What can’t be laughed at, can never be defeated

Why run the risk of depriving future generations of a cultural influence that – for better or worse – helped to shape the very same awareness that informs so much of today’s preoccupation with race?

Problematic favorite: John Cleese, from the widely popular Fawlty Towers, in the role of an unstable Basil Fawlty going full Jerry on his hotel’s tourists
Problematic favorite: John Cleese, from the widely popular Fawlty Towers, in the role of an unstable Basil Fawlty going full Jerry on his hotel’s tourists

I suppose it says something about the sheer absurdity of the situation we have suddenly found ourselves in: but this week, I ended up performing an act of self-censorship… when my intention was actually to criticize the wave of increasingly irritating puritanism that has already cost us such classic cultural icons as ‘Gone With The Wind’… ‘Little Britain’… ‘The League of Gentlemen’… and even (choke, splutter) ‘Fawlty Towers’. 

It’s a little hard to explain, so I’m afraid you’ll have to bear with me for a while. Remember a 1970s American sitcom called ‘All in The Family’? Oh, wait... maybe, like me, you originally watched it in dubbed into Italian: in which case, you’ll remember it as ‘Archibald’. 

No matter, it’s still the same general concept (even if some of the show’s more poignant social commentary got a little lost in translation: ‘Meathead’, for instance, remains a far more satisfying insult for Rob Reiner than… ‘Testone’).  

But for the benefit of those who haven’t the foggiest idea what I’m on about: I’m referring to the classic comedy series featuring a character named ‘Archie Bunker’…  whose name is still used, to this day, as a cultural reference-point for an entire demographic of blue-collar, Republican-voting American men (in a nutshell, the type who would vote for Donald Trump). 

Even if you’ve never watched the show itself, you will surely still get the general idea. Archie Bunker is best remembered today for his “gruff, overbearing demeanour, largely defined by his bigotry towards a diverse group of individuals: blacks, Hispanics, Commies, gays, hippies, Jews, Asians, Catholics, ‘women's libbers’, Polish–Americans, etc., etc…” 

And I need hardly add that – in an age which cannot tolerate even comparatively ‘minor’ television bigots, such as Basil Fawlty – the same Archie Bunker would stand little chance of surviving the ongoing wave of censorship/historical revisionism that is now gripping the planet: rapidly despoiling our archives of anything that might even remotely be interpreted as ‘offensive’… and in the process, robbing us of an entire language called ‘satire’: which was (and still is) the most effective weapon against precisely the same qualities – bigotry, racism, intolerance, etc. – that the same puritans want to eradicate from the face of the earth. 

Which brings me to my own act of self-censorship. At one point this week, I thought it would be a good idea to post a YouTube clip of one particular episode of ‘All In The Family’: if nothing else, for posterity’s sake - for something tells me those clips will not be around for too  much longer - but also to illustrate just how much of our recent, collective memory we are also throwing away, in this retroactive (and, it must be said, retrograde) drive to whitewash popular culture of all that might conceivably cause offence. 

But then, I had second thoughts. For let’s face it: if people are suddenly so eager to pull down anything – anything at all - that even remotely reminds them of the less savoury aspects of human nature… why on earth remind them that there’s something they might have left out?  Why draw attention to Archie Bunker today: when the rest of the world has apparently forgotten he ever existed at all? 

And above all: why run the risk of depriving future generations of a cultural influence that – for better or worse – helped to shape the very same awareness that informs so much of today’s preoccupation with race? 

Let me try and put that another way. Speaking only for myself: it was Archie Bunker – and not, say, Martin Luther King – who originally made me aware of the sheer absurdity of things such as racism, misogyny and homophobia in the first place.  

And he did this, not by standing on a pedestal and loudly denouncing the intrinsic evil of all those prejudices… still less by trying to blot out their existence altogether. 

No, he did it by acting those prejudices out on the screen: inflating them; enlarging them; making them the centre-piece of a cutting, intelligent slice of televised comic satire… so that we could all see, and learn to recognise them for the grotesque aberrations they truly are… and laugh. 

