The famous ‘Don’t mention the War’ episode of the classic, brilliant comedy series ‘Fawlty Towers’ has been removed from the UKTV catch-up service. In that episode, hotel owner Basil Fawlty suffers a head injury which disinhibits him, and so all of his prejudices, barely suppressed at the best of times, tumble out as he tries to welcome German guests to his hotel. It satirises by using the language and behaviours of the prejudiced against them, which is, of course, how satire works, and what the best satire does.
Never mind that this comedy has achieved cult following in Germany, the current rewriting of our past must extend to TV comedy, and the brilliant, manic, iconoclastic love/hate figure of Basil Fawlty cannot be seen in this episode in case his ‘racism’ offends people. And so we take one more step along the politically correct road toward 1984.
We have now passed through to the looking-glass world where freedom of speech must be curtailed in the interests of ‘liberalism’. Comedy must be removed from the public square so that nobody is ever confronted with the uncomfortable fact that history is murky, life is complicated, and good people do bad things. People who denounce the evils of populism at the ballot box take to the streets in mobs to achieve what the majority never voted for.
Naturally, in the world of culture, the new puritan thinks it is time to be similarly challenging and to embrace real comedy where the room really cracks up with such golden oldie opening lines such as “Isn’t George Bush stupid?”, and “Isn’t Donald Trump orange?”. You don’t find that funny? Maybe you had to be there, but you’ll get used to it; it’s obligatory.
We can do better than this nonsense. If we truly wanted to diversify the public square, there are two statues I think we could erect. The first would be to install on the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square a monument to the West Africa Squadron in which African and British sailors served and died together in dreadful conditions to suppress the slave trade. These men (sorry) were the first to die because black lives mattered to the British (sorry), having been motivated by the consciences of a small group of Evangelical Christians (sorry). That commemorative statue would surely tick the boxes for radicals and conservatives alike wouldn’t it? It could be modelled on the Squadron’s most successful interdicting vessel which was called HMS Black Joke (sorry).
The second statue would be fittingly controversial. I would raise one to the comedian and satirist Lennie Bruce. He was not a moral man: he was American (sorry) and Jewish (sorry), though his father was from Kent. He was banned from entering and performing in the UK in 1964 as an “undesirable alien”, at a time when artistic freedom of speech (and freedom to offend) was also being denied by the self-appointed moralists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lennie Bruce paved the way for many future purveyors of irreverence such as Private Eye, ‘TW3‘, ‘Spitting Image‘ and today Ricky Gervais, whose coruscating references to Hollywood’s erstwhile friend Harvey Weinstein at the Golden Globe award ceremony came straight out of the Lennie Bruce playbook.
Bruce’s style was infamously chaotic and often self-indulgent, especially when frequent arrests and legal bullying by the establishment drove him to seek refuge in the drugs which finally killed him. So why do we need him immortalised in London’s brave new world, alongside Karl Marx and Che Guevara?
In short, we need a constant reminder that last year’s monster is this year’s hero and vice-versa, and the reason these opinions can and do change is because people are allowed to talk about anything and everything and change their minds. This becomes impossible if some things become un-sayable. You cannot think if you are not allowed the words or access to the thought patterns of alternative ways of looking at the world.
Ricky Gervais can be controversial because past generations fought for the freedom that allows him and others to be so. Some fought on on the beaches and in the fields, others at sea and in the air. Some, like Lenny Bruce, fought in the courts. All opposed the authoritarianism that sought to narrow our scope of thought and apprehension.
Lennie Bruce fought for the very freedom of speech that many of our young people are currently desperately trying to restrict. They may mean well, but if you have not studied history you will be destined to repeat it. Those of us who remember those battles need to remind contemporary society of how those victories for freedom were won.
There is little live footage of Lennie Bruce in action, but in the 1974 film of his life, director Bob Fosse and actor Dustin Hoffman recreated a part of his stage act including an opening line which, 60 years later, will still outrage those currently carrying out a purge of our streets and heritage. What Bruce did was to start with one racist insult and then say one after another, discomfiting everyone, building tension by saying the unsayable. He then uses all the racial epithets across his multicultural audience, breaking the tension with the line “It’s all American”. It is being ‘All American’ that unifies all of them them as being British ought to unify us. Yet he uses the wrong words to the right purpose. He brings his audience together and in the last line his purpose is revealed. It is all being done to protect the vulnerable. You need subtlety of thought to understand this, so the stupidity of the mob will not understand this easily.
A jury acquitted Bruce of obscenity in a public place when the police officer who arrested him had to acknowledge that the very words used in Bruce’s club act were freely used by officers in police stations which are themselves ‘public places’. Bruce insisted we spoke honestly and told the truth, and thereby made the authorities live up to their constitutional principles of freedom of speech in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr challenged white America to live up to its promises to all of its peoples mentioned in the US Constitution.
Bruce said openly what many people from all races repeated privately. He was on the side of everyone who suffered racial or sexual insults, so set about disarming their power to hurt by rendering them meaningless. We should make watching this film mandatory in our schools so that our children understand why he deserves to be remembered. Bruce actually featured in one of Matthew Paris’s ‘Great Lives‘ on BBC Radio 4, the corporation which is currently betraying his hard-won legacy of freedom of speech and expression..
So (TRIGGER WARNING [BIGLY]) take a look at Dustin Hoffman (before it is censored). Be shocked, be offended, be appalled. But then be grateful for people who break the conventions and help to save us from ourselves. Please watch to the end, and then ask yourself what would be gained by bowdlerising this cultural history, which is black history too, isn’t it?