Sunday 17 March 2013

On 'edge'

Listening to a 1950s episode of The Goon Show on Radio 4 Extra with Eddie, who is 12. This takes me back to my own childhood and listening to recordings of the programme on crackling 33rpm vinyl discs, wondering at Spike Milligan's wayward genius and the unvarying roster of mad, instantly unforgettable characters - Bluebottle, Eccles, Gritpype-Thynne, the Cruns and so on.

We were listening to an episode called 'Dishonored Again', and after a few minutes something struck me as very wrong.  This wan't the show I knew. The edits were rough and clunky and there were odd losses of continuity making some gags quite baffling. For instance:

Ned Seagoon: I disguised myself as a Zulu warrior of the Matibile rising. Even my own mother wouldn't recognise me!

(A deep throaty masculine voice says "Hello Neddy!" To which he replies brightly "Hello mother!")

I hardly need to spell out the joke here - that Ned (played by Harry Secombe) is a short fat Welshman, a patriotic simpleton and the butt of most of the gags in the show, and would make an utterly unconvincing Zulu warrior, because Zulu warriors are noble, athletic, courageous and warlike. But the line was cut to become simply: "I disguised myself".

Later in the show, as the culmination of an increasingly hysterical running gag in which person A asks person B whether he would care to join the River Police, then hurls his victim into the nearest stretch of deep water with a tremendous splash, the following punchline was cut:

Moriarty: Welcome to the Indian River Police little boy

Why? The setting now is India so the variant on the earlier geographically-specific punchlines (which omit 'Indian') has a point and, in the context, is essential.

There are many other instances in this show alone. What's being cut is - well what, exactly, and why? These are not offensive words, neither are they inoffensive words used offensively. They do not disparage, demean or provoke our scorn. They are words merely, and prompted by the episode's setting which, as was often the case in The Goon Show, is a far-flung backwater of a derelict British Empire, a place where only the magnificently corrupt, cowardly and flatulent Major Denis Blodnock is able to forge a living, where crooks and thugs and idiots are subject to dramatic sudden reversals marked by huge explosions, where British prestige is mocked and colonial pretensions subverted.

I suppose my real concern is this - that current thinking at the BBC (and not only the BBC) is predisposed to find offence in the perceived shortcomings of the past but keen  to endorse deliberately offensive material  as 'edgy' and 'ironic'.  You know the kind of course-grained crap I mean - the 'edgy' late night comedians, who do 'dark' material to the shrieking approval of their fans. They dare to swear too, the radical scamps. But they lack wit, originality, charm or intelligence. They lack humour. They lack heart.

This is all very hateful, this straining at politically-incorrect gnats and swallowing boorish camels - an example of what E. P. Thompson called 'the massive condescension of posterity'. There is, finally, a terrible and hypocritical intolerance in an approach that cuts, willy-nilly, lines from archive programmes on the assumption that they may offend some hypothetical and hypersensitive listener, yet is still prepared to broadcast the crudely mutilated versions. There's neither respect nor professionalism in that. No respect for the writer. No integrity. No love.

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