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CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Praise be! The BBC’s finally stood up for TV comedy’s right to offend… After the corporation knocks back Ofcom over Little Britain


Stop sniggering at the back, Stevens! That apoplectic shout was the refrain of my school days, because teachers always fear that every giggle is at their expense. Laughter undermines authority.

I never imagined that 40 years later, the same breed of jumped-up martinets and tinpot Hitlers would still be yelling and fuming at me, decreeing what is and is not funny — and deciding when it is acceptable for me to laugh.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom ruled this week that Noughties sketch show Little Britain, starring David Walliams and Matt Lucas, is ‘offensive’, ‘outdated’ and ‘explicitly racist’.

The quango also published audience research suggesting one episode is so shocking that it should be removed from BBC iPlayer as ‘not suitable’ for viewing.

Currently, anyone watching the show on streaming video will see the warning: ‘Contains discriminatory language.’ But that’s not enough for Ofcom’s TV traffic wardens, who believe ‘an explanation’ is required for ‘why it was still available’.

In a controversial Little Britain sketch, David Walliams' plays the ghastly college secretary Linda Flint, who cheerfully describes one of the students over the phone to her boss ¿ oblivious to the fact he's sitting in front of her, listening to every word and clearly upset

In a controversial Little Britain sketch, David Walliams’ plays the ghastly college secretary Linda Flint, who cheerfully describes one of the students over the phone to her boss — oblivious to the fact he’s sitting in front of her, listening to every word and clearly upset

I suspect that none of those in the Ofcom report who claimed to be offended are from an Asian background themselves

I suspect that none of those in the Ofcom report who claimed to be offended are from an Asian background themselves 

The clip sees Walliams playing the ghastly college secretary Linda Flint, who cheerfully describes one of the students over the phone to her boss — oblivious to the fact he’s sitting in front of her, listening to every word and clearly upset.

‘Kenneth Lao,’ she says. ‘He’s got straight black hair, yellowish skin… slight smell of soy sauce. That’s it,’ she says as her boss recognises the description, ‘the ching-chong-Chinaman.’

I suspect that none of those in the Ofcom report who claimed to be offended are from an Asian background themselves. If they were, they’d doubtless have encountered people like the appalling Linda in real life, and see that the joke is entirely on her — an ignorant woman in a position of authority.

Ofcom claimed some participants in the study did find the sketch funny, but then felt embarrassed. That’s why censorship can never work: laughter is reflexive. No one should be punished or made to feel ashamed for that, any more than a comedian can order you to laugh at his jokes.

Further, if Ofcom had shown more episodes to its focus groups, instead of taking a clip out of context, they would have seen that Linda makes these comparisons repeatedly: a bald man to a boiled egg; an obese black man to Barry White.

Describing a Sikh student in a turban, she asks her boss: ‘Have you seen It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum? Think Carmen Miranda without the fruit… that’s right, Ali Bongo.’

The best way to undermine petty dictators like Linda is to laugh at them. That’s the whole joke of Little Britain, whether it’s ridiculing snobs at the Women’s Institute, bank clerks who hide their laziness behind ‘computer says no’, or attention-seekers who think their sexuality entitles them to special treatment.

One participant in the Ofcom study, a father from Scotland, said: ‘If kids are watching it, they need it to be explained that that’s not acceptable behaviour towards fellow human beings that come from a different part of the world.’

Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, and Tim Brooke-Taylor in the The Goodies TV Show

Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, and Tim Brooke-Taylor in the The Goodies TV Show

But this is what happens when we lose our sense of humour: people — namely the humourless autocrats of Ofcom — decide the best way to re-educate society is to explain what is and isn’t ‘acceptable behaviour’.

You can’t make people understand a joke. Back in my school days, at a grammar in the Midlands, our English master told us: ‘Listen to Alf Garnett, boys. He’s the only man on TV telling the truth.’ Alf was a Cockney docker played by Warren Mitchell, in a sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part.

He expected his wife and daughter to listen to his endless whinging rants about immigrants and feminists.

Alf, like all the Little Britain characters, was an extreme stereotype. Racism, bullying and rudeness aren’t funny, unless they are exaggerated beyond the point of absurdity. Alf was the butt of the jokes.

We mocked our teacher, behind his back. We called him Greasy Pete and competed to do the best impersonations of his Black Country accent.

In any case, we didn’t much bother with Alf Garnett. He couldn’t reduce us to jellified tears of laughter like The Goodies, the most popular comedy on television, starring Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden.

But you won’t find The Goodies on iPlayer. BBC bosses suffered a collective sense of humour failure in the 1980s and, with the exception of that immortal image of a giant kitten climbing the Post Office Tower, the show has barely been repeated on the Beeb since. The trio’s great ‘mistake’, Graeme once told me, was to lampoon the apartheid regime in South Africa.

John Cleese played Basil Fawlty in then 1970s TV comedy series Fawlty Towers

John Cleese played Basil Fawlty in then 1970s TV comedy series Fawlty Towers 

They imagined a system of ‘apart-height’, where he and Tim were tall enough to qualify for privileges but Bill, being short, had to be their servant.

In the same spirit of satire, they blacked up — and imagined the Queen in blackface.

The Goodies laughed at everything, from Boy Scouts to safari parks, scones to nuclear Armageddon. But the BBC felt some things are too important for jokes.

The anti-apartheid episode was deemed to be skirting uncomfortably close to racism — when racism was precisely what it parodied.

In fairness to the BBC, it has stood up to Ofcom this time.

A spokesperson said Little Britain will still be available on iPlayer, and that the Linda Flint sketch was ‘intended to expose and ridicule some of the outdated prejudices and racism that still exist in parts of British society’ — a po-faced way of saying ‘it’s funny’.

Once laughter is banned in one quarter, it’s soon outlawed everywhere. The crackdown on ‘unacceptable’ humour didn’t begin with Little Britain, but with stern disapproval of much older shows.

One Fawlty Towers episode is never aired without a scene excised in which Ballard Berkeley’s senile Major waffles on about how good the West Indians are at cricket.

He uses racist language that marks him as a pitiful ancient twit — and that’s the point of the joke.

In the real world, Alf Garnett and the Major have been laughed out of existence. But Little Britain is a much more recent comedy, and the likes of Linda Flint are still found in every institution.

She’s the GP’s receptionist, the woman at the JobCentre counter, lodged on the first rung of British bureaucracy.

Don’t ban Linda from our screens: make sure everyone knows what she’s like. Then, next time we meet her, we can laugh at her.



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