14. AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT...

17/06/2020

The opening salvo of a revolutionary comedy series that began as a cult but whose impact reverberated around the globe to become an icon that influenced comedy for the next 50 years, and still does today. Yes, it's ... Monty Pythons Flying Circus! Why so current after all this time?

Walking a thin line

I could argue that it's always been current, from the debate around The Life of Brian to the present online removal of an episode of Fawlty Towers by the BBC. One could say that comedy exists to challenge and provoke our sensibilities, to question taboo and highlight prejudice. But in these days of (over)heightened sensitivity, institutions dare not be seen to be standing on the 'wrong' side of the line. The context has changed since the 60s and 70s. While Me Too and Black Lives Matter quite rightly challenge prejudice, 'The Germans' episode of Fawlty Towers has been seized up by the holier-than-thou, channelled into an incongruous context and blown out of all proportion.

Trapped in time

So what does this have to do with language? Everything. Language is a process of communication in a context. The major recalls a visit to a cricket match with a young lady who referred to the Indian cricketers as 'wogs'. "No, no," he tells her, "Wogs are West Indians." Context: an old, ex-military hotel resident, not completely sound of mind and shaped in and by a society of prejudice, with a view of Germans - "don't care for Germans, love German women - good card players" - is symptomatic of his type and generation, and is portrayed with ridicule. In other words, as in The Life of Brian, which was not a critique of Christ but more a warning about false Messiahs if anything, this is a comment about an 'oddity' trapped in time. But to take offence is equally trapped in time - this present time.

Weighted words

I think about a well-worn phrase 'to call a spade a spade' - the meaning is to say it as it is, to be truthful. But, of course, 'spade' has connotations, too. It is also a pejorative term for a black person. We have to be so careful about our choice of words, which change meaning depending on context and time. For a certain generation, 'coloured' was the most respectful term, hence the 1909 foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; today, older people with no intention to offend may accidentally do so through its use. Gay used simply to mean wonderful - still can, actually. But what if you say "I feel gay"? In the context of today, there is only one interpretation. Can you be in someone's black books? Black here is negative in its connotation. Equally, white is perceived in the common consciousness as positive. Can we call a spade a spade? Or do we have to find alternatives to 'weighted' words like black and white? Why is the wicked witch dressed in black and why are white wizards good? I remember Muhammed Ali in an interview asking why angels are always portrayed as white.

Choice by context

At CPLS, we are always sensitive to the words we choose, and while we are careful in our choices from a linguistic perspective, we also realise that the context is the ultimate principle behind that choice. The debate that has resurfaced - the grey area of black and white - in recent days has punched a hole in the media coverage of Covid-19. The pandemic appears to have been temporarily elbowed off the front pages by the Black Lives Matter protests, and tucked away in a corner of the headlines, Cleese, Palin et. al. might be having a little chuckle that the words of their comedy have again been taken on a rather too serious level, blown out of all proportion.

- Chris