World

Binning Fawlty Towers does nothing to solve racism

12 June 2020

9:10 PM

12 June 2020

9:10 PM

We’ve done it. We’ve solved racism. And who’d have thought that all it would take was a few judicious edits to a much-loved British sitcom?

This is the news that UKTV, a BBC-owned streaming service, has removed and is reviewing an episode of Fawlty Towers because it contains racial slurs. ‘We regularly review older content to ensure it meets audience expectations and are particularly aware of the impact of outdated language’, UKTV said in a statement last night.

Of course, no one sane thinks this will do anything to help anyone. But the fact that it happened at all shows the consequences of allowing woke intolerance to run riot, as we have done in recent weeks.

‘The Germans’ is the most famous episode of the John Cleese-fronted series. In it, concussed hotelier Basil Fawlty, desperate not to offend his German guests, ends up shouting endlessly at them about the war before launching into a goose-stepping impression of Hitler.

When UKTV made its announcement, many speculated that this was the scene that sparked it all. Thankfully, we haven’t quite gone that mad yet. But the real reason is still utterly ridiculous.


In one scene, the Major, a semi-senile old soldier and permanent resident of the hotel, tells a story about once taking a woman to the Oval. During the match, she referred to members of the Indian cricket team using the n-word. So he put her straight, pointing out that another racial slur is far more appropriate.

The joke here is, clearly, on him. As Cleese tells the Age today, ‘The Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them…If people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?’ Indeed.

What’s more striking here is that no one really asked for this. There was no great campaign, no protest outside UKTV’s offices. Streaming services now seem to be memory-holing allegedly racially offensive content entirely of their own volition. This is either to ward off controversy later on, or perhaps because they genuinely believe, amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a right and noble thing to do.

While the scene with the Major has been edited out of the episode when broadcast for the best part of a decade, it had up to now remained in full on streaming services like UKTV and Netflix. While you can understand why, say, the n-word before the watershed would no longer fly, streaming services expunging it from the episode, and their archives, entirely is a very different matter.

Remarkably, this isn’t even limited to shows made decades ago, far removed from modern sensibilities. Earlier this week the BBC took all of Little Britain off of iPlayer, because some episodes featured white actors playing black characters. Then Netflix pressed delete on The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentleman, because both shows featured surreal characters wearing black face paint.

Pro-Black Lives Matter commentators are criticising UKTV’s decision to censor Fawlty Towers, even where they were silent on Little Britain et al. They say it is a gift to the right that has nothing to do with these protests. But while they are right to say it is a gift to the right, these people can’t wash their hands of it.

The idea that deleting old sitcom episodes is an effective means of fighting racism is not really that different from the idea that smashing statues is an effective means of fighting racism. You can’t whip up a kind of Maoist hysteria and then complain when it gets out of hand and starts making you look bad.

The primary achievements of the UK BLM movement so far have had nothing to do with tackling racism or inequality. All it has done is to cement the idea that words are violence, that culture in itself oppresses people, and that we are so shaped by our surroundings that renaming a few buildings and moving a few statues is the real frontline of anti-racist activism.

If this ideology sounds ridiculous when applied to a sitcom, it’s because it was ridiculous to begin with. That a killing in Minneapolis has turned into a row over classic British TV is the fault of those who whipped up the mob in the first place. This particular group of lefties have long been obsessed by such trivialities, and see censorship as the solution to everything. This is their culture war. They need to own it.

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Tom Slater is deputy editor of spiked


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