BBC rewrites TV history with Fawlty Towers censorship

Not cut ... the famous goose-stepping scene.
Not cut ... the famous goose-stepping scene.

IN THE annals of comedy history, Fawlty Towers is considered one of the greatest television programs ever produced. And from among its episodes, The Germans, in which hotelier Basil Fawlty (John Cleese, pictured) clashes with visiting German tourists, is one of its most-loved.

And yet in an act which many will see as political correctness gone mad, if not actual cultural vandalism, the venerable BBC has censored a scene in which racist language is used.

In the scene, a hotel regular, the elderly Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley, far right), relates a conversation in which he corrected someone for using a particular racist slur, by suggesting they use another, equally racist, slur.

In the context of the episode, the line is clearly intended to mock the old-school British upper class for their inherent racism. In that sense, the joke is on Major Gowen, as it were, and not aimed at racial minorities.

In a curious twist, though, other culturally insensitive jokes in the episode - such as Basil Fawlty goose-stepping in front of the German tourists, saying ''sieg heil'' while using a finger to simulate the moustache of German dictator Adolf Hitler and referring to a German tourist as ''a stupid Kraut'' - were not cut.

Fawlty Towers has previously screened in Australia on ABC1, Foxtel's UKTV and Comedy Channel and on Seven and the digital channel 7Two. It is not presently licensed to any TV broadcasters, but it is available via the video-on-demand service Quickflix and on DVD.

Foxtel's program director, Ross Crowley, said that programmers should always consider the current context of material, even if it was filmed decades ago.

A perceived sensitivity to potentially offensive material has seen some classic British comedies and comedians effectively shelved. Love Thy Neighbour, which ran from 1972 to 1976 and focused on the feuding husbands of a black and white couple who lived next door to each other, is rarely seen in Britain, though it recently aired here on 7Two.

A spokeswoman for Seven's classification department said the context of a program would be ''strongly considered'' before any cuts were made.

Programs which contain sentiments or characters considered derogatory or racist by today's standards would be classified PG - meaning ''parental guidance is recommended'' - rather than be censored outright.

In one sense, the BBC is caught between a rock and a hard place. The episode was cut to be broadcast at 7.30pm and had they not made the cuts, the same British newspapers feigning outrage at censorship would be feigning outrage over the broadcast of ''racist'' comedy in family TV viewing time.

''Not funny? You're joking. You have absolutely no sense of humour, do you,'' Basil Fawlty shrieks at the horrified German tourists in the episode.

''Who won the bloody war anyway?''

This story BBC rewrites TV history with Fawlty Towers censorship first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.