In the case of Fawlty Towers, for example, just one episode was removed from BBC streaming service UKTV, which said it had “temporarily” taken down the episode because it contained “racial slurs”. In Australia, it is still available to stream and buy.
If we’re lucky, however, what might come out of the chaos is a legitimate discussion about content and context.
While all of those programs have suffered the equal sentence of culture cancellation, their scale of offence varies and much-needed context will help us to not decide what is worth retaining, but how.
Gone With The Wind might seem at first flush to be the worst offender, in that it portrays slaves in America’s south as content, and its white characters as heroic and noble. But it is an almost 80-year-old film, based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell, and is the cultural by-product of a different era.
Programs including Little Britain and Angry Boys, while popular, have a much tougher case to make. They are barely a few years old in comparison, and while they riff on the one-actor-plays-all-the-parts style of comedy, their use of “blackface” is ultimately impossible to defend.
The problem with Fawlty Towers is even more peculiar: a scene in which Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley) relates a conversation in which he suggested replacing one racist slur with another. The BBC had already cut the offending moment for a free-to-air broadcast in 2013, so why it survived unedited on their streaming platforms is unclear.
So while the headlines scream “cancel”, the word “pause” might be more accurate. HBO has confirmed the removal of Gone With The Wind is only temporary and that the film will return, unaltered, with additional information for viewers to understand the context of the work.
The film’s “racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible,” HBO said.
When it returns, HBO added, “it will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”
The biggest risk is not that you will never see Fawlty Towers again. Plainly, you will. Rather, the shrillness of the debate, and the chorus of almost entirely white commentators reducing a legitimate discussion about race and visibility to the tired old cliche of “culture wars”, ultimately distracts from the bigger political and cultural movement presently under way.
If the Black Lives Matter movement has a single message, it is surely that our collective time would be better spent closing our mouths, opening our ears and listening and learning.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.