You can’t say Nazis on Sky

Andrew Watts on his run-in with The Man

In James Billington's recent Correspondents article, he wrote about being kicked off stage for what the sound guy decided was a racist joke. Now most of us can see both sides of the argument: James's joke was not at all racist, but the sound guy, taking part of it out of context, without waiting for the payoff, was not unreasonable to assume that it was. Context is everything.

Or is it? I'd like to tell the story of how I was CENSORED by the Man: in my own case, a production company for Sky.

Now, you may well have seen the story on Chortle a year or so ago for a new talent show for comics. Just to remind you, they'd decided that the usual formats - Britain's Got Talent, the X Factor, whatever - were not humiliating enough: the gimmick for this new show, Don't Stop Me Now, was that you did your set on top of a trap door, and if the audience didn't like it, down the trapdoor you went.

Now naturally, like every other comic with self-respect, I decided I couldn't degrade myself by going in for this. But then I read that the prize on offer was £25,000. Per episode. I talked it over with my fiancée and she pointed out, not unreasonably, that a new-ish comic like me needs all the exposure he can get. ‘It is,’ she said, ‘Just a stage you have to go through. Quite literally.’

There was no arguing with that. I sent my email in, and they wrote back and they invited me to an audition, which went well, and they asked me to a recording. Then they asked me for exact measurements for my height and my weight. I've done a bit of television before, but I've never before been asked for my personal details, and I couldn't work out why, until I realised. They were measuring me for the drop. Albert Pierrepoint, of course, could tell that from a handshake - but, as they pointed out when I told them this, health and safety precautions have moved on since the days of the chief hangman. They were probably right: I don't suppose Pierrepoint ever had to complete a risk assessment form. If he had done, he would doubtless have taken pride in entering chances of death or serious injury as 100 per cent.

So it was all sorted: they had my details; they gave me the date for the recording; they had the transcript of my set. We were all good to go.

And then they hit me with it.

The producer emailed me the day before the show. She told me that she'd shown the legal department the transcript, and they had a few problems with it.

Now I'm not a proud man. You'll have gathered that from the fact that I entered this competition at all. I was prepared to make changes. But I was genuinely lost as to what they could possibly find offensive in my routine. I hadn't given them my Jongleurs set, or my dark set, or the set I do when I'm dyng and I want to go down in flames. I'd given them my cleanest, most family-friendly material. What, I asked, did they want to change.

The producer said, well, it's your routine about kiss inflation and the fall of the Deutschmark (see it below). Now I've been doing this material for a few years now. And no one has ever, ever taken exception to it before: it's not blue, it's not libellous, it's not in any way offensive. It is, I would accept, somewhat sensational, but I am quite proud of it. No one minded when it was done on television before, in an episode of Argumental, so what was their problem?

And she said, well, it's the last sentence. Where I say that hyperinflation ‘lead inexorably to the rise of the Nazis’.

And I wrote back immediately: So maybe I oversimplified. Maybe hyperinflation was a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the rise of Nazism, and I should have taken into account, when writing my material, political factors, such as the inherent instability of the Weimar constitution, and the Dolchstosslegende, the stab-in-the-back myth, that was a powerful legacy of the first world war; and maybe, if I was going to be all AJP Taylor about it, I should have gone back to Bismark's policies after the failure of the 1848 revolutions, by which liberalism was eradicated as a political force in Germany as power was concentrated within the Junker elite, but even if (I wrote) Sky television's legal department is a hotbed of revisionist historiography, it's only a joke.

And she said, No. You can't say Nazis.

You can't say Nazis on primetime television. On Sky1, that is, On prime time on the History Channel, which is co-owned by Sky, you can't not say Nazis - but on Sky, it is considered offensive to say the very word. Context is absolutely irrelevant.

Now I was taken aback. I'd never considered myself a ‘dangerous’ comic before; my Edinburgh show last year was called Born To Be Mild, which was as much a mission statement as a title; and yet, here I was, too edgy for Sky1. Although, by their rationale, Dad's Army is too edgy for Sky1.

But the producer tried to get round it. She said, You can say World War Two. And I was a bit reluctant - I mean, apart from the fact that the word ‘Nazis’ is funnier than ‘World War Two’ (I don't know why; it just is), it's, from a purely historical point of view, stretching the chain of causality much too far. I don't mind glossing over the political factors mentioned above, but I think it goes too far to ignore Chamberlain's appeasement policy, US isolationalism and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as factors in the outbreak of World War Two.

Besides which, how is it less offensive to say ‘World War Two’ than ‘Nazis’? I can understand that yes, the Nazis killed people, you might not want to mention that on television - but World War Two killed far more people than the Nazis, because the Nazis were only part of World War Two. World War Two includes the Nazis, and the 20 million killed by the Japanese, not to mention the number of people killed by the Italians which, by the fall of Mussolini in 1943, was well into double figures. From a purely statistical point of view, World War Two is far more offensive than the word ‘Nazis’.

And the producer said, Look, you can say World War Two, or you're out of the show.

Reader, I agreed. Despite the fact that the joke was weaker, and statistically more offensive, and considerably less historically accurate, I decided I would bow to this censorship. I decided to go and do the censored version of my set.

You're probably wondering how this story ends. Well, on the morning of the recording, they rang me up. They said, We've had a double-check with health and safety, and, sorry, you're too fat.

I was too fat to pass the risk assessment. I was too fat for health and safety to allow me to go down the trapdoor. Now I don't know what they were expecting - some sort of Augustus Gloop scenario, perhaps: me stuck in a trapdoor and TV's Amanda Byram jumping up and down on my head, trying to force me down - but there was nothing to be done about it.

And that experience taught me one thing. People say there's nothing more humiliating than selling out, but they're wrong. It's trying to sell out, being completely prepared to sell out, and then, at the last minute, being told that you're too fat to sell out.

  • Andrew Watts is reviving his Edinburgh show, Born To Be Mild, for two London performances - details here - and at the Leicester Comedy Festival.
    • Published: 4 Jan 2013

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