The strange death of British humour
Fifty years ago, a quintessentially British comedy was produced in the pleasant fields and orchards near Pinewood Studios. The masses lapped up Carry on Camping, though, like others in the series, it did not receive critical acclamation. I was drawn to watch it again, following the revelation that national treasure Barbara Windsor has dementia. It’s the purest form of the British comedy genre.
The film requires very little plot. Sid James and Bernard Bresslaw play two boyfriends who have seen a promo film for a nudist camp. They hoodwink their girlfriends into going there for the summer holiday. But they end up at the wrong Paradise, just a muddy field with no amenities. This also happens to be the destination for a class of girls at a finishing school, under the watchful glare of their matron (the awesome Hattie Jacques) and headmaster Dr Soaper (the brilliant Kenneth Williams).
Not having watched a Carry On movie for over twenty years, I was struck by how much my impression has changed. As a teenager, when the films were repeated on the BBC, I saw them as embarrassingly silly slapstick. Although risqué when made, the sexual innuendo and toilet humour seemed dated in the taken-for-granted liberty of the 1980s. Today, Carry on Camping seems positively edgy.
The jolly japes of Carry on Camping would be ‘inappropriate’ now – the nudity and very conventional gender relations too distasteful and discriminatory for our supposedly tolerant culture. The sexual promiscuity of schoolgirls in unfeasibly short mini-skirts, and the unashamed leering by older men, would be verboten in the light of the MeToo movement.
The film’s most farcical scene is in the early-morning Physical Training (PT) session, when the girls are urged to put more vigour into their stretches. Busty Babs swings her arms and her bra catapults into Dr Soaper’s face, to his disgust. Male campers feast their eyes. In another scene, Sid James peers through a peephole into the female showers.
Busty Babs swings her arms and her bra catapults into Dr Soaper’s face, to his disgust.
Humour has always pushed boundaries, particularly with sex. In the aftermath of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, which opened the floodgates for sexual licentiousness, the 1960s saw a rearguard action by Mary Whitehouse. She was ridiculed for her crusade against smut. But consider the new Puritanism of the 21st century and the censorial straitjacket imposed on what we are allowed to enjoy.
We have banished traditional British humour. The list of proscribed comedy stretches far beyond the blatantly racist and sexist fare of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson to the massively popular television sitcoms from the 1970s. The BBC no longer shows the classic Are you Being Served?
Giants of comedy like David Jason and John Cleese see political correctness as the death knell for humour, at least in the guise that they mastered, having played the most famous characters in British television history: Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses and Basil in Fawlty Towers. Cleese fears we are heading towards an Orwellian dystopia, where humour cannot express ‘wrong-think’.
Today’s audiences have changed. Younger generations have been immersed in feminism and cultural sensitivity to the extent that jokes about race or gender, irrespective of the intended message (which may be to mock sexism or racism) get a hostile response. An essay on the perceived constraints on humour in the Independent downplayed the fuss: for example, comedienne Sofie Hayes, whose jokes are mostly gender-neutral, explained political correctness as simply ‘not being toxic’.
I met Jo Brand recently and this was her view. But perhaps it’s all right for such left-wing artists because they tick the right boxes. The blurred border between mockery and ‘hate crime’ is illustrated by the arrest and conviction of YouTuber Count Dunkula, and to deny the threat to satirists would be shamefully disrespectful to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Cleese fears we are heading towards an Orwellian dystopia, where humour cannot express ‘wrong-think’.
The rise of identity politics is a tightening ratchet on comedy, with protected groups including Muslims, transsexuals and the entire 51% female population. Based on simplistic power dynamics, making mirth of a woman or Muslim must be ‘punching down’, whatever the target’s status (even a mayor or Hollywood actress). Ace cards can be played in response to any perceived slight.
The new rules apply not only to comedians: there is pressure on broadcasters, film producers and authors to always show women in a positive light, from children’s books to crime drama (there should be no female victims of violence, although men are fair game).
Comedy is business and if comedians want future bookings, they shouldn’t make their audience uncomfortable. It isn’t difficult these days to offend; particularly as much of the offence taking is contrived. Jokes about the human condition are forced into ever-decreasing circles. Comedians, heavily skewed to the left of the political spectrum, must fight for free speech. To shy from campus gigs would be to surrender to the intolerant (and frankly, immature) student commissars. Instead of taking themselves so seriously with their virtue signalling, younger people need to laugh about each other, and to learn the importance of humour to a civil democracy.
Unlike the ideological messages of modern cinema, the Carry On films reflected who we really are. Unwittingly, we are becoming like the culture of rigid communist or Islamic countries, where laughter is strangely amiss. A citizen who mocked the absurdities of Soviet communism risked being sent to the gulag, although the authorities couldn’t stop jokes that reflected reality (a lady asked a shopkeeper if he had any meat, and was told ‘no ma’am, this is the shop that doesn’t have any fish – the shop that doesn’t have any meat is across the road’). And if any religious order deserves lampooning it is fundamentalist Islam, with its repressive and misogynist hadiths.
Arguably, though, it is feminism that has done most to kill comedy. Could you imagine Babs Windsor taking a year out of acting to ‘fix democracy’ (Jennifer Lawrence) or removing her high heels on the red carpet because men aren’t forced to wear them? A narcissistic moralism (with little interest for the genuinely disadvantaged) seeks control of the narrative. Often it is women who are silenced by the po-faced gender warriors. Oh for the days when the likes of Babs got on with entertaining!
(Dr Niall McCrae is a lecturer in mental health, and a writer on social and political affairs. He regularly contributes to The Salisbury Review, The Conservative Woman and Bruges Group website, and has written two books: The Moon and Madness, and Echoes from the Corridors: The Story of Nursing in British Mental Hospitals).