So, who knows? if today’s cultural backlash had occurred in the 1970s, instead of 2020… I might never have gone through that necessary process of challenging my own internal prejudices through the medium of satire. I might never have laughed my way to the conclusion that ‘bigotry’ and ‘intolerance’ are, in reality, every bit as ridiculous as Archie Bunker had made them all out to be, all those years ago. 

To a lesser extent, much the same could be said about ‘Fawlty Towers’: another classic example of a formative, intelligent and immensely influential cultural phenomenon, that simply hasn’t aged as well as some people out there might like (so naturally, it has to go). 

Admittedly, it is still a little unclear whether UKTV decided to axe one particular episode – ‘The Germans’ – because it features scenes that openly lampoon Hitler, Nazism, and (by extension) the Holocaust… or because of its repeated use of ‘the N-word’… or because of the undisguisedly xenophobic stereotyping associated with characters such as ‘Manuel’  (in which case, the ban should in theory be extended to all episodes, not just ‘The Germans’… if not all TV comedy shows made before 2020: eg, ‘Allo, Allo’, ‘Mind Your Language’, ‘Dukes of Hazzard’, etc.) 

Either way, it doesn’t really make much difference.  Removing that episode remains an act of pre-emptive self-censorship – as was the case with HBO’s decision to de-schedule ‘Gone With the Wind’… and indeed my own decision not to post that Archie Bunker clip - on the basis that someone, somewhere, might conceivably ‘take offence’ at the same sort of humour today.  

And quite frankly, that not only misses the point of that particular episode of ‘Fawlty Towers’… but also of the entire series; and with it, the entire genre of satirical comedy itself, from start to finish. 

To home in on just one detail: when Basil Fawlty goosesteps up and down in imitation of Adolf Hitler - or even when ‘The Major’ utters shocking, disgraceful epithets at the expense of ethnic minorities - the real satirical target was not ‘The Germans’… or ‘The Jews’… or ‘The Blacks’… (or, to go back to Archie Bunker: “Hispanics, Commies, gays, hippies, Catholics, ‘women's libbers’, Polish–Americans, etc.”) 

No: it was the British. What makes John Cleese’s antics so memorable, in that particular scene, is not that they ‘demean or trivialise the Holocaust’ – or, even less, ‘make fun of the Germans’. What they actually spoof are all the cultural quirks and oddities that are uniquely, quintessentially associated with the ineffable quality of ‘Britishness’. 

As such, ‘Fawlty Towers’ also cast a spotlight on the difficulties so many British people felt in the 1970s – and evidently still feel today – in adjusting to the new post-war realities: including, incidentally, membership in the European Union… alongside nations that the same British people had gone to war with just a few decades earlier. 

Likewise, the racist language used by the Major is clearly intended to come across as every bit as outdated, anachronistic and misplaced as the character of the Major himself: a relic of a forgotten British Empire, who (throughout the series) remains pitifully unaware that the world he once inhabited had by that time long ceased to even exist. 

So to just throw away ‘Fawlty Towers’, in its entirety, simply because it fails to meet today’s increasingly obsessive standards of political correctness… that’s not just ‘stupid’ (as John Cleese himself put it this week); it’s also dangerous. 

Apart from robbing entire generations of some excellent comedy classics of yesteryear – and, admittedly, some not-so-excellent ones (I, for one, never really found ‘Little Britain’ all that funny… though I still have deep misgivings about its recent censorship, for all the same reasons) – it also robs us of the very language we need the most, if we are to truly to counter the very issues so many people are protesting about. 

For at the end of the day, censorship also denies us the ability to laugh at our own failures and weaknesses as human beings. And as we should all know by now, after so many years of exposure to the same, rich legacy of satirical comedy that we suddenly seem so eager to get rid of… that which cannot be laughed at, can never hope to be defeated any other way. 

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