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Monday, June 13, 2011

It Ain't Half Hot Mum racist? Don't make me laugh...

video: wiggy videos.
This article of mine appears in the Sunday Express.

THERE are some scandalous things about modern Britain.

The high cost of railway travel. The poor quality of sliced bread. The England football team. The failure of the BBC to repeat on terrestrial television one of the funniest comedy series in history due to political correctness...

I thought about It Ain’t Half Hot Mum after hearing the sad news of the death of Donald Hewlett, who played Lieutenant-Colonel Reynolds in Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s wonderful comedy.

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, for those who have never seen it, tells the story of the Royal Artillery Concert Party in India and Burma at the end of the Second World War. The series ran from 1974 to 1981 and enjoyed phenomenal popularity, with two of its stars Windsor Davies and Don Estelle even having a No1 hit record. Yet unlike Dad’s Army, another brilliant Perry-Croft creation which is regularly repeated, no series of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum has been broadcast on terrestrial TV since 1984.

What a crying shame. “It’s without doubt the funniest series David Croft and I wrote. It’s also the show we’re not allowed to talk about,” Jimmy Perry has bemoaned.

For the PC brigade the great “crimes” of the show were that it is supposedly racist and homophobic. In fact it is neither. The Indian characters are portrayed sympathetically and the resourceful bearer Rangi Ram, played by Michael Bates, is the real hero of the show.

“It’s not British Asians who call the show racist,” Perry once said. “They called it and still call it ‘our programme’. It was the BBC executives who’d never been to India who thought it racist.”

The homophobic charge doesn’t stack up either. A running theme in the series is the desire of Battery Sergeant-Major Williams, played so memorably by Windsor Davies, to get the concert party, whom he regards as a “load of poofs” and not proper soldiers, up the jungle to fight the Japanese.

Williams is undoubtedly a homophobe but the joke is firmly on him. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Perry and Croft are lampooning homophobia, not supporting it. In any case it’s wrong to criticise a programme which portrays attitudes prevalent at the time. “That series came nearest to the truth of anything we’ve done,” says Perry, who based the show on his own experiences of running an army concert party.

Perry modelled Davies’s character on his own sergeant-major, a man who got the soldiers to line up and shout: “We’re a bunch of poofs!” Ironically, while that show is absent from our screens, comedy which is far more offensive is allowed in the politically correct era.

New wave and so-called “alternative” comedians sneer at and attack disabled people and other minority groups but because they’re considered hip and trendy they’re allowed to say and do what they want. The double standards are glaring.

While It Ain’t Half Hot Mum has been condemned for casting white Englishman Bates in a lead Indian role, Little Britain duo Matt Lucas and David Walliams were allowed to darken their faces in their portrayal of a wide range of ethnic characters in their latest series Come Fly With Me.

Yet Bates, a man brought up in India and who was fluent in Urdu, had legitimate claims to the role as Asian actor Renu Setna, who also appeared in It Aint Half Hot Mum, has conceded. “There’s no way it could have been played by anyone but Michael Bates,” he said.

One of the main differences between the comedy of Perry and Croft and what passes for comedy today is that while Perry and Croft set out simply to make us laugh modern comedians and comedy writers seem more concerned in shocking us.

JUST think of the appalling “prank” phone call which Radio 2 presenters Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand made to Fawlty Towers star Andrew Sachs, in which they made obscene comments about having sex with Sachs’s granddaughter.

Think too of Mock The Week panellist Frankie Boyle poking fun at people with Down’s syndrome. Or Jimmy Carr joking about British servicemen who had lost their limbs.

For today’s “cutting edge” comedy writers nothing is too tasteless. One episode of a Channel 4 series,

The IT Crowd, featured a German cannibal seeking someone who is willing to be eaten. The fact that The IT Crowd won a Bafta award tells us all we need to know about the dire state of television comedy today.

Then of course there’s the bad language which is nowadays so prevalent. Watch the entire 56 episodes of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and the worst you’ll hear is a very occasional “bastard”.

Perry and Croft didn’t have to use swear words in their attempts to get people to laugh, they were far too talented for that.

Writing about It Ain’t Half Hot Mum in his autobiography, You Have Been Watching, David Croft stated: “Our show wasn’t just a funny programme. It was founded in truth and deserves a place in our classic comedies.”

Let’s hope that the BBC programme schedulers have a change of heart and allow a whole new generation of viewers to enjoy a true television gem.


Anonymous said...

