News & Opinion


Cheap, lousy backtracking at the BBC

The Times

December 28, 2007


“It was almost as if those people rushing out to buy Fairytale of New York were actually waiting for — indeed, actively investing in — that ‘faggot’ line”

Traditionally, it’s Slade from whom it’s impossible to escape at Christmas. That song shadows us for weeks, recedes, then returns the next year to haunt us: a seasonal lyrical bogeyman. This Christmas another song has superseded it: the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York.

On December 18, Radio 1 announced that it was dubbing out the word “faggot” from MacColl’s line “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot” because it was “offensive”.

Almost immediately, everyone, many gays included, said that the decision was ridiculous, why was it suddenly deemed bad, political correctness gone mad, blah blah. Radio 1 reversed the ban, and the song reached No 4 in the charts. Of the furore, the Pogues singer Shane MacGowan, who turned 50 on Christmas Day, said/slurred: “That’s just typical of the way this country is going down. I mean, it’s practically a police state.”

The present consensus is with MacGowan — that there is nothing wrong with using the word “faggot” in this context. Lighten up, you Milly Tants. My unfashionable counter-view is that there is something very wrong in using it, that Radio 1 was right in its original decision and should have shown more balls and stuck by it. “Faggot” is a term of anti-gay abuse; in this song it is most definitely an insult.

The subtext of the Pogues controversy is that it’s not so bad because it’s not sung by a bad-boy rapper but by that nice lady who died in that boat accident. And, oooh, that Shane MacGowan is just a dissolute fart so, rather like the sozzled uncle in the corner of the room on Christmas Day, just let him get on and ramble to himself. Indulge him, funny old thing. Hang on, you’ll say, she’s not actually calling him a “faggot”, ie, gay. She’s just chucking an insult. But the insult is an anti-gay one: “faggot” is intended to diminish him as a man, her errant lover. Weird, but I can’t imagine the BBC giving the same latitude to the word “nigger”, expressed in the same way, or “Paki”. It seems that offending gays matters less, and homophobia is more acceptable than racism. Indeed, The Pogues controversy comes at the end of a year when the corporation has shown it has a remarkably elastic way of navigating what constitutes offence to homosexuals. Along with the broadcasting authority Ofcom, it has sanctioned the use of “gay”, by the likes of Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson, to mean “rubbish”.

On Top Gear “the lads” feel that they can sneer — ever so ironically, of course — at “poof” this and “poof” that. A friend watching the sitcom The Green Green Grass the other week said that a gay character had been belittled and eventually punched, and that there was something in this depiction (not nakedly homophobic but just scornful, dismissive, gays as the mincing targets of  jokes) that had made my far-from-PC friend put his disgust in writing to the BBC.

To say that you’re offended these days is to risk being accused of being humourless; of not getting the joke. It’s the same risk you run as a woman who is offended by the endless parade of breasts in magazines such as Nuts. The new casual homophobia is couched as a perfectly acceptable, knowing joke, and coincides with a general feeling that gays have had quite enough equality: equal age of consent; civil partnership ceremonies (but not marriage). That we are getting a little too big for our boots.

There are lots of gays on TV in their shiny suits. But almost nowhere on TV or in popular culture can mainstream audiences watch gays living, loving, having sex and not just playing the court jester. Yes, some gays may use “poof” and “faggot” among themselves, but that is no justification for everyone else to have a go — and, if it is, can we be as free and easy with “nigger” and “Paki” to show that we have a level playing field? Equal opportunities offence-giving.

I wonder whether some gays rush to defuse these little brouhahas by saying that they are not offended because we are entertainers and pacifiers, used to deflecting homophobia around us with wit or just turning the other cheek. Our instinct is to josh, parry, swerve, not confront bigotry. We don’t want to be bashed. We don’t want to be out of the gang. Of course we know how to “take a joke”. We had enough practice in school and on the playing field. We excuse homophobia because we don’t want to fight, cause trouble, be different.

We want a place at the table and, if we have to suffer the occasional sting or belittling remark, then so be it. But equality isn’t about just what is enshrined in statute. It’s about being treated with — and, most importantly, expecting — respect and consideration.

You can’t put that kind of thing into law, but organisations such as the BBC arguably have a responsibility to foster and encourage it.

In the end, I couldn’t escape Fairytale of New York. E4 played it with the offending word intact. George Michael took it on the chin when playing MacGowan’s part in a Catherine Tate Christmas Special on BBC One. The fact that the song reached No 4 is depressing: it was almost as if those people rushing out to buy it were not merely assailed by a sudden nostalgia but actually waiting for — indeed, actively investing in — that “faggot” line with some relish. Homophobia sells.

Only on TMF, a cable/satellite music channel, did a little bit of gay respect shine: they didn’t trumpet it, and maybe it was a one-off, but there I saw the Fairytale video played with “faggot” dubbed out. The song didn’t suffer as a result: simply, some consideration was extended to a minority group who have been abused, without thought, for too long. Perhaps, in the coming year, the BBC might show some steel and extend gays the same courtesy.


Desperate reading

Long nights, and deep glasses of red wine, have not meant unbroken hours of TV viewing. (This is odd. I love TV and will happily graze like a Friesian across channels.) This Christmas, I have also retreated into books. The Mitford sisters’ letters, edited by Charlotte Mosley, are fascinating (even for the nicknames they gave each other: Hen, Bobo, Honks). Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader made me fall in love with the Queen.

And the EastEnders Christmas Day apocalypse was totally eclipsed by Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park, the story of a group of silently suffering housewives in an upmarket suburb. I imagine Cusk’s novel doing the rounds of women’s reading groups, its tightly wound story of marital disenchantment and frustration encouraging revolution; a book where nothing much, yet everything, happens. As with Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, you hold your breath reading it. Married women readers, buy this book and identify long-nursed grievances against your partners. Husbands, buy this book, be very afraid and prepare to mend your ways.


Comedy of manors

Much nervousness preceded the return of To The Manor Born. The BBC wouldn’t send out tapes prior to broadcast to this reviewer — was it going to be a stinker?

The first few minutes were not promising. There were clunky “relevant” jokes about multinationals cheating farmers and some racist rubbish about Polish labourers. Then the old magic suddenly returned. De Vere was the same cad; Audrey, ramrod straight and doorbell-ringingly domineering, was treating Marjorie as her slave and getting arrested for taking an E (in fact, a paracetamol) after going to a nightclub. It was quite daft and, in its resolute playing to Middle England, seemed in sitcom terms utterly arcane. I loved almost every minute. Can it come back for good?