The BBC will re-run Fawlty Towers as part of its Festival of Funny season, which begins this coming Monday. However, remarks made by the character Major Gowen in the episode “The Germans” will be edited out, a move that’s guaranteed to annoy John Cleese, who played Basil Fawlty in the series.
In the episode, the aging and eccentric Major (played by Ballard Berkeley), recalls taking a girlfriend to a cricket match at The Oval. He says;
The strange thing was that throughout the morning she kept referring to the Indians as niggers…. No, no, no, no, I said, niggers are West Indians, these people are wogs. No, no, no, she said, all cricketers are niggers.”
The episode was removed from UKTV last year. The channel is owned by the BBC. Speaking at the time John 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.
The Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them. If they can’t see that, if people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?”
Cleese is right of course. As a huge of fan of that series (I have the books, the biographies, the VHS and Bluray boxsets) I have watched that scene a thousand times. It’s hilarious and not remotely racist. No-one watching it, could credibly claim that the writers (Cleese and Connie Booth) were having a cheap laugh at the expense of minorities.
They were laughing at the Major, a totally harmless relic from a bygone era. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll have known someone like the Major. I knew and loved an old Italian gentleman, a WWII veteran. He was my next-door neighbour and passed away in the late 90’s. I still miss him.
He referred to people of colour as “panthers.” When a black Italian woman won a swimming medal at the Atlanta Olympics, he refused to celebrate. “She’s not Italian, she’s a panther” he said.
We scolded him and told him he was a dinosaur and a bigot, but we loved him anyway. We tolerated his intolerance because we knew that his world view didn’t define him. He was lots of things, a great husband, father and grandfather, a wonderful neighbour and a great friend.
He, like all of us, was the sum of all his parts and was a man of his time, as was the Major. None of us who knew him and heard him call black people “panthers” grew up to be racists. I’d have more respect for the BBC if they didn’t air “The Germans” next week. That’s bad enough but not nearly as bad as deleting scenes from it.