"New wave and so-called “alternative” comedians sneer at and attack disabled people and other minority groups but because they’re considered hip and trendy they’re allowed to say and do what they want. The double standards are glaring."

Boy is that ever true. Comedy has actually become infinitely more mean-spirited but, as you write, as long as it is considered "hip" and "trendy" it is alright.

I would also add that cruelly making fun of poor or working-class people has become much more common in recent decades.

My two favorite sitcoms, "Steptoe and Son" and Jackie Gleason’s "The Honeymooners," humorously depicted the lives of people on the lower economic rungs of society but also added a lot of humanity to the characters and their situation.

The lack of humanity in contemporary popular culture is a worrying phenomenon and is much more frightening than relatively mild ethnic stereotypes.

Neil Clark said...

John: Great post, I could not agree more.

jock mctrousers said...

I totally agree, John and Neil. Tickles me pink every time I've seen it. Every character is a masterpiece of comedy. It's pathetic that we even have to ask the question of whether this is racist. I don't recall even a hint of anything anywhere in the series that suggested white rule over brown people was the natural order of things, rather that British rule over India was just a fact.

If the Indian characters are caricatures,so was everyone else - what on Earth do they expect in a comedy? Are we having Fawlty towers banned because of the Spanish waiter digs (really a much more convincing candidate, but still ridiculous), or the Carry On films,or Passage to India and the like?

Homophobic? Compared to 'Are You Being Served'? Not to mention the appalling, talentless and cruel Little Britain. You've got to be having a laugh, mate.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Jock- great to hear from you and great post.

Mark said...

Perry & Croft really do seem to have been shafted by the Beeboid nomenklatura on this one.

As Jock points out, any alleged homophobia in the show is far less blatant that in the other Perry & Croft 70s hit, 'Are You Being Served'.'Blacking up' is still just about allowed when it's done by the fashionably overrated 'Little Britain' crew. Even the use of racist terminology is permitted when it is scripted by a comedy icon like John Cleese. (There is an episode in 'Fawlty Towers' when, apropos the Test Match which the Major is following, he pontificates on the difference between 'wogs' & 'niggers'- the Indians test team in his view only qualifying as the former. This episode was even repeated just a couple of years ago).

'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' however offends on all 3 of these grounds- so consequently, as far as the Beeb hierarchy goes, it has become a 'non-programme', despite its obvious comic merit.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Mark,
thanks for that. good point about the double standards-and how John Cleese & Little Britain are treated differently from Perry and Croft. Just one small point- Are You Being Served was not by Perry &Croft but Lloyd & Croft (as was 'Allo Allo')

Anonymous said...

After watching that video, this show doesnt seem homophobic at all. Actually, it seems homophilic. Very, very homophilic. As in "those two guys were totally having gay sex with each other on a regular basis". Really cant get much more gay-friendly than that.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching the series on YouTube and I think it's bloody brilliant. Michael Bates in fact pulled off the Indian impersonation extraordinarily well, when you consider that he had to be Indian, convincing AND funny all at the same time. And Windsor Davies, with his 101 ways to say "Shut Up!" is absolutely hilarious.
What struck me was the honesty of the script and the way in which the characters communicated. For better or worse (!) I've worked as the sole woman in all-male environments, and that really is the way people communicate, *EVEN* today (for those who might be shell-shocked). Robust and believable, and vastly preferable to "Friends".

Anonymous said...

If its any consolation, the show is regularly repeated on the Fox Classics Channel here in Australia.

PS - I completely agree with everything you say!

Baba said...

My first blog ever.I feel so disturbed that the bbc took this away.It's one of the finest british comedies ever.I grew up with it,and lived in a british indian community.I have indian friends who Loved it.Laughter brought down barriers,brought people together,help us understand one another.We all have different backgrounds,we are all different in some way,yet we are all the same.It Ain't Half Hot Mom is full of Love and Light.I lived in india in latter life,it's a special place,I had been drawn to it from my culture,and magic like,It Ain't Half Hot Mom.The bbc executives are disrespectful towards the indian actors in the show,including Michael Bates and John Clegg.So sad.

Rose said...

I feel it's actually *more* racist to say Michael Bates is not an Indian. He was Indian born and raised, fluent in Urdu. So we judge him not to be Indian because his skin was not naturally between? Isn't that precisely the same as saying a someone born to Indian parents in Britain is not British because of his skin colour. That way around, we quickly see racism. Michael wore make up less dark than most Essex fake tans, and he was INDIAN. Some quite colonials made no efforts with the local custom or language, this was not the case here.