“One of the things I’ve learned in the last 180 years is that people have very different senses of humour,” Cleese said. “Some of them understand that if you put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of you’re not broadcasting their views, you’re making fun of them.”
While Quinn, who readily reads and responds to reader comments on his articles, was a little surprised by the number of comments on his exclusive interview with Cleese, he wasn’t shocked that the story struck a chord.
“For readers of a certain age, the sitcom is an absolute classic – and that episode is particularly adored and revered,” Quinn says.
“And the question of whether to retroactively apply modern sensibilities to cultural artefacts – statues, comedies or Oscar-winning movies – is a big one, with powerful arguments on both sides that deserve to be heard and taken seriously.”
BBC’s decision came as other broadcasters also acted: Netflix dumped Chris Lilley’s back catalogue from its service and HBO Max removed Gone With the Wind.
Many readers felt aggrieved by such moves, arguing we risked losing valuable lessons from history.
ur2unreal wrote: “History IS History. You cannot change it. Tearing down statues or removing TV shows is ridiculous. They are a great reminder of how far the world has come on these issues. Would you put up a new statue of a dictator or make a racist TV show now? No.”
sporran: “I’m with you Cleese … racism has been part of humanity since its inception, pretending it can be ‘cured’ by removing all traces of it is denial not resolution.”
lainie: “Cleese is right. We were laughing at his characters, not with them. The ‘Don’t Mention the War’ episode was showing how ridiculous those attitudes were.”
Others, such as ChrisH, dismissed such actions as a ”token”: “Why not acknowledge what was done, say it is not what we would do today, enact laws so it can’t be done now, leave the facts and residue there for people to see so they have an example of what was done and what not to do, and move on.”
2020Reader added: “Pulling such shows appear to be the cosmetically easy way out rather than making actual reform policies and taking positive actions going forward.”
Meanwhile, some readers were baffled by the “outrage” over the episode’s removal, saying it was wasted energy.
LondonCalling: “All this outrage over a temporary unavailability of a 40 year old TV show so that viewer information can be updated! I hope that these people express similar outrage when they hear people in real life using hurtful and offensive slurs like the n-word. That would be a kind and useful thing to do.”
Snowball: “…What a sanctimonious bunch, trying to outdo each other with ‘PC gone mad’ rhetoric. It’s hardly surprising that this episode is being re-evaluated by the BBC, given that it contains a word that is widely recognised as one of the most offensive in the English language. Comedy or not.”
Smut, perhaps unpopularly, wrote: “It’s just being removed from mainstream if you still want to watch this crap you can. Time has finally caught up with Cleese’s style of humour replete with British arrogance. According to Cleese if you don’t see it my way you’re humourless.”
Others, however, warned of a slippery slope: where does such “censorship” end? And are such seemingly reactive measures playing into the hands of those that may try to capitalise on any division?
Brendan A McCarthy: “Do we ban the Bible because it often accepts slavery as part of the social context at the time? Is there often not an assumption that that is the way it was?”
Kermit: “Next we’ll be getting rid of The Sound of Music because it’s potentially offensive to people whose relatives might have been associated with nazis, or the movie The Help because it portrays women in slave-like roles.”
What, but what?: “This sort of ridiculous over the top PC virtue signally ends up being Trump’s best campaign for re-election.”
Birdie: “…[Comedy] offers us a way to look at an issue in a relatively safe forum. The danger in censoring comedy is that we stop thinking. Does that mean I’m against all forms of censorship? No. Hate speak should be censored. The promotion of violence should be censored. Deliberate lies passed off as fact should be censored, like almost everything the POTUS tweets…”
Quinn notes many seemed to get the wrong end of the stick, imagining that the episode had been “banned” (it had not with UKTV soon after announcing it would be reinstated once “extra guidance” had been added) – and that the cause was the depiction of Germans (again, it was not).
“The issue at hand was the use of the n-word by the Major,” he says. “Reading beyond the headline would, of course, have made that all perfectly clear but, hey, people are busy. What can I say?”
Of those that did acknowledge this, some asked, well, why stop there?
Rohan’s Rant: “If they are removing it because of the N word. Can they also remove all the Rap songs that use the word “Bitch?”
KateN: “Another thing that bugs me about all this is how selective it is. OK racism is bad. So is misogyny, but if they start censoring that, then goodbye film industry!”
Quinn, who had spoken to Cleese before and had his contact details, sent him an email when the news of UKTV’s decision broke, and within 10 minutes received a reply. Cleese said he’d be happy to chat.
“‘Better hurry, though’, [Cleese] added, because it was nearly bedtime – between 9 and 10pm, in case you’re wondering; he’s 80 now,” Quinn says.
“The story was picked up all around the English-speaking world. But you read it here first.”
Online readers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age made 36,651 comments on 686 stories in the past week.
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Orietta Guerrera is the Reader Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAToday. She was previously Federal Political Editor for the mastheads.