Brendan O’Neill

The madness of censoring shows like Little Britain

The madness of censoring shows like Little Britain
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Cancel culture is out of control. Over the past 24 hours Little Britain, The League of Gentlemen and Chris Lilley's brilliant comedy shows have been shoved down the memory hole by Netflix and the BBC. Why? Because the kangaroo court of correct-thinking has found these comedy classics guilty of offensiveness. Punish them, purge them, cast them out into the wilderness of 'problematic' culture.

The speed with which the justifiable, righteous anger over the police execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis has turned into yet another culture war against offensive art is staggering. And terrifying, to be frank. One minute people are taking the knee in solidarity with a black man murdered by ruthless cops; the next they're saying: 'Remember when David Walliams dressed up as a fat black woman on Little Britain? Let's get him!' It feels kind of deranged, like censoriousness on steroids.

Little Britain is getting it in the neck largely because of the Walliams-played character Desiree DeVere, a grotesquely obese black woman that Walliams played with extraordinary aplomb in a fat suit and with copious amounts of skin-darkening make-up. No one will admit this now – for fear of being dragged into the stocks – but the character was really funny. Desiree was not a caricature of black people; she was a caricature of a deluded woman who thinks she's hot stuff, and who loves to mix with wealthy men.

Indeed, Little Britain's first morbidly fat woman with delusions of beauty and grandeur was white – Bubbles DeVere, the first wife of Desiree's husband, played with fantastic gay abandon by Matt Lucas. There was nothing racist in these depictions – it was a jokey commentary on class and grasping aspiration and, well, fatness. We laughed at it, not because we were racist, but because it was funny.

And yet it is being erased. It has been pulled from BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Britbox. Those who are saying, 'This isn't censorship, it's just corporations deciding what kind of content to host', are deluding themselves, and they know it. This chilling assault on one of the most popular British comedy shows of recent years sends a clear signal to funny folk everywhere: be cautious, be correct, don't be too grotesque. It will neuter the comic instinct, and that's really bad news.

Even more bizarrely, Netflix has dumped The League of Gentleman over a 'blackface' character. Only it isn't a blackface character, it's a terrifying clown. As the League's Reece Shearsmith said earlier this year, 'It was not me doing a black man. It was always this clown-like make-up and we just came up with what we thought was the scariest idea to have in a sort of Child Catcher-like way.'

Tough. It must be erased. Even though the show's creators and the show's fans know that this mad clown creature was not even remotely a comment on black people, it must nonetheless be forgotten, cast into the dustbin of problematic images. That no one is standing up and saying, 'Hold on, that character was not racist', is in itself deeply worrying. Who will defend grotesque satire and comedic stupidity against today's armies of literalist, joyless censors?

Bo'Selecta!, the 2000s comedy-sketch show by Leigh Francis (aka Keith Lemon), is also in trouble. Channel 4 has taken it down from its On Demand service. The show's crime was to show Francis dressed up as Trisha Goddard and Michael Jackson and other black celebs. But he also played Lorraine Kelly with a massive jawline and a constantly on-display furry vagina and Christina Aguilera as a Liverpudlian slut. Newflash: satire is grotesque; it exaggerates for effect and mocks for laughs. It has ever been thus. Why are we so creepily sensitive about it now?

Netflix has also pulled the surreal comedy series The Mighty Boosh on the basis that its character, Spirit of Jazz, is yet another case of blackface. Spirit of Jazz, played by Noel Fielding, is the ghost of a fictional jazz musician called Howling Jimmy Jefferson in a comedy universe that also features the characters Naboo the Enigma, an anthropomorphic gorilla called Bollo, and Vince Noir, an orphan who was raised by Bryan Ferry. The whole thing is meant to be ridiculous. That’s the point. The idea any of it is racist is mad

The worst PC erasure concerns Chris Lilley. Lilley is a genius Australian comic who has made some brilliant shows in recent years. Yet Netflix has pulled them, permanently apparently, because Lilley plays non-white characters in some of them. You've got to be kidding. The non-white characters Lilley plays are rounded, fascinating and sometimes movingly sympathetic.

Consider Jonah, the boy from Tonga, played by Lilley in 'brown face' in his show Summer Heights High. He is a funny, flawed, sweet character who will have you rooting like mad for him by the final episode. The idea that this character is a racist caricature is a complete distortion of what racism means. It is a libel against Lilley.

We are losing the plot. Art and comedy must have the space to experiment, to dig down, to shock, to horrify. For content producers to erase 'problematic' comedy is shameful. They are failing in their duty to host all sorts of edgy, difficult content and to defend artistic freedom. Not one of the comic writers listed above is racist, and we all know that to be the case. So why are we censoring them? Because we have gone completely mad.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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