The tearing down and subsequent defense of statues across Britain is a timely reminder that what frequently matters most in the study of politics and history is not what is being done but the reasons for the doing of it. Prior to last week few people even knew Bristol was involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This writer only knew having studied the Asiento contract while at university (the contract was granted to the British as part of the Treaty of Utrecht, granting British slavers the right to trade in human cargo to the Americas). Dispensing with the statue of Edward Colston therefore matters mainly in regard to why it was taken down, not that it was dragged around the streets in a simulacrum of a medieval execution scene.
So the decision by UKTV to reinstate ‘The Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers on its streaming service (the TV company having become gripped by paranoia of a looming, but ultimately wholly imaginary, backlash from political activists following Black Lives Matter protests) is interesting not in that it was done but in how it was done. An admission of playing to the political moment would have been embarrassing enough, but certainly no more than the decision to remove the supposedly contentious episode in the first instance. Instead, UKTV has elected to reinstate the episode in the near future (it remains to be seen if the company is good to its word) but with a warning to viewers, or as it was put officially ‘extra guidance’. Those two words are very important, for they are a tacit admission that public humiliation and the tarnishing of brand image has been insufficient to incite self-reflection.
Audiences do not require ‘extra guidance’. Fawlty Towers originally aired in 1975 and has been repeated on various channels numerous times since. John Cleese and Connie Booth penned a show from which large sections of the British population can recite entire sections. Twenty years ago, it was voted the fifth best sitcom in British comedy history on the BBC series ‘Britain’s Best Sitcom’. For UKTV to determine that guidance is still required invokes the suspicion senior management believe their audiences to be unthinking and unable to take decisions for themselves—they need to be told what is acceptable and what is not, apparently. Playing to two crowds—the professionally offended even though no complaints were received, and those ordinary people who understand nuance and comedic devices—has made the company appear as though it does not believe people are capable of working matters out for themselves.
Broadcasters and publishers of all stripes must now look at the UKTV Fawlty Towers debacle and realise the ordinary person on the street is capable of determining for themselves what is funny and what is not, what are historical attitudes and what is satire and piss taking. Attempting to play to the gallery inhabited by what is casually referred to the ‘liberal elite’, while simultaneously claiming to be on the side of the ordinary person on the street reveals the absence of a constitution. Developing one would help the broadcaster to avoid future PR messes.