Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Political Correctness and the “Boys to entertain you”

I was having an e-mail debate about political correctness with a mate recently. It all started with reminiscing about a long-forgotten BBC sitcom of the 1970s and ‘80s called “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum” about the antics of an army entertainment troupe stationed in the Indian jungle towards of the end of World War II. Although, the humour was relatively harmless, this type of show would by today’s standards be deemed politicially incorrect. According to the BBC comedy guide the main bone of contention was that one of the Indian characters was played by a white actor blacked up to look Asian - something you would never see nowadays, which may explain the lack of repeats compared with other popular sitcoms of the day. But to be fair there were very few Asian actors around in those days.
Having said that the humour was relatively harmless, but we now live in an age of political correctness gone mad. Apparently the actor Melvyn Hayes, who played "Gloria" in the show, said on a TV chat show about the issue of political correctness and comedy that when the show ended, he would often be stopped in the street by angry Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi traders, workers, and businessmen who would ask "Why have they taken OUR show off the television?"
The concept of political correctness is in my opinion a good thing in itself (e.g. it's not that long ago since Irish jokes were a common feature in the repertoire of many popular TV comedians - most of them desperately unfunny anyway), but has got to the point where you can hardly even breathe now without fear of offending some minority group. So while I would agree that PC-ness has gone too far in today's society, I think its basic concept is for an honourable purpose. We also live in an era where there is a proliferation of ethnic minority comedians (the Kumars, Lenny Henry, Gina Yashere, etc and across the Atlantic Eddie Murphy and the late Richard Pryor) who can make jokes about their racial origins that a white comedian would never get away with. Also certain comedians have deliberately gone against the grain by being deliberately politically incorrect (eg “Little Britain”), which helps challenge stereotypes and societal values and attitudes, so in my opinion is a good thing.
At this point my mate agreed with my argument about the basic decent purpose of political correctness, in that it “protects the honour of the weak and undefended, i.e. as a shield, but when it is used as a "sword" by white Europeans who simply wish to feel persecuted or have an axe to grind about something or somebody, or by ethnic minority or white middle class professionals who wish to advance up the career ladder, then it becomes a tool of evil.”.
Very true.
Regarding “It Ain't Half Hot Mum”, I thought the funniest bit was the bit at the very end which came after the credits, but bear in mind I was 7 years old at the time:
Picture a studio set of a clearing in the jungle with a house of bamboo cane and straw in the background. A few chickens strut around, pecking at pieces of grain on the ground.
Then we hear the opening lines of “Land of Hope and Glory” sung badly out of tune in a comedy Indian accent accompanied by a hand drum and sitar strings – “Land of hope and glory, mother of the free…”
The song is suddenly interrupted by a very loud sergeant major’s assertive military voice:
Sitar strings go awry. Chickens run for cover.
They don’t make them like they used to.


Lorainne said...

Political correctness has gone WAY too far!! It is important to respect others but surely it is obvious if someone is just having a laugh and is not really racist/sexist or whatever!!!For God's sake!! Oh sorry I can't say that anymore as people who believe in God may be upset. I believe in God and it wouldn't offend me. If people are that easily offended they should go and live in an iscolation tank and have no human contact.

CW said...

My sentiments exactly Lorainne.

grumpy old man said...

o my gooodness gracious me :) (said in my best non-pc accent)

CW said...

Priceless, GOM!

Anonymous said...

My old dad was a closet racist and he loved this series. Boy did he laugh: he could barely breathe, his face turning beetroot. But we rarely laughed at the same thing, me and dad. I just never 'got' those catchphrase based sitcoms: they say the same thing each week and everybody laughs on cue. Why? (Something to do with comfort.)

I went to a troubled, 1970s, multi-racial school, and found this perspective very unhelpful for survivng the laws of the playground jungle. You needed your wits about you. I remember the catchphrase merchants fared not so well out there.

I did enjoy 'Til Death Us Do Part'. But hold dad was also laughing up a heart-attack each week. How could this be? Then it dawned on me that the writers must be laughing at my dad and not with him. I'm sure he never suspected. He produced an identical laugh while watching 'Love Thy Neighbour'.

Did you see that series? Truly deplorable. About 'darkies' moving in to the white neighbourhood. Frequent face-offs between whites and blacks that somehow never quite turned physical. I remember there was one solitary 'paki' (from India, I think) in the middle of it all, under pressure from both sides because he didn't know if he was a white man or black man. Be still my splitting sides!

(And we haven't even mentioned 'Mind Your Langauge'.)

I'm not a PC plodder. But I, for one, woud be happy to never see any of this dark-age drivel again. Pun intended.

John Inman RIP.

CW said...

I think the attraction of these catch phrase-based comedies was partly the challenge of anticipating at what point in the show the immortal words would be uttered - ie trying to spot in advance what situation would lead to the inevitable "stupid boy!", "they don't like it up them", "I'm free!", "whaddya talkin' about Willis?" or "I have a cunning plan", etc. - then being able to laugh when it did happen, then wind down after the build-up of tension had subsided.

I suppose one of the main issues with some of these shows were that foreigners were portrayed as funny folk - generally likeable, but apt to be laughed at as figures of fun - even in the supposedly "quality" sitcoms such the frequently repeated Fawlty Towers where many of the jokes are at the expense of Manuel the waiter from Barcelona. Having said this, the real object of ridicule was mostly Basil Fawlty himself, which may explain why the show has rarely if ever been accused of being politically incorrect.

Bringing us neatly on the subject of the recently deceased John Inman, gay people in much the same way as foreigners were similarly portrayed as figures of fun during this time. The general idea being put across was that homosexuality or campness was abnormal and therefore something to be laughed at - cf Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd et al. A prominent gay rights campaigner was interviewed on the news last night about Inman and asserted that such characters tended to enforce the gay stereotype through their comically excessive camp behaviour. At the end of the day, racist, homophobic or non-PC jokes can be funny as long as they're not at the expense of your own group, but those days are nevertheless long gone.

As a footnote, I got a DVD of It Ain't Half Hot Mum from my local library and found it genuinely funny. Perry and Croft the writers are of course more famous for Dad's Army which is written in a similar style. It Ain't Half Hot, I found to be relatively inoffensive, although I can see how the white actor Michael Bates blacked up in the style of the Black & White Minstrel Show would provoke the ire of a modern multiracial audience. Despite a convincing accent (apparently he was born in India) It was fairly obvious that he wasn't really Indian. The blue eyes were something of a giveaway.

Mas'ud said...

I am British born of Pakistani origin, I remember tuning in on Sunday nights with my mum and dad to watch IAHHM and absolutely loving it, we didn't find it racist and thoroughly enjoyed it. Hope someone uploads episodes to YouTube!