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Woked in Fright: The Brief Banning of Fawlty Towers

It’s all getting nasty. The urge to remove statues in hurried indignation; the lust to censor programmes now deemed offensive; the erasure of history, which, any sensible sort should know, is often a panoramic account of crimes and slaughter worth knowing rather than banning and hiding. This is surely not what the late George Floyd intended, but it hardly matters anymore. His death has propelled a movement that has capitalised on a publicised event of police brutality in the United States to re-order matters and sort out grievance across the board.

Comedies have not been spared the punishing treatment. It was probably long time coming, but someone was eventually going to get at Fawlty Towers, which has previously received the undue attention of the cutters. After all, British comedies are falling out of wokeish favour and flavour. Netflix, BritBox and BBC iPlayer took the axe to Little Britain and Come Fly With Me, two productions that admittedly could, at times, be crass. “Times have changed since Little Britain first aired,” came the explanation from the BBC, “so it is not currently available on BBC iPlayer.”

Refreshingly shocking when it made an appearance in the 1970s, Fawlty Towers did contempt rather well. A hotel owner by the name of Basil Fawlty who hated his guests, a not unusual state of actual affairs in British tourism, presided over a chaotic series of episodes that delighted and appalled. You can’t have that sort of thing anymore. Be nice, Basil, be nice.

With that in mind, UKTV, which is owned by BBC Studios, got their censors to return to the show. Knives were deployed. One episode stood out: “The Germans”, duly removed from its Gold Box Set of available downloadable programmes. That particular bit of fun involved “racial slurs”, though officialdom refused to say what, specifically, was problematic about it. “We regularly review older content to ensure it meets audience expectations and are particular aware of the impact of outdated language,” came the Orwellian statement. “Some shows carry warnings, and others are edited. We want to take time to consider our options for this episode.” Truly sinister stuff.

Since we are not offered an actual explanation other than this atrociously woke sentiment, we must speculate. Was it the fact that John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty goosesteps and shouts “Don’t mention the war” before a group of visiting Germans? Probably not, since being racist about Germans or provocative about the Second World never seems to date for certain audiences. Or is it the unreconstructed Major Gowen, played by Ballard Berkeley, who makes reference to the West Indies cricket team? (The Major relates to Basil Fawlty that, in attending a test match with a woman who “kept referring to the Indians as niggers” he was adamant in correction. “‘No, no, no,’ I said, ‘the niggers are the West Indians. These people are wogs.’”)

Cleese was understandably exasperated in explaining the issue to The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. “If I put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of, you’re not broadcasting their views, you’re making fun of them. The major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them. If they can’t see that – if people are too stupid to see that – what can one say?”

These are points worth reiterating: that context is everything. The Major was a figure to be mocked, not celebrated. Mark Lawson, writing in 2013, reminded his readers that Cleese and co-author Connie Booth, in creating the character of Major Gowen, “were clearly not being unthinkingly racist; rather, they were satirising an English upper-class bigot.” The tendency to be easily outraged tends to destroy all context in favour of faux sensitivity, which leaves no room for humour, or, if it does, the sort of sanctimonious nonsense signed off by paper pushing clerks.

Cleese is far from oblivious of social movements. He was a Python, a member of that legendary troupe of comic actors who taunted the easily-offended establishment. He is more than discerning to the indignation across the pond. “At the moment there is a huge swell of anger and a really admirable feeling that we must make our society less discriminatory, and I think that part of it is very good.” The protests remembering Floyd “have been very moving and very, very powerful.”

Distinctly less than moving have been those in the bowels of BBC management. With scorn, Cleese took to the BBC’s management strategy, more bunker than brain. “A lot of people in charge now at the BBC just want to hang on to their jobs. If a few people get excited, they pacify them rather than standing their ground as they would have done 30 or 40 years ago.”

On Twitter, Cleese reiterated a point long lamented: that a once glorious corporation had gone to the dogs or, to be more precise, “a mixture of marketing people and petty bureaucrats”, the “cowardly”, the “gutless and contemptible.” Those actually making programmes were vanishing, leaving way for “persons whose main concern is not losing their jobs.”


