Now UKTV (owned by the BBC) has removed the classic ‘Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers from its playlist, this sorry no-platform saga has tipped over from tragedy into farce. Is there really anyone in British broadcasting who doesn’t understand that this comic meisterwerk actually makes a mockery of xenophobia? Surely everyone can see it’s satirising and lampooning pathetic Little Englanders, personified by John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty? Apparently not.
First broadcast 45 years ago, this episode, more than any other, has become part of British cultural history, spawning the familiar catchphrase, ‘Don’t mention the war.’ In the 30 years I’ve been travelling around Germany, reporting on that complex country, I’ve never met one German who objected to the show, and there’s no reason why they should. The German characters are paragons of virtue. It’s Cleese’s Basil Fawlty who’s pompous, arrogant and deranged.
Fawlty Towers is revered in Germany, as is Monty Python. Cleese is a comic icon there, particularly for Basil Fawlty. It’s easy to see why. Cleese’s Fawlty epitomises a particular sort of Englishman – insular, insecure, with an inflated sense of his own importance, and Britain’s importance in the wider world. In 1975, when this episode appeared, Britain had recently joined the EEC, prompting some unflattering comparisons with the economy of West Germany, the country which had lost the war and won the peace.
When the show went out I was 10 years old, living in England with a German father and an English mother. I didn’t find it offensive in the slightest. On the contrary, I adored it. This wasn’t because I was indifferent to anti-German jibes. My primary school was a prepubescent Battle of the Bulge, and I hated it. My friends all read Warlord and Battle Picture Weekly. Killing Huns and Krauts was their favourite playground game. That episode of Fawlty Towers was the first time I’d seen anyone confront this obsession with the war.
It had been a long time since I saw the show, so I thought I’d better watch it again, just in case my memory was playing tricks on me (it’s still available on YouTube). In fact, compared to most 1970s sitcoms, it’s aged remarkably well. The narrow-minded characters are idiotic and incompetent. The more broadminded characters are sympathetic and intelligent. ‘I hate Germans,’ says the Major. ‘I love women.’ ‘What about German women?’ says Polly.
The Major is also racist, not just xenophobic, with his descriptions of the Indian cricket team as ‘w**s’ and the West Indian cricket team as ‘n*****s,’ but it wasn’t the script that made me wince and shudder (the most educated and erudite character in this episode is a black doctor). Rather, it was the shrieks of laughter from the studio audience. I’m old enough to remember when plenty of ‘respectable’ white people used these hate-filled words quite freely, safe in the knowledge that few of their peers would be brave enough to object. In that respect, it’s a fairly accurate reflection of what lots of ‘respectable’ people did at the time.
This is a stain on the Britain I grew up in, and there’s no way my generation can just laugh it off, but it seems to me – albeit as a privileged white man – that removing such material (and the howls of laughter that greet it) rather lets that generation off the hook. As it happens, I was all in favour of removing that Edward Colston statue, but putting up a statue is (literally) putting someone on a pedestal. Just because a sitcom is on telly doesn’t mean we all approve of everything that’s in it.
Clearly, the (relatively mild) xenophobia towards Germans that existed in Britain then – and still exists, to some extent, today – is nothing like the violent racism that imperils the lives of BAME people in this country. The two things aren’t comparable in any way. I don’t know what BAME people make of this episode. I wish I did. The fact that I don’t know says a lot about my insularity. Maybe I’m not quite so different from Basil Fawlty as I’d like to believe.
However the German stuff is something I do know a bit about, and on that score, at least, I think I’ve earned the right to say that removing this episode is nonsensical (or Quatsch, as the Germans would say). The sooner UKTV reinstate it, the better. By the way, did you know Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers, was born in Germany in 1930, to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and came to Britain in 1938 to escape the Nazis? He seemed perfectly happy to appear in a sitcom that dared to ‘mention the war.’ If only he was still around to ask.
William Cook is the author of Morecambe & Wise Untold and One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore