David Lister: The Week in Arts

Should the Goons really be censored?
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The Independent Online

The Danish cartoons and the subsequent debates over censorship have drowned out an infinitely smaller debate over an infinitely smaller piece of censorship. Yet it is in itself rather fascinating. Indeed, an angry letter in one arts journal this week denounces it as an "outrage", as "political correctness" and as "censorship that must be stopped".

The censor in question is the BBC, and the victim is The Goon Show. Yes, I too did a double take. Who could take offence at a 50-year-old radio show starring such British national treasures as Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan?

My first concern was that the BBC might have taken out my favourite Goon Show joke for not being funny. It is when the aged Henry asks his equally decrepit wife Min what the weather is like. She walks at a snail's pace to the window, then returns to her seat, saying nothing. "Well, what was it like, Min?" he repeats. "I don't know," she replies. "I couldn't see through the snow."

Not to everyone's taste, I suppose, but fortunately that has been left in. It is a racial and indeed racist joke in The Goon Show that has alarmed the BBC's Mary Kalemkerian, head of programmes for Radio 7, and Peter Reid, who reviews programmes for unacceptable content.

I wonder if the Goons could have dreamed up a job as wonderfully goonish as Mr Reid's. There he sits, trawling through 50-year-old Goon Shows to determine what might offend modern sensibilities. How, I wonder, will Mr Reid fare with Bluebottle, Peter Sellers' savage satire on a child with learning difficulties?

The line that has been cut is admittedly a joke that is both unpleasant and downright poor. The musician Ray Ellington walks on with his quartet, and one of the cast renames the programme "The Coon Show". Ms Kalemkerian says: "This, we felt, was wrong. We also cut the phrase 'sambo-speak'."

Peter Reid, the unacceptable content man, said that, with the revivals of vintage classics, he sometimes recommended the elimination of "the odd word which we wouldn't use in polite company these days".

But polite company seems to change its mind about what is acceptable and what is not. Company was probably more polite 50 years ago than it is now, but its sensibilities were not offended by this sort of joke. Ours are, though, and rightly so. Such jokes are no longer funny. In fact, I'm with Mr Reid and Ms Kalemkerian in worrying that this pathetic joke could and would cause offence.

The question is: what should the BBC do about it? I can't help but feel queasy about a corporation executive cutting lines by Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. Should the BBC simply issue a warning of racial jokes before the programme? That would sound absurdly po-faced before a Goon Show, though it's not really all that different from cutting the lines on the quiet. Or should they simply broadcast and hope that listeners will realise that this was 50 years ago?

I'd vote for the latter option. There's no question that the offending joke makes one feel uncomfortable in 2006. But one of the points of Radio 7 is to broadcast shows for historic interest, to show what people were laughing at at the time. It's illogical to have that remit, then make cuts.

Of course, the easiest option of all would have been to do a run of Goon Shows except for the show with the offending line. But that's censorship by a furtive route. I think we just have to accept that the Goons gave us some of what was bad about their era as well as so much that was good.

An unlikely French farce

Much was made after the Baftas of the lack of British films among the winners. That's a fair debating point, but there was a worse omission that seems to have gone unnoticed. Five films were nominated in the Foreign Language category, but one of the most talked about and critically acclaimed movies of the year, Hidden, was not among them. National papers discussed its meaning; critics queued up to lavish praise on it. And it won a top award at Cannes last year. But it is nominated for neither the Baftas nor for next week's Oscars. What's going on?

I discovered that because the production company is a small one, it cannot afford to send out the 6,000 screening tapes that others do, and not enough Bafta members saw it. As for the Oscars - well that has an even weirder way of choosing films. Hidden is in French, and stars French actors Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, but the director is Austrian, so it doesn't count as a French film, nor an Austrian one, and can't be categorised. What a farce.

* It is absurdly pompous of Sir Ben Kingsley to allow his full title as knight of the realm on posters for his new film. Even if, to be charitable, the decision were the film company's, not his, he and his agent would have known about it, and should have stopped it.

Several other actors who boast a title have declared that they would never dream of using it in the Kingsley fashion. Sir Ben should reflect that if Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud never used their titles in their jobs as actors, then nor should he.

But I felt that one of the distinguished actors taking an opposite view to Sir Ben did himself no favours either. Sir Michael Caine said that he would never use his title on a film poster, but he did refuse to open letters addressed to plain Mr Caine. I hope that the next wrongly addressed one is a Euro Millions lottery win. What is it with these thespians? It all seems to be going to their heads.