No way to carry on

Posted on April 24, 2019


I have a feeling that I may have to wear a tin hat after this, but I’ll chance it.

We’ve all done it. An idle moment, a flick through the channels. A glimpse of something hinting at a guilty pleasure. Reader, I confess.

A risqué shower scene where, unobserved, a curvaceous beauty disports herself, ignorant (or IS she??) of the prying male gaze. Elsewhere, the outward primness and propriety of the bespectacled, pig-tailed mouse acts as only the thinnest of veneers – as is quite obvious to all of us – covering a brazen, simmering sexuality waiting to be fully ignited.

Quick. Just a couple of moments and then skip on to something less incriminating. No-one wants to be caught red-handed watching Carry On Up the Jungle.

Which, to my shame, is what I found myself doing on one of the mainstream TV channels during the holiday weekend. As well as the primitively constructed shower-in-the-jungle scenario – who could possibly have predicted that the cubicle of bamboo would have collapsed so readily? –  a mere five minutes’ watching treated us to a couple of fart jokes (the fat lady sneakily did it) and at least two ‘cor, what a big one’ moments.

So far, so just-about innocuously, enduringly puerile. Less so, however, the part assigned to Carry On stalwart, Bernard Bresslaw. Unlike the gawky, gormless role for which he was usually cast, Bresslaw took on the role of Upsidaisi (geddit?)  the faithful native who knows bongo-bongo language and can order the other natives about through its use. Blacked up. Calling his bumbling white superiors ‘Baws’. Basically, a slow-witted, monosyllabic black servant being played by a white man. To a modern viewer, it’s challenging stuff. Should such guff be removed from our screens? Probably.

There’s no need to go defensively post-modern – oh, we can see it ‘ironically’ now -about this. It’s fair to say that if there are still people out there for whom Bresslaw’s hapless portrayal of a black African is confirmation of any sort of racial inferiority, then, quite frankly, they’re a cause lost to humanity. But what is genuinely funny here – and one imagines the channel’s schedulers had to take this into consideration before screening the programme – is that anyone, ever, even allowing for the passing of nearly half a century, could have possibly thought that the casting of such a character was even distantly humorous.

There’s no fun about racism and the fact that we live in a society where  professional footballer, Wayne Hennessey, can posit the notion that he is unfamiliar with the existence of Nazi salutes and thus unable to understand their significance, serves as a chilling reminder that we can do without offensive caricatures knocking around to somehow validate such ideas. That so many high-profile black footballers have commented in the last few weeks on the prevalence of racism in the game reinforces the argument that we don’t need anyone catching glimpses of daft but loyal darkies on TV.

I anticipate the objections. The butt of the jokes, we could believe, are the useless white explorers themselves who are, as it happens, hauled out of trouble in the end by clever old Upsidaisi. The joke’s on them/us.  Much the same defence was made by the writers of the BBC comedy It Ain’t Half Hot Mum where the wily, blacked up punkah-wallah always had the last laugh on his hopeless masters. Academic David Owen James’s entertaining assessment of the racial politics of the series also mounts a stout, if qualified, defence of Michael Bates’ portrayal of crafty old Rangi Ram and his sly critique of the British Empire and its envoys.

All of which is clutching at straws in an attempt to defend the indefensible. When The Merchant of Venice was first staged, the character of the Jew, Shylock, was presented as hook-nosed, mendacious and deserving of everything he got – the loss of his fortune, his daughter and his religion. Oh, how we’d clutch our sides at such an interpretation now. Just as it would be unthinkable to stage his character in such a way now as some kind of testament to how far our attitudes have progressed, so it is to tolerate blackface clowns, however redolent that may be of another era.

And that’s before we’ve started on the sexism of the whole Carry On franchise…… or am I being just a touch too delicate all round?

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