Why the BBC’s decision to muzzle the Major was far from Fawlty

The broadcaster must think of its audience over "completist" concerns. Plus, the joys of an underwhelming exhibit at the British Library

Share
Related Topics

As I wrote last week, Radio 4 will shortly broadcast the complete text of Tony Harrison’s poem V, which caused something of a fuss at the time of its first publication because of its faithful transmission of the obscene graffiti in a Leeds cemetery. Now it seems, late at night and with a certain amount of advance warning, the C-word and the F-word will be admitted to the Royal Enclosure of the broadcastable affront.

Over at the other end of the paddock, though, the stewards have just escorted another word out. And though they did it without fuss some people have  noticed and are making a fuss anyway. The fact that racial epithets have been edited out of an old episode of Fawlty Towers – the one in which the Major reveals just how behind the times he is in terms of racial politesse – has been greeted in some quarters as a prim excess of nicety on the BBC’s part.

I confess my first instinct was to agree with the complainants. The scene in question mocks racism rather than endorsing it and generally speaking it’s a bad idea to pretend that the past was a nicer place than was actually the truth. The BBC is also sometimes twitchily over-responsive to potential rather than actual public distress (as in its decision to remove the Jimmy Savile episode of Desert Island Discs from its online archive rather than simply acknowledge that it was recorded in different circumstances). Surely, I thought, the audience is adult enough to be able to judge the intention and the nuances of the scene in question. And then I read a newspaper report on the matter and thought that it might be a little more complicated than I’d first assumed.

The offending term is one I don’t even much like typing out – “nigger”, a word that brings quite enough complications in its wake at the best of times, as the fuss over Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained has just reminded us. But the further complication here was that this episode was due to go out at 7.30pm, at a time when a lot of young children might be assumed to be watching, with their parents or alone. And although there’s nothing inherently wrong with children learning that social attitudes change and grown-ups get things wrong, you might feel as a parent that there are better times to do it than in the middle of something you’ve turned on for a bit of light relief. Weighing up the completist outrage of the fans who’ve seen this episode many times already and find this moment “classic”, against the discomfort of those who only wanted to watch a comedy, I’m inclined to think the BBC got it right.

Oddly, this incident chimed with a reticence about the word that seemed to me to be genuinely regrettable. Watching Spielberg’s Lincoln the other day, I found myself wondering what it would feel like if we were to see that secular saint employing the term, as there’s historical evidence that he did at times. Unthinkable, of course, in a film that wants us to revere him.

The word is used in the film, but almost exclusively by anti-abolitionist politicians. So their palpable wrongness (by our current lights) makes safe the ugliness of the term. But how disruptively confusing it would be to hear it in the mouth of the film’s hero, even though that jolt might convey something of the complexity of Lincoln’s journey from theoretical opposition to slavery to something more heartfelt and inward.

I wish Tony Kushner had dared, just as I wish he’d acknowledged the existence of black activists such as Frederic Douglass. There are times when an audience needs a bit of a bit of a jolt. I’m not sure that 7.30 in the evening, when all you want is a laugh, is one of them.

In praise of  small wonders...

My heart sank a little as I went into the British Library’s Murder in the Library exhibition. We were planning to discuss it on the radio and it was so modest in scale that I wondered whether it would even justify the tube fares for the guests. Consisting of just 26 small display cases, it offers an alphabetical exploration of crime fiction, from Agatha Christie to Zodiac. And at first glance, it looked a tiny bit thin. In fact, it makes an excellent case for the micro-exhibition: full of intriguing bits of memorabilia and, far more importantly, entirely absorbable. It made me feel that “underwhelmed” should occasionally be a term of praise.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior .Net Programmer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Bridgend based software de...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Printer

£21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A specialist retail and brand c...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Class 2 HGV Driver - with CPC

£26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Haulage company based on the Thorpe Indu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Mininster: I would legislate for abortion on demand and abolish VAT on sanitary products

Caroline Criado-Perez
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence