Fawlty Towers censorship slap in face for free speech

Last updated 08:08 05/02/2013

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Richard Swainson

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A recent decision by the BBC to censor the classic television comedy Fawlty Towers has attracted headlines throughout the Western World.

There are no dud episodes of John Cleese's masterful sitcom, but The Germans is particularly beloved. By having Basil Fawlty suffer a blow to the head, Cleese gets his alter ego to behave in an even more manic and extreme manner than usual, revisiting the goose-stepping Hitler parody of his Monty Python days.

The episode is in part a study of post-war, post-colonial British middle-class attitudes, with Fawlty's knee-jerk reaction to some German guests - equating them with the Nazis of the 1930s and 1940s - a trait consistent with the racism of one of the hotel's permanent residents, a caricature of an elderly British officer.

When the Major carefully distinguishes between West Indians and Indians, employing the appropriate racial epithets from his colonial-era prime, it is a moment of hilarity.

It is the Major's big scene that the BBC has elected to excise from The Germans.

Determining that there can be no contextual justification for use of the words "nigger" and "wog", the BBC has in its infinite wisdom branded the show itself - and by inference writers John Cleese and Connie Booth - racist.

It is a matter of some mystery as to why Cleese has agreed to the changes. A more appropriate response would have been to take legal action, first for defamation of character and then for cultural desecration.

Make no mistake about it, Fawlty Towers is a work of art, by critical consensus the finest situation comedy in the history of the medium. Cleese and Booth laboured on their screenplays for months at a time, crafting every line and nuance. To cut anything from the shows is akin to removing a few notes from a Beethoven symphony or doodling on the Mona Lisa.

Only Philistines and imbeciles attempt to improve on perfection.

Such as there is a logic to the cuts, it would seem to be one of equating the prejudices of individual characters with those of their creators and the show in total.

Because Basil and the Major exhibit racist tendencies Fawlty Towers is itself racist.

The premise betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about how fiction operates. If we applied it to, say, Schindler's List, we would conclude that Steven Spielberg is an anti-Semitic apologist for the Holocaust.

If we used it to assess the message of Psycho, we would find Alfred Hitchcock an advocate for crossing-dressing matricide and the cutting up of guilty blondes in the shower.

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In concentrating on one or two lines of dialogue, while ignoring the presence of positive black and German characters in the episode, the BBC has exhibited a wilful ignorance of Cleese's actual thematic agenda.

The fact that Fawlty and his Colonel Blimp-like guest are being lampooned, that the audience is encouraged to laugh at their archaic attitudes, has been ignored.

Many 1970s viewers had sympathy with the Major's world view and confused contemporary Germans with their warmongering forebears. A few viewers in the 21st century will likewise be prone to such thinking and misread the show.

It would be drawing a long bow to suggest that Cleese is responsible for this. He is not creating such ideas. He is exposing them. Better the prejudice that speaks its name, than the lies and half truths of fiction that hides behind euphemism.

To take the "nigger" out of Fawlty Towers is tantamount to removing the word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a suggestion made at one time by the politically correct lunatic fringe. Do these fools really think that by denying the facts of colonialism and slavery they are doing their children a favour?

If these mollycoddled youngsters are to be kept from the genius of Cleese or Twain in full expression, there is little doubt they will become familiar with the offending words elsewhere and most likely in contexts that are less edifying or humanistic. Perhaps they will hear talk of niggers and homeboys slapping up their bitches in a rap song.

Maybe they will inadvertently sing along with colour-tinged chants at a football match. It's a society full of intolerance, one that needs popular art to face the issues, not deny their existence. When artists dare to rise to the challenge they need to be cherished, not air-brushed out of cultural history.

- Waikato

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