoy enormously, there is, for example, a fabulous sketch about two elderly Jewish men from Golders Green who host a rap music programme on the radio. The comedy police had no worries about that. Nor should they have had. So why do the kid gloves come out when it comes to a sketch involving a Muslim? We know why, of course. It's fear; fear that there will be an outcry, a threat of violence, perhaps aimed at the head of comedy, perhaps at a line producer.

And so they make Muslims in comedy a no-go zone. The irony is that in so doing, they really are insulting Muslims, the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Britain who are perfectly capable of laughing at themselves, and would resent the patronising protection supposedly offered them by the comedy police.

We have to thank Harry Enfield for mentioning this, and presumably very deliberately mentioning this. If he had not, we would never have known about it. So, now that the secret is out, can we have some transparency, please. Can we be told precisely what the policy is on what is allowed in TV comedy and what is not, which jokes about ethnic minorities are allowed, and which are not, what Messrs Enfield and Whitehouse may say and what they may not?

The newspaper reports all refer to the fact that the Harry and Paul show is a BBC TV programme. It is, though it is bought in from Tiger Aspect, the independent production company which also makes Mr Bean, The Catherine Tate Show and The Lenny Henry Show. And it was Tiger Aspect that is responsible for the decision, though the BBC has kept silent about it. Too silent. Transparency is needed from our national broadcaster too.

I sought clarification from Tiger Aspect, those radical, daring, anarchic comedy producers. A spokesman told me it was quite true that it had been decided not to have that character. He said: "Obviously, it is a sensitive area." He added: "It never made it further than the page. This was a decision taken collectively by key members of the production team." I suppose the fact that the decision was made collectively is meant to emphasise how sensible it was. In fact, I find it much more depressing than if it had been decided by one cowering comedy producer in a dark room. Collectively, the comedy police are of one mind. No jokes about Muslims.

It's a retrograde step, enforcing a climate of hesitancy, fear, and, yes, censorship when it comes to comedy and one particular ethnic minority.

Some ideas for central casting

I think I will give up the day job and become a director specialising in off-the-wall casting. A while back on this page I wrote that directors should not be afraid of cross-gender casting, and urged that Helen Mirren play Prospero in The Tempest. This week it was announced that Helen Mirren will play Prospero in a new film of The Tempest.

So, now I'm on a roll, here are some more suggestions for the gender-swapping department at Central Casting. Vanessa Redgrave would make a fine Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Judi Dench should be allowed a shot at King Lear. Absolutely no offence intended, but I am sure that Dawn French would make a wonderful Falstaff.

Actresses over a certain age have always complained that there are no parts out there for them. But we at the gender-swapping department believe that a new era in acting is just beginning. And if not, casting the roles is at least a good party game.

RSC back on track? I'm not so sure

It's good that the Royal Shakespeare Company has at last replied to concerns that Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon finishes too late for theatregoers from London to get a train home. I raised the point here some weeks ago, and a number of readers have had letters published with their own complaints.

In her letter of response, Vikki Heywood, executive director of the RSC, reassures us that the company is "in constant discussions" with the rail authorities. She doesn't address my points that perhaps some productions could start earlier or a coach service be arranged. Never mind. At least there are "constant discussions". These would be the same "constant discussions" that have been "constant" for the last decade or so, I imagine. They are probably the same discussions that will be "constant" for the next decade.

But I may be wrong. Perhaps Ms Heywood can tell us if there is a deadline on these discussions, or what measures she will take if they fail. She can be assured that scrutiny of the RSC's action or inaction will be "constant".

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