I loathe Little Britain, but it shouldn’t be censored – let it fade away for being unfunny | Barbara Ellen

Is it retrospective censorship to object to Little Britain? Or is it more complicated than that? A new Ofcom audience research study (also looking at other problematic screen content, including Jimmy Carr “rape jokes”) found that some deemed a clip from David Walliams’s and Matt Lucas’s BBC comedy (which aired from 2003-06) to be “explicitly racist and outdated”. In the sketch Walliams plays the character Linda, a university employee, describing an Asian student: “Yellowish skin. Slight smell of soy sauce. That’s it, the ching-chong Chinaman.”

Some Ofcom respondents expressed surprise that it was available on BBC iPlayer. One said: “If I saw my daughter watching that, then mimicking it, I’d be horrified.” The BBC responded that warnings are given, the sketch is intended to ridicule outdated prejudices and racism, and this was more apparent when viewing entire episodes.

If this is about Little Britain, the BBC and censorship, there’s some previous. In 2004, the BBC One version of the show was missing “controversial” scenes shown on BBC Three. Then, in 2020, Little Britain was removed from BBC iPlayer because “times have changed” (it was also withdrawn from Netflix and BritBox). Around this time, Walliams and Lucas expressed partial regret for some of the content. In 2022, it returned to iPlayer, minus blackface/yellowface characters (including Desiree DeVere and “Thai bride”, Ting Tong). Now the BBC seems loath to censor further, however many “wokies” complain. But is it always appropriate to cry “censorship”?

Full disclosure: I can’t stand Little Britain and never could. Watching it again, I am reminded why. First, those iPlayer warnings (“adult humour”, “strong language”) are short lines of text, easily missed. I look just at the relevant handful of episodes tagged “discriminatory language”. As they used to say in old-style sitcoms, blooming heck!

What a grim carnival of punching down. Relentless “fat” jokes and female grotesques. Andy, the bogus disabled man. A mentally ill woman. Marjorie, a diet group leader, repeatedly misunderstanding an Asian woman. Maggie Blackamoor vomiting at the mention of Chinese dogs or Ainsley Harriott. Thick, common Vicky Pollard calling an Asian newsagent a “news Asian”. Linda labelling a person of restricted height an “Oompa Loompa”.

And so on, in what could be mistaken for a showreel of what was edited out in 2022, not left in. Factor in Little Britain’s core comedy formula (recurring characters; catchphrases; thudding repetition) and you start to understand why the Ofcom parents expressed concern. It’s the style of humour that sticks in young brains and could lead to imitation and bullying.

Is it odd that visual parodies of black/Asian people were removed, but verbal slurs remain? Is it standard practice, as reported, that Walliams and Lucas made the 2022 edits alone? (The phrase “marking your own homework” springs to mind.) Did they resolve to excise all the offensive material, before realising there’d be nothing left? It’s also striking how much of Little Britain recalls 1970s museum pieces. Not only has it aged badly, it was dated at the time. As for exposing prejudice, is this as true as it was with 1980’s Not the Nine O’Clock News “Constable Savage” sketch (in which some of the language is wince-inducing but, daringly for the era, it skewers police racism)? If it’s about highlighting bigotry, why does Little Britain get the iPlayer “cultural studies” free pass, while Constable Savage is nowhere to be seen?

The answer seems to lie in how the Little Britain debate has become framed as an ultra-corrective modern response to a comedy that was of its era. How, in some eyes, Little Britain is a victim of cultural revisionism (cool/funny then; not “allowed” any more). Which is interesting in theory, but untrue. People did object to Little Britain at the time. Even the Sunday Express declared it “the most misogynistic tripe on TV”. So this is not just about perma-offended “snowflakes” wetting the bed in 2023 about something made decades before. This debate started in the 00s – it is as old as the programme itself.

Maybe it’s time to stop peddling the tedious false narrative that Little Britain is a symbol of “woke” martyrdom. Nor, crucially, is this about censorship. The dreaded slippery slope (today, Little Britain; tomorrow, something I like). Most people are aware of these arguments: that you can’t semi-agree with censorship, just as you can’t have free-ish speech.

Besides, what has any of this got to do with keeping unfunny, unpleasant comedies on iPlayer? Despite loathing Little Britain, I don’t think it needs removing; rather, that warnings should be prominent and parental controls tightened. The BBC’s sloppy housekeeping is the real issue, not righteous stands against censorship.

If you want to be brutal, censorship doesn’t even seem necessary. Public taste is one of the strongest forms of censorship there is, and public taste has spoken. Available to stream or not, Little Britain doesn’t seem fondly remembered; it’s barely remembered at all. It’s only in these kinds of skirmishes that it’s ever mentioned. It’s only haters like me keeping the name alive. From where I’m sitting, Little Britain doesn’t need to be censored. It already happened.

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist

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