John Cleese Criticizes BBC Decision to Remove 'Fawlty Towers' Episode Over "Racial Slurs"

Fawlty Towers Still - P 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

Fawlty Towers Still - P 2015

"The Germans" has come off BBC Studios-owned UKTV's streaming service over offensive language used by one of the show's characters.

An episode of vintage Brit comedy Fawlty Towers has been removed from the streaming service of BBC Studios-owned UKTV over "racial slurs."

The episode in question — originally broadcast in 1975 and called The Germans — is renowned for featuring John Cleese's deeply awkward and rude hotel owner demanding that his staff "don't mention the war" around German guests, culminating in him doing a goose-stepping impersonation of Adolf Hitler. However, it also features a character, the elderly Major Gowen, using highly-offensive and racist language about the West Indies cricket team. The BBC removed this element from repeat transmissions in 2013, but UKTV was airing the unedited version. 

"UKTV has temporarily removed an episode of Fawlty Towers ‘The Germans’ from [UKTV network] Gold’s Box Set. The episode contains racial slurs so we are taking the episode down while we review it," said a UKTV representative. "We regularly review older content to ensure it meets audience expectations and are particularly aware of the impact of outdated language. Some shows carry warnings and others are edited. We want to take time to consider our options for this episode."

The decision — which follows a number of shows taken off air as platforms and networks have been reassessing what is considered acceptable in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests around the world — has become a source of contention on both sides of the argument. Some have suggested it merely shifts the focus away from the real points and aims of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cleese himself called the decision "stupid." Speaking to The Age newspaper in Australia, he said the episode was a critique of racist attitudes.

"One of the things I've learned in the last 180 years is that people have very different senses of humor," he said. "Some of them understand that if you put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of, you're not broadcasting their views, you're making fun of them." 

Discussing the racist comments made by the Major, he said: "The Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them."

Earlier this week, the BBC's iPlayer and Netflix both pulled the mid-2000s comedy show Little Britain for use of blackface, while HBO Max removed Gone With the Wind.