Image: Rex features/Shutterstock

    Will there be any TV left by Monday?

    12 June 2020

    When this piece was initially commissioned, it was to discuss the removal by the BBC of the shows “Little Britain” and “Come Fly With Me” from public view. By the time I’d finished the first draft, it had been rendered obsolete; Netflix had followed suit by cancelling “The League of Gentlemen” and “The Mighty Boosh” while Fawlty Towers’ ‘Don’t mention the war’ episode had been taken down by UKTV.

    So, I started again, holding out hope that maybe, by the time this is published, “Mrs Brown’s Boys” might have been consigned to the dustbin of history too. Sadly, I sense the devil is not in a particularly charitable mood these days, and we shall have to wait a little longer for that one.

    It seems appropriate that as the nation descends into farce, among the first things to go are rival comedies. There can be no room for other gags, you see; Britain is now so big a joke that it swallows all the others up.

    The thing that always struck me about Little Britain and Come Fly With Me was, for all they were meant to mock us as a nation, they were oddly progressive. That’s not normally a recipe for good humour, but in this case, it worked. We can all remember the way the working classes, or the disabled, were roundly taunted in the shows. Yet Vicky Pollard and Andy Pipkin were anything but victims.

    OK, the comedy duo who wrote, directed and starred were two white men. But their creations were a pastiche of what liberal Britain wanted; minorities of all stripes slotted in seamlessly alongside straight white roles, never shoehorned in or out of place, and lampooned for traits in their characters, rather than for their ethnicity. Skin colour, accent or sexual identity was never the true source of mirth. In Come Fly With Me, Taj the airport attendant is every British male of a certain age, whilst the big joke about Little Britain’s Daffyd is that, far from being “the only gay in the village,” he is one of many, because it’s nothing that unusual.

    Little Britain  has been accused of causing all kinds of offence, including “blacking up,” something no one will defend. It doesn’t matter that the overall effect of David Walliams and Matt Lucas’s shows was to create remarkably inclusive comedy series that took risks to try to do something that hadn’t been achieved before. The characters weren’t true to the actors’ own selves. Never mind that this undermines the very concept of acting; the pair had to go.

    The Mighty Boosh and League of Gentlemen, though, take the biscuit. If it is accusations of blackface that are the alleged crimes, one must assume they center on the characters of Papa Lazarou and the Spirit of Jazz — a circus clown with dark face paint who haunts nightmares and abducts people, and a walking, talking skeleton, for whom the skull-like appearance is created by painting the underlying face of actor Noel Fielding black with white extremities. Neither are meant as caricatures of ethnic minorities, but of odd monsters meant to unsettle.

    When that sort of creativity is threatened because someone, somewhere, who lacks imagination, immediately equates the character with an ethnic minority, it says rather more about the viewer than the artist. Perhaps in this case, those who are offended by Papa Lazarou or the Spirit of Jazz might want to ask themselves why their minds went in that direction? Why weren’t they weren’t able, like the rest of us, to see what was in front of them? Was it because they themselves have some less than enlightened views on race? Or that they are so keen to see racism all around them that it blinds them to the obvious?

    The revolution, they say, always ends up eating its own. Therefore we should expect the wokerati descending on our TV shows to cancel “The Muppets” somewhere near the end, which is a small mercy — at least we’ll get it a little longer. But before they do, there are an awful lot of other shows between now and then that are set to vanish — perhaps “Father Ted” for its portrayal of the Irish, or for its portrayal of Irishmen pretending to be Chinese.

    One can almost hear Statler and Waldorf chuckling away from the balcony, watching the car crash below unfold: “Look at that, they’ve cancelled Little Britain! I’m not surprised; I hear they’ve cancelled Great Britain, too! Doh-ho-ho-ho-ho!”