John Cleese Gets Controversial “Fawlty Towers” Episode Reinstated

Can humor reinforce the kind of thing it was designed to mock?

John Cleese
John Cleese in 2014.
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What happens when an episode of television satirizing racial insensitivity comes under fire for being racially insensitive itself? Over the last week, fans of the British comedy Fawlty Towers, which aired on British television in the late 1970s, were in the front row seats for this debate. As Leo Barraclough reported at Variety, one episode of the show was temporarily taken offline:

Early on Friday, BBC-owned TV network UKTV announced on Twitter that it had temporarily removed the episode titled “The Germans” from its Gold download service as it contained “racial slurs.” The service said it wished to “review” the episode, and “consider our options.” It said some shows “carry warnings and others are edited.”

The episode featured one character, the Major, using a number of racist words. Via his Twitter account, John Cleese — the show’s co-creator and star — argued that the character’s racism was not endorsed by the show, but was instead presented as a way to present racism (and racists) as something to be mocked.

Cleese’s argument seems to have won the day. At Vulture, Devon Ivie reports that UKTV has announced plans to reinstate the episode — though there may be “extra guidance” along with it when it does return.

Cleese himself has become a contentious figure when it comes to politics. His 2017 interview with David Marchese for Vulture featured the comedian taking umbrage with political correctness — and at one point telling a joke that made Marchese audibly cringe. At around the same time as he was criticizing the BBC’s decision on Twitter, he was also discussing the practice of tearing down statues of people involved with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Cleese’s skepticism about it came off like the kind of “gotcha” moment that doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny.

For Fawlty Towers completionists, the episode should be back up within a few days. The debate over controversial television from a bygone era, however, is likely just beginning.

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