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Good or bad, that Fawlty Towers episode is gone. Now can we get on with the real work of dismantling racism

These kneejerk, divisive responses shift the focus from the much more difficult task of getting people to address bias that perhaps they don’t even know they have

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 12 June 2020 17:41 BST
Fawlty Towers racial slur controversy

“Did you know mummy, that armadillos eat ants? That’s a lot of ants. Armadillos are quite big.”

Welcome to the world of writing a column in lockdown with no childcare. My daughter is seven and hates “column day” because it’s a morning of me “being a grump”, apparently. (Other days when I’m a grump I am “tired” or “I’m thinking about work”. I worry I will run out of excuses one day and she will see that “grump” is actually my personality.)

“What’s it about today?” she asked me.

“About Fawlty Towers being taken off the TV,” I mumbled, scrolling through the avalanche of reactions to the decision to take The Germans episode off air.

My daughters looked confused and asks, “What? Why?” My daughter loves Fawlty Towers; both my children do. One of the best things about having kids is watching your favourite comedies with them and falling in love anew. There are moments though, because comedy is a culture and a moving iceberg, that my older boy will raise an eyebrow at me and say, “Well, THAT didn’t stand the test of time.”

They understand my explanations that there are attitudes and words that change over time and are jarring in our day, in a way they would not have when they were made.

My children have padded along beside me all over the world to comedy festivals, watching performances that are really not aimed at their age group. They’ve sat by sound desks in darkened rooms, watching a myriad of different comedians and understand that “on stage” language and self-expression is not the same as “off stage”.

There is a part in The Germans when Basil Fawlty jumps out of his skin when he sees the black surgeon who is to operate on Sybil’s in-growing toenail. And there is a part when the doddery old Major uses two abominable racial slurs to describe West Indian and Indian cricketers. The scene lampoons the Major’s attitude, the humour being his ignorance. I don’t remember that part from when I watched it myself as a child. It washed over me as it does my seven-year-old who just waits for Basil to make a fool of himself with the German guests.

So my kid wants to know why her favourite show has been “banned”. As I stumble about my vocabulary, (which has diminished during lockdown) trying to articulate a simple explanation for why suddenly, and hopefully temporarily, the Black Lives Matter movement has been overshadowed by Basil Fawlty, she wanders off into the garden with the dog. She has far better things to do like finding ants to feed to passing armadillos.

I wish I could go with her. The luxury of being seven and not troubling yourself with the adult world. Bliss.

The BBC edited out the Major’s scene in 2013 with John Cleese’s approval. Now this performative (that’s the first time I’ve used this suddenly ubiquitous word, how did I do?) removal of the whole episode has created a storm and a giant wave of people who are missing the point. Many assumed the episode was pulled as it was offensive to Germans. Goes to show how few remember the Major’s scene.

This episode hasn’t been removed to appease Germans: it’s been removed because the words that the writers put in the Major’s mouth to send up his racism and colonial attitude are not ones we would use today to do the same. Not in a family sitcom anyway.

Comedy, jokes and satire are often for the moment. You can scrutinise and judge them all you like with the awareness and values we have now, but bear in mind, some of the work we consider to be politically correct in 2020 is likely to make a woke 20-year-old in 2060 wince. However benign and clownish the intention, comedians have to accept, when they follow their comedic instinct, that some of their work will not age well, or will upset or offend certain groups. We all set our own boundaries. If I was talking about a group of people in a joke, I think, “Would I say this comfortably in front of the people I’m talking about?” and, “Would I care if they were offended?” If the answer is yes, then no, it stays in.

But what we consider offensive changes as time moves on. If Fawlty Towers wasn’t such a gem, we wouldn’t be discussing whether or not it’s offensive 40 years later.

The frustrating thing here is how tweets and articles huff that “lefty snowflakes have cancelled Fawlty Towers”, as though Black Lives Matter activists have marched into television producers’ offices and demanded it. The reality is that it was rather a bunch of mostly white producers who ordered the cull, desperate to be seen to take the movement seriously.

These kneejerk, divisive responses shift the focus from the real and much more difficult task of getting people to address bias that perhaps they don’t even know they have. For that to happen: stay focused, and don’t make a handful of tweets your sole source of information. Stay focused on listening to the voices who have been fighting to be heard for years. We have the serious dismantling of racism to do. Let’s not get distracted by the temporary absence of a fabulously funny silly walk.

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