Controversy is nothing to be scared off

Let's all be grown-ups, Vikki Littlemore urges

In television’s wholesome and repressed past, comedians dared not offend the British public with profanities and sexually explicit vulgarities, so confined themselves to traditional and trusted bigotry and mother-in-law jokes. 

In the familiar paradigm best exhibited by Jim Davidson, comedians voiced the thoughts and feelings of the nation when it came to new cultural phenomena such as ‘black people’ and ‘the gays’.  The average bloke on the street took the Rising Damp stance of ‘don’t bring your voodoo over here’ and ‘eh-up lads, backs to the wall!’ and comedians echoed this. 

Racism was safe, familiar and acceptable, it’s what the public trusted.  Television’s puritanical attitude towards the mention of sex did not extend to policies on bigotry.

Since those days comedy has subverted, inverted and transcended all those well-established boundaries and has formed as many new identities and levels of acceptability as Madonna. 

Riding the new national atmosphere of cosmopolitan tolerance and understanding, comedians fought against the rules on swearing and sexual openness and simultaneously challenged the boundaries of racism and homophobia.  As open displays of insularity were rebuked in favour of open-mindedness, swearing and sexuality became more acceptable. 

A more open-minded, liberated generation of comedians emerged who embraced all society’s diverse components and allowed themselves the freedom to behave as they would in ‘real life’.  The new attitude allowed comedians to speak to their audience as they would their mates in the pub, with swearing and honesty. 

Over time the old generation of comedians became fodder for satire, risible artefacts of a bygone, intolerant age.  The new, fresh comedians washed away the ‘gay’ jokes and the innuendoes which became sinister and dangerous in their forced repression, and brought in a new age of ‘F-words’ and ‘knob gags’.  A little further down the line and both these gave way to a more enlightened comedy which was both free of prejudice and repression and also free of the adolescence of rebellion and its innate prosaic crudity and caustic spit. 

Now came a spiritual, new comedy, which inspired its audience and talked people down off ledges.  The new comedy was able to reflect on the repression of the earlier generation and its closeted, buttoned-up stuffiness, and also the teenage rebellion which followed.

Comedy had now evolved into an adult.  It could swear but not aggressively, talk about sex maturely and be understanding of all sexes, races and sexualities.  The comedy of the new millennium is intelligent, satirically sophisticated and understanding of every part of society; it steps up to the challenge of our social diversity but resists the ‘PC’ madness which has replaced the old repression.

Britain is a naturally obsequious nation.  We don’t like controversy and this is no bad thing, except when it prohibits freedom of speech.  We are a nation which stands back while people push in front of us at the supermarket checkout, we don’t like a fuss.  By nature Britain is an non-confrontational sycophant and our current burden is not upsetting anybody who isn’t white, middle class and employed. 

Television has gone beyond PC to a ridiculous extent but comedians have resisted, somehow maintaining the balance between understanding and freedom.  It appears to be because comedians are able to handle subjects with more intelligence, charm and understanding than any television producer is able to.  Rather than worrying whether something will offend or upset, comedians face a subject head-on, challenging preconceptions and delicately balancing the subject so that neither side is offended.  This does not mean ‘sitting on the fence’ but means that they are able to discuss a subject with understanding and compassion which satisfies both the subject and the audience.  Where television steps back from controversy, the best comedians smash it up and piss on it.  They don’t offend people because they have the intelligence to show empathy and actually understand the subject, rather than being frightened of it.  Comedians get their hands dirty and are rewarded for it. 

Sadly the new generation of comedy is under threat.  The older generation is still attached to the old days of no swearing and racist jokes.  Yes older people are equally entitled to enjoyable entertainment, but sadly they feel the need to eradicate anything they don’t understand. So instead of changing the channel or making an effort to comprehend a new way of thinking, they complain, meaning that the new comedians are soon going to be forced down the old route of repression.

A recent (and frankly exhausted) example is Sachsgate.  We’re all aware of the who’s, where’s and what’s but are we aware of the cost of the incident to our cultural freedom?  A rapacious listener of The Russell Brand Show, I willingly surrendered my Saturday nights to my radio and was educated, enlightened, entertained and had my eyes opened to new experiences and knowledge and also brought to tears with laughter. 

The programme was intelligent, hilarious and extremely valuable.  It offered listeners a unique experience which combined internationally top-drawer comedy, truly intelligent and remarkable discussions on diverse subjects from Darwinism and David Icke to the dispute between China and Tibet.  Listeners were also integral to the show and contributed by phone, text, e-mail and largely featured in the conception of the regular items.  It was a fantastically unique experience enjoyed by a vast and loyal following. 

What was said to Andrew Sachs was categorically wrong, but much of the outrage was orchestrated by the media. On the night of the radio show only four people phoned to complain; it was two weeks later, following a feature by The Mail on Sunday, that the thousands of complaints were received, most of them by people who hadn’t even heard the show. 

What happened to Andrew Sachs was wrong and reprehensible but my point is that a radio show which was enjoyed by many people ceased to enlighten their lives because the BBC was frightened of controversy.  A metaphorical slap on the wrists would have sufficed, purely for the offence caused to an individual grandfather.  In fact an apology was made and fully accepted.  I understand why it would cause offence, but is it really fair to curtail a cultural cornerstone and immensely enjoyed weekly event simply because some people object to the use of a certain word? 

If comedy and free speech are restricted, confined and suppressed then so too is the freedom of thought and speech which enable us to function as intelligent human beings.  I understand why my own grandmother dislikes hearing swear words on television (despite using them herself in private), but if television does not reflect real life then our thoughts and opinions are being forcibly squeezed out of us.  If comedians are prohibited from speaking to us in the same way they would if they met us in the street then they are not being themselves and are suppressing their own thoughts and views, which are precisely what I enjoy about comedians.  They are human beings and should be allowed to behave as such. 

I do not advocate anything which intentionally hurts or offends people, but I do feel passionately that freedom of speech is what makes human beings better.  It educates and improves us and through it we grow.  If all of that is repressed and we go back to bigotry and the ridicule of people who have no control over the colour of their skin or their own sexuality or physical disability (the stand-up of Ricky Gervais for example), then how are we better people?

Published: 9 Jul 2009

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