An episode of Fawlty Towers famous for coining the phrase, “Don’t mention the war!” has become the latest “classic” British television programme to be taken down from a BBC-owned streaming service, as broadcasters continue to conduct a reappraisal of old British television content.
The episode of the 1970s sitcom – in which John Cleese as Basil Fawlty goose-steps around a Torquay hotel while shouting the phrase – was recently removed from the BBC-controlled UKTV catch-up service.
A spokesperson for UKTV repeatedly refused to clarify why the programme had been removed, or whether the decision was permanent: “We aren’t commenting on individual titles. However, we regularly review our programmes, and make edits, add warnings and make schedule changes where necessary to ensure that our channels meet the expectations of our audience.”
It is unclear what prompted the company to stop streaming the episode, which culminates in Cleese’s character making comments about the second world war to a German family.
The original broadcast also included a scene in which Major Gowen, a regular guest at the hotel, uses very strong racist language in relation to an anecdote about the West Indies cricket team. A decade ago many broadcasters began editing out this part of the programme, although the racist language can still be heard on the version hosted by Netflix.
The Fawlty Towers episode in question, first shown in 1975, also features Cleese’s bigoted character apparently shocked at being treated in hospital by a black doctor.
The 11 other episodes of Fawlty Towers remain available to stream on UKTV’s paid catch-up service, which is delivered through pay TV partners such as Sky, Virgin Media and BT – along with standalone services such as Now TV.
Growing scrutiny over historic racism in archive entertainment programmes is prompting broadcasters to check their back catalogues and respond to criticism of shows that were once considered to be family entertainment.
There has been a substantial uptick in the attention paid to such issues as a result of the global Black Lives Matter movement, which is forcing media companies around the world to address racism within their organisations and in the output they produce and continue to publish.
The BBC is reviewing programmes to check whether they comply with modern editorial standards and expectations, a process that has already seen the hit 2000s sitcom Little Britain removed from its iPlayer catch-up service in the wake of scrutiny over the use of blackface by its stars, David Walliams and Matt Lucas. The Little Britain follow-up show Come Fly With Me has also been taken down.
While traditional television channels used to simply quietly stop repeating old shows that were no longer considered appropriate, the advent of streaming means catch-up services
need to constantly reassess their back catalogues – attracting publicity in the process.
Netflix has pulled the BBC programmes Mighty Boosh and League of Gentlemen from its service due to them featuring instances of blackface, although a BBC spokesperson confirmed that both programmes remained available on the iPlayer service.
Earlier this week the Oscar-winning film Gone With the Wind was temporarily removed from the US-based streaming service after protests over its depiction of slavery.
HBO responded to criticism of the film with a statement saying: “These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”
The streaming service added that the film would return to the platform accompanied by “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions”, but would remain unaltered “because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed”.
Last year BritBox, the catch-up service that promises the best of classic British TV, said it would not include some previously popular programmes that would now be considered racist, such the BBC’s Till Death Us Do Part and ITV’s Love Thy Neighbour.
Streaming services are increasingly introducing warnings at the start of programmes alerting viewers to historic depictions of racism or language that viewers would not expect to find in a modern programme. credit The Guardian