Discussions around statues of slavers, police brutality and whether or not we should treat black people as human beings continue in the wake of the death of George Floyd (and also David McAtee…forgotten perhaps to avoid highlighting the institutionalised racism too potently). Alongside the subsequent protests, sketch comedy shows like Little Britain have been pulled from streaming sites BBC iPlayer, Netflix and BritBox.
Little Britain ran from 2003 to 2007 (after a two-year-run on BBC Radio 4 prior), with the single-season of Come Fly With Me running from Christmas three years later, until the end of the following month. Both shows star their creators as the main characters, with Little Britain also starring additional regular cast, and Come Fly With Me hosting one-off guest stars. Little Britain featured sketches that relied on using caricatures of stereotypes from British culture as the crux of the humour, with Come Fly With Me doing much the same only framed as an airport mockumentary.
David Walliams played a character called Desuree Devere, complete with a darkened skin, afro wig, red lips and prosthetic teeth
Of these, jokes are made at the expense of class, disability, gender and race – all examples of what we call punch-down comedy, where the humour perpetuates bigoted views and stigma, instead of carrying out the principle purpose of comedy to empower. Among the sketches, many use blackface, with David Walliams playing a character called Desuree Devere, complete with a darkened skin, afro wig, red lips and prosthetic teeth – although that was by far not the only example of racism, with Lucas playing a Thai bride called (and I cringe to type this) Ting Tong, and in Come Fly With Me Taaj Manzoor (although I suppose as a British man of Pakistani descent myself, maybe I should be considering the fact he works for an airport ground crew, and not as a terrorist, progressive…). It appears predominantly for these reasons that the three former hosts of the show on-demand have pulled the show, although none have appeared to explicitly say so, with Netflix refusing to comment, and BBC iPlayer and BritBox (which is co-run by the BBC with ITV) simply commenting that ‘times have changed’.
Naturally, this decision has made a lot of white people angry, bemoaning the yet another PCSJW attack on free speech and comedy (including one guy in a Facebook group I am in for comedians in the UK, who was then deliciously and pretty much unanimously torn apart by everyone else in the group, in the way only comedians can). It is sad that the only form of expression people have is via dated sketch comedies broadcast ten to fifteen years ago – perhaps this is why after the shows were pulled, Little Britain DVD sales soared 200,000%, presumably to allow said people the ability to communicate again in the only way they seemingly know how.
There’s also two other counter-arguments which I will dedicate the least amount of words I can get away with to addressing. ‘But Little Britain mocks white people too, it mocks everyone, why are you so protected?’ – From what I know of the show, at least some of the white people mocked are parts of other vulnerable groups, but even then the comparison misses … well a lot, and honestly for a full nuanced explanation you should look to the Apu controversy with The Simpsons and take note of what comedian Hari Kondabolu has commentated on the issue. ‘So we should also take down White Chicks because that’s whiteface!’ – no. Actually read and understand what blackface is and then understand how whiteface isn’t a thing.
The show wasn’t free from criticism during its run, or in the intervening time, either: Victoria Wood called it misogynistic, Owen Jones criticised its classism in his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Fergus Sheppard wrote in 2005 that as the show continued, it relied more and more on cheap and offensive humour – a view shared by comedian Matt Lucas who also described white people dressing as black characters for a laugh as being ‘lazy’. Oh yeah, perhaps also crucial on the discussion about whether or not the show should continue to be shown it’s probably relevant to point out that its shows creators have also reflectively agreed with the criticisms against their show. Lucas said in 2017 that “I wouldn’t make that show now. It would upset people. We made a more cruel kind of comedy than I’d do now. Society has moved on a lot since then and my own views have evolved.”
Half a year later, Walliams shared an almost similar sentiment, albeit then falling back on the old ‘you can’t have comedy if you can’t mock everyone’ despite the fact you clearly can as proved by all the comedy and comedians present, who don’t in fact mock everyone. Come Fly With Me also faced its share of criticism, but most of that was aimed at the fact it wasn’t actually that funny, which is probably why it only lasted a near-forgettable six episodes.
However, while we’re all busy shouting and typing and tweeting over Little Britian¸ there’s also the question to ask – how important is this really in respect to the current calls for action within the Black Lives Matter movement. As I have seen someone point out online, the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t focused on, nor asked for, these shows to be pulled. It’s probably true to say black rights activists would rather the energy being spent towards arguing over the merits of a 20-year-old comedy by two white comedians, would prefer the conversation to be directed towards how we can stop the police from murdering black people today and in the future. The move to pull these shows for all we can tell have stemmed from decisions by the broadcasters.
Certainly Netflix was one of the brands to put out multiple statements on social media stating their support for the movement, and has further backed that up by creating sections on their sites dedicated to highlighting black rights and black artists – perhaps they thought to not then pull a modern comedy infamous for its use of blackface would be hypocritical (which also makes it bizarre they were so coy on commenting why they pulled the show but whatever). Of course, it’s still your own personal mileage may vary as to whether this is genuine or another ‘[brand] is in full support of [current topical social movement]’ move, especially when we tie back to the fact that the BLM movement is more focused on things more practical then pulling problematic British comedies (then again, I suppose, what else can a company that is entirely a streaming platform practically do).