In a matter of hours, those cowering in the offices of the UKTV did a volte face. The show was reinstated, but with a mighty health warning. “We already offer guidance to viewers across some of our classic comedy titles, but we recognise that more contextual information can be required on our archive comedy, so we will be adding extra guidance and warnings to the front of programmes to highlight potentially offensive content and language. We will reinstate Fawlty Towers once that extra guidance has been added, which we expect will be in the coming days.” A more measured approach might have been: “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

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  1. New England Cocky

    Well, in 1930s Germany the democratically elected National Socialist government burned the books, so in our modern 21st century world of high technology video players and streaming services these bans could easily be considered a repeat performance by political pawns in an England having a democratically elected Tory dill for Prim Monster and unthinking, ill-educated, fawning apologists for neoliberal ideology running about avoiding criticism that may be fatal to their self-serving cause.

    Orwellian? Certainly! Historical revisionism? Certainly!! But Cleese had the last word, “[W]e were making fun of them. If they can’t see that – if people are too stupid to see that – what can one say?”

  2. Andrew Smith

    Think Cleese had also said that the Germans episode was also about the idiocy of those British blaming later generations of Germans who were children during WWII, for the war.

    Apparently, according to a German friend, that episode features in the best comedy (ever) in the eyes of many middle aged Germans. Cheese was also recognised in a hotel foyer by a German man and told ‘Mr. Cleese, don’t mention ze war, ha ha ha’

    Maybe the moral of the story on banning is that many British, and Australians, simply don’t recognise irony, let alone good comedy anymore (yet Germans do)?

  3. Terence Mills

    Those of us who grew up in the Cleese, Monty Python, Ripping Yarns era need to stand together and expose this petty political correctness.

    A statue of Cleese in full goose-step would be a good start – it would require buoyancy floats in case it was tossed into the water by right-wing nutters from time to time.

    I recently allowed my heritage in humuor to show when joining a right-wing political conversation, one of the protagonists declared : ” we have a master-plan for Australia”

    I chipped in with ” does that include invading Poland ? ”

    It went down like a lead balloon

  4. Phil Pryor

    Most people, most of the time, appear to be driven by passion, fantasy, imagination, fear, suspicion, order, routine, survival, etc, and rarely consider finer points of humour, aesthetics, truth seeking, methodical approaches, getting skills, learning anew, self development. And. laughing is a dangerous business, especially at the wrong time. (I was the only one in a theatre to laugh out loud at Sellers in Dr. Strangelove) B B C humour was legendary, is now consigned to history, is missed, was relevant. But many are now sufficiently trained, if not educated, to have solutions to everything, but details for little. Some mediocrities get to the top…and we suffer anew.

  5. Keitha Granville

    Thank you Terence , thank heavens some of us still exist.

    Pardon me, bt FFS !! It’s all going too far. What on earth does any of this have to do with the murder of a black citizen of the USA?? That has been derailed for every nutter to come out with their own barrow to push. Can we just step back and focus on making sure that police, all over the world, prosecute criminals and protect the rest of us. How hard is that?

  6. Gangey1959

    Something similar to the BBC warning should be attached to scottyfromadvertising’s political propaganda, especially around election times.
    “If you don’t like what we do, Don’t vote for us!”

    It’s a shame that we can’t just change the government, or switch it off, when “unbelievable politicians from canberra (or place x)” hits the airwaves.

  7. Carina McNaughton

    Terence Mills I love the idea of a goose stepping John Cleese statue complete with buoyancy floats. While we are at it could we also include Mr Suppository of all wisdom made up as a statue of said item. I am so glad for the comments of like minded people. Sometimes it feels like I am the minority when I view my fellow humans. Wake up and see the marketing I say. Get rid of posturing scotty from marketing.

  8. TuffGuy

    To me this is like a whole new version of the PC (politically correct) revolution that took over our lives some years ago when we were handed shit like manhole covers becoming person hole covers.
    This seems to be pretty much the same thing, one small event just massively snowballs because all the wannabes jump on the train and want to show how good they are by thinking up something they can relate to the original small event.
    I have to say too about our indigenous people jumping on the train too. Sure a lot have died in custody but they are virtually claiming ALL died because of police brutality which they didn’t. Sure they are also, as a percentage of population, over represented in being jailed too but take a trip to places like Katherine, Broome, Derby, etc and you will see why. I am not saying they don’t have anything to complain about but perhaps they should put the issue into proper perspective and not pretend racism in Australia is within a cooeee of racism in America because its not.

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