Rivalled only by Dad’s Army as Britain’s most-loved sitcom, Fawlty Towers seems an unlikely candidate to merit comparison with the movies of Quentin Tarantino. But the BBC has cut from a repeat of the episode The Germans (screened many times since it was first seen in 1975) a speech in which the blimpish hotel resident Major Gowen uses two outlawed racial insults while reporting on a trip to see an England v India cricket match at the Oval.
It is impossible to discuss properly the censored dialogue without quoting the line. Very sensitive readers should stop now and it should not be assumed that I, the Guardian – or, indeed, John Cleese and Connie Booth, the show’s writers – endorse the general or casual use of such terms. In his anecdote, the Major tells Basil Fawlty that he went to the test with a woman who “kept referring to the Indians as niggers. ‘No, no, no,’ I said, ‘the niggers are the West Indians. These people are wogs.’”
Although startling, the line is mild in comparison with the persistent employment of the n-word in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which is currently up for the Oscar for best film. And so the question is whether Fawlty Towers can advance either of the defences Tarantino habitually claims for such vocabulary: that such speech was common at the time when the story is set, or that it is being used knowingly or ironically.
The BBC seems (reportedly with the approval of Cleese’s office) to have concluded that such caveats do not apply, although the case is complicated by the fact that this transmission of Fawlty Towers was in a pre-watershed (7.30pm) slot, when, for example, no Tarantino movie could possibly be shown.
However, the decision is in line with a general TV policy of suppressing a certain strain of racial comedy from the 1970s. There is little chance now of seeing a repeat of three sitcoms from the period that featured national stereotypes or characters swapping racist gibes: Love Thy Neighbour (ITV, 1972-76), which featured black and white families living next door; the Raj comedy It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum (BBC, 1974-81); and Mind Your Language (ITV, 1977-86), which was set in a language school specialising in a United Nations of people who never got the hang of English.
However, the objection to those shows is that the assumptions behind the characterisation and writing date from an era of different attitudes to race and therefore risk causing offence now. In contrast, Cleese and Booth, when they wrote the character of Major Gowen, were clearly not being unthinkingly racist; rather, they were satirising an English upper-class bigot. The joke depends on the audience first thinking that, when the Major rebukes his companion “No, no, no”, he is condemning her for inflammatory language, when it turns out that he is simply a particularly pedantic racist. A liberal pedant might object that it was odd of the BBC to cut just that one line from the episode in question as the entire premise of The Germans is English post-second world war humour and hostility towards the country. But, while the show will never win a prize for encouraging Anglo-German cultural understanding, Cleese is comically depicting – rather than politically promoting – fear of “Fritz”.
Most viewers of Fawlty Towers, then and now, are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between this and Love Thy Neighbour, which had bigotry as a central theme and arguably an underlying impulse in the writing.
In a previous case, when the BBC cut homophobic language from the song Fairytale of New York, the original was reinstated after audience protests that the words were used without malice and as dramatic quotation. The same defence can be made of Major Gowen’s speech and so there may be pressure for the entire episode to be shown at a later date, with an appropriate note about its content. Major Gowen is racist; Fawlty Towers isn’t.
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