“The Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them,” said Cleese, who knew nothing of UKTV’s move until this masthead contacted him. “If they can’t see that, if people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?
“Fawlty Towers has given a large number of people a great deal of happiness, why would you want to stop that,” he added “It reminds me of the definition of a Scottish Presbyterian as someone who has a nasty, sneaking feeling that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.”
Cleese was critical of BBC management for bowing to pressure to purge its catalogue of “problematic” material in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests without assessing that material on a more nuanced basis.
“A lot of the people in charge now at the BBC just want to hang onto their jobs,” he said. “If a few people get excited they pacify them rather than standing their ground as they would have done 30 or 40 years ago.”
He also questioned the wisdom of trying to make past cultural artefacts – Fawlty Towers was first broadcast in 1975 – conform to contemporary moral standards.
“Sir Isaac Newton had shares in the South Sea Company, which indulged in many different types of trading, and some of it, disgracefully, was slavery,” Cleese said. “So are we going to get rid of Newton’s optics on the grounds that it’s not really sound any more because he held shares in a company that dealt in slaves?
“The Greeks in 500 BC felt that culture, or any kind of real civilisation, was only possible because of slavery – does that mean we should take down all the statues of Socrates? Do you say we shouldn’t be looking at Caravaggio’s paintings because he once murdered someone?”
Despite taking issues with moves to cull offending items, Cleese expressed his support for the aims of the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
“At the moment there is a huge swell of anger and a really admirable feeling that we must make our society less discriminatory, and I think that part of it is very good.”
To a degree, he added, it was possible that the focus on Fawlty Towers and other “problematic” cultural content gave media an easy way out by allowing them to avoid engaging with the more substantial aims of the movement.
“It seems to me the best parts of the George Floyd protests have been very moving and very, very powerful,” he said.
“There are looters, just as there are rogue police, but if we let our focus be on the 10 per cent who are always trying to f— everything up, we might forget that what it’s really about is trying to behave a bit more kindly towards everyone.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.