Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

We can't rewrite life by blacking out offensive TV

Actor Windsor Davies in It Ain't Half Hot Mum
Actor Windsor Davies in It Ain't Half Hot Mum

The only thing I remember about It Ain't Half Hot Mum, the popular 1970s comedy about Royal Artillery soldiers stationed in India in the final months of the Second World War, is the way that the mad blue eyes of the sergeant-major – played by Windsor Davies – nearly popped out of his face every time he barked an apoplectic order. That and the super-sharp points on his expertly twirled moustache.

Everything else is a bit of a blur. I don't recall Davies's character addressing his men as a bunch of "pooftas", or the mincing gait of Gunner Beaumont, aka "Gloria". And I certainly wasn't aware that Rangi Ram, the "Indian" character who narrated the story, was in fact a blacked-up Englishman.

But these are the apparent reasons for the show's marked absence from the public arena for the last 30-odd years. Somewhere around 1984, we came to our senses, smacked ourselves on the head with sudden enlightenment and declared that all that stuff was hateful and racist and homophobic – a source of deep collective shame.

Or, rather, the BBC decided for us. And they've stuck to their guns ever since, a decision which bewilders and frustrates Jimmy Perry, who created the show with David Croft.

Now 90 years old, he's been giving off in the papers about the fact that Dad's Army – another of the pair's numerous collaborations – is repeated every Saturday and gets audiences of 2.2 million, while It Ain't Half Hot Mum, his own favourite show, may never appear again.

Of course, by contemporary standards, It Ain't Half Hot Mum is, indeed, racist and homophobic, sometimes eye-wateringly so. (It's all there on YouTube if you really want to remind yourself.)

It's also crude and silly and embarrassing at times, but I don't think it is, or ever was, hateful or malevolent in intention. Indeed, the people who are most thoroughly ridiculed are the blundering Brits themselves, forever tripping themselves up with their own stereotypical arrogance.

And here's the thing – whisper it – some of it is actually kind of funny. I snorted with reluctant laughter quite a few times as I watched old episodes online; in fact, maybe I laughed even more because I knew I shouldn't.

Sometimes your sense of humour is disobedient like that; it doesn't submit to the strictures of your conscience. It's a bit like daring to enjoy the Rolling Stones's Under My Thumb, which exults in a woman's total personal submission to her man (and I do enjoy it, it's a great song).

Just another of those interesting complexities that life throws up to remind us that life is, well, complex, and that punitive, censorious and one-dimensional reactions are almost always an inadequate response.

Which is exactly what the BBC seems to be forgetting with this extended ban on the racist old sitcom. What is it that they are afraid of? That, like me, people might find themselves laughing at parts of it? Or finding other parts incisive and witty, even while they repudiate the grosser sentiments?

That, from laughing, people might progress to enjoying it? From there, it must be just a short hop and skip to thinking blacked-up white people are actually quite amusing and, after that, it's BNP all the way – or so the twisted, fearful logic goes.

We love to think of ourselves as an enlightened bunch: tolerant, open-minded, morally and ethically evolved, at the peak of civilisation. Yet, in some ways, we're more rigidly intolerant than ever and that intolerance often extends to the iniquities of our own past, signs of which must be rapidly erased lest they cause distress and offence.

It doesn't stop with censored sitcoms. Last year, an Edinburgh primary school was the focus of controversy after it displayed a beautifully restored mural from the 1930s, featuring scenes from Alice in Wonderland, including one in which a golliwog appeared. According to reports at the time, police in Scotland ended up investigating the display of the mural as a "hate incident".

If you don't like it, ban it: that's the default reaction these days. But you can't rewrite history by blacking out the bits you don't like, or the bits that somebody might find offensive, pretending that they never happened.

If you do, what you're left with is something bland, sanitised and entirely meaningless. It Ain't Half Hot Mum is not a hate crime waiting to happen; as everybody knows, it's a period piece, evocative of its time.

I think we're all old enough, by now, to be able to handle it.

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