There’s a little bit of a ‘why-oh-why’ storm brewing over the BBC’s decision to censor a scene from Fawlty Towers repeats – the one where the Major corrects a woman for incorrectly using the word ‘n*gg*r’ when she should be using the word ‘w*g.’
Now, the fact that I feel slightly queasy just typing those words – and have replaced the vowels, at least partly to prevent over-friendly indexing by our search engine friends – should show how much attitudes to language and comedy have changed. It’s now a fairly safe bet, I think, that a lot of people recognise that words have power to change cultures, and we need to be careful with them.
But there’s also an immediate gag reflex at the idea of cutting anything from a cultural creation, particularly one as popular as Fawlty Towers. Mark Lawson, for one, thinks people are ‘sophisticated enough’ to recognise the comedy.
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”.
But the interesting thing here is that John Cleese’s ‘management’ has apparently agreed to this cut. Does that mean Cleese has? I don’t know. But it’s we can imagine why he might have agreed to it. Might it be that the Major’s character, as imagined by the writers, depends on the audience taking those words in a particular way? A Seventies audience would have found them wrong, I think, but amusingly so; more anachronistic than immoral. The words did not have the capacity to shock that they do now. A generation ago, the words suggest a character who is out-of-touch, pedantic and a fool. Today, they suggest a racist thug whose grandsons are in the EDL. Not what the writers had in mind. So perhaps changing it is sensible, creatively.
Another point: increasingly our cultural heritage is one of performance, not just words and pictures. Shakespeare comes down to us as words; Fawlty Towers as a finished performance, words and pictures and sound within a 30-minute whole. It becomes increasingly difficult to edit, change, adapt those things and they perhaps ossify as a result. We can refresh Hamlet through putting him in modern dress; I can’t see, a hundred years from now, Fawlty Towers being restaged on a Mega City One block to restore its relevance. Thus, Shakespeare survives – through being hacked about and reimagined. Fawlty Towers does not.