The discussion around racist content hasn’t ended at Little Britain or Come Fly With Me. In the days following, other shows have also been pulled, including The League of Gentlemen (although it was gonna expire mid June anyway), The Mighty Boosh, 1939’s Civil War epic Gone With The Wind and certain segments of Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, for which they have apologised for their use of blackface. The latest is episode ‘The Germans’ of hit cult comedy Fawlty Towers, a show almost certainly more beloved than Little Britain.
The show does toe the genuine grey and thin line of portraying racist characters as a source of mockery – the racist (and other problematic beliefs) the characters hold are meant to be characters you laugh at, because you’re laughing at the ridiculous notion that people can hold racist opinions. This is the defence show creator and Python John Cleese makes in his response on Twitter, where he exclaims that he “would have hoped someone at the BBC would understand there are two ways of making fun of human behaviour. One is to attack it directly. The other is to have someone who is patently a figure of fun, speak up on behalf of that behaviour. (…) We laugh at [this reactionary behaviour]. Thus we discredit them, by laughing at [them].”
Humour like this is often safer in the hands written by the minorities
The danger of such a move is that its extremely easy for someone who is racist to be instead enabled by this behaviour, seeing the comedic portrayal as a positive one, and laughing with the joke rather than at it. Humour like this is often safer in the hands written by the minorities who experience the prejudice it is highlighting via mockery rather than (and I say this as someone who is a fan of Pythonesque comedy) centrist white male comedians who for every progressive view point they hold, also hold reactionary views which damage minorities.
Much like with Little Britain, journalist Carl Anka has said the pulling of ‘The Germans’ shifts the blame from the points of BLM to irrelevant discussion, criticising UKTV of “wanting to do something, not thinking of anything”, stating it would be better (and he’s right, to be honest) that UKTV and other companies put effort into hiring black creatives (who no doubt would be better placed to make comedies that use stereotypes to call out racism, promote progressivism, and also be entertaining). Netflix and BritBox have not pulled the show, but instead prelude them with some degree of a disclaimer (and by some degree, I mean Netflix’s miniature writing in the first second on the top left of the screen that is so easy to miss it’s laughable – I don’t have BritBox to be able to really comment).
Which does offer an interesting alternative. The discussion over what to do about content that are products of their time has been ongoing independently from the BLM movement. Famously on certain Looney Tunes Golden Collection volumes is a gold plaque disclaimer providing context to the episodes, explaining that they are products of their time, but shown uncut ‘because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed’, based in part on words spoken by Whoopi Goldberg on Volume 3. There was another discussion late last year during the release of Disney+, where Disney similarly had disclaimers on certain cartoons with problematic racial depictions, although much like my criticism of Netflix’s disclaimer, Disney+’s is also the bare minimum and easily missed.
However I do feel perhaps, as long as it fully commits to it like Warner Bros. did (even, actually, more so), allowing the cartoons to be viewable but along with the adequate education is possibly a better move – it is comparative to moving racist statues into museums rather than destroying them outright, something most anti-statue protesters are in favour of (but are ignored, leaving little choice than to do more drastic action).
The recent pulls of these shows have caused fans of other older content to be concerned
But how much of this can we apply to Little Britain. Possibly the same, although I do feel contextually there is a distinction between a comedy in the 1970s and one in the 2000s, and you can apply the explanation (but not excuse) of being a product of its time to one but not the other. The comedy in both is also different, regardless of execution. The recent pulls of these shows have caused fans of other older content to be concerned. In few of the many Doctor Who fan groups I am in, discussion has arisen over some of the earlier episodes which use blackface and yellowface, in particular the infamous The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Examples like this I feel are also different, though I stress again no less excusable – Little Britain uses blackface as a comedic tool, Doctor Who used it because that was the norm. The problem was less with Doctor Who but the industry as a whole, with many other shows also doing it. It is, however, an embarrassing blemish on what is otherwise a progressive show and definitely an episode that deserves a disclaimer. And in addition, we can postulate as a society we have progressed some since these episodes were broadcast, but Little Britain is uncomfortably recent. Recent enough that the adults of today grew up on the humour in display, humour that no doubt influenced their opinions and perceptions. The damage the show has done is damage felt by minority groups today and now.
So in conclusion – when it comes to Little Britain, Come Fly With Me, Fawlty Towers and every problematic piece of media made in the past and since, we are left with certain options – we can keep the content live but with disclaimers that educate, but possibly still allow said media to perpetuate the racism and bigotry they portray if not doing correctly, as well as come across as virtue signalling when you consider the creators still profit over their racism (I imagine keeping it up, with disclaimer and not allowing the creators to take profit from it would be too bold an ask… but hey, if you’re one of the creators of the above shows and you happen to be watching this, maybe using said profits and donating it to racial equality movements isn’t a bad idea to offset it) – or we can take the content down, use that as a statement to condemn, but risk avoiding accountability.
However you feel, it’s pretty clear that today and now, this discussion should not factor (at least not largely) into the Black Lives Matter movement. Broadcast, streaming and media sites should instead use their platform to educate, and to amplify and host black voices and creatives (and other ethnic and other minorities as part of a wider diversity issue). Use this time to explore shows that explore black rights, read books and essays that cover racial inequality, and understand and support the movement, with resources easily found online. There are more important things to cry over than cheap and lazy comedy.
Last modified: 17th July 2020