The decision by the BBC to remove an episode of the classic 1970s’ sitcom Fawlty Towers from the streaming service UKTV in response to the anti-racism protests sweeping the world has sparked a bitter war of words between supporters and opponents of the move in Britain. The controversy is focused on the well-known 1975 episode “The Germans”, principally the use of racist epithets by one of the ancillary characters rather than the slightly weak satire of anti-German sentiment for which this particular episode is more famous. According to Sky News:
John Cleese has criticised the removal an episode of Fawlty Towers from a streaming service over repeated use of racist language, calling the decision “stupid”.
The episode in question first aired in 1975, and shows character Major Gowen repeatedly using the N-word in reference to members of the West Indies cricket team, while also referring to Indians as “w***”.
Though some now fear that the removal of the decades-old episode will lead to a backlash in the UK, as part of a nascent American-style “culture war” in the country, many more have welcomed it as a sign of progress. However it’s interesting to see that there has been no fuss over another storyline from Fawlty Towers which features an explicitly racist caricature of the Irish, including a “cowboy” builder and his “hideous orangutan” assistant. The episode known as “The Builders”, and from the same season as the one now mired in trouble, has these comments on the figure of “O’Reilly”, comments that were in no way intended to highlight the failings of the character speaking them:
“Sybil: And the reason he’s cheap is because he’s no bloody good! (She stomps on Basil’s foot)
Basil: OOH, Sybil, you do exaggerate! I mean, he’s not brilliant…
Sybil: Not brilliant? He belongs in a zoo! (She kicks Basil in the shin)
Basil: Ow, Sybil, you never give anyone the benefit of the doubt!
Sybil: He’s shoddy, he doesn’t care, he’s a liar, he’s incompetent, he’s lazy and he’s nothing but a half-witted, thick Irish joke!
Sybil: O’Reilly, I have seen more intelligent creatures than you lying on their backs at the bottom of ponds! I’ve seen better organised creatures than you running round farmyards with their heads cut off! Now collect your things and get out! I never want to see your or any of your men in my hotel again!”
Given the two hundred year propensity of British popular culture to compare Irish men and women to apes and monkeys, sometimes representing them in the setting of a zoo or a menagerie, this particular episode of the BBC farce is filled with knowing comedic winks to its domestic audience. Winks that are apparently still acceptable even in the new age of awareness ushered in by the Black Lives Matter movement and others.