British actor Idris Elba has argued that dated racist TV shows should not be cancelled in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement because viewers need to be reminded that the content was made in the first place.
The Luther star said he understood why some old programs — such as comedies Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh — were being removed from streaming platforms but he doesn’t believe that censorship is the answer.
“I think viewers should know that people made shows like this,” he told the Radio Times.
“Yes, out of respect for the time and the [Black Lives Matter] movement, commissioners and archive-holders [are] pulling things they think are exceptionally tone-deaf at this time - fair enough and good for you. But I think, moving forward, people should know that freedom of speech is accepted, but the audience should know what they’re getting into,” he added.
The 47-year-old Emmy Award winner proposed a rating system to warn viewers of offensive content but maintain freedom of speech.
“I’m very much a believer in freedom of speech, but the thing about freedom of speech is that it’s not suitable for everybody. That’s why we have a rating system: we tell you that this particular content is rated U, PG, 15, 18, X,” he said.
Don’t ‘erase evidence’
Elba’s comments align with those of Channel 4 editor-at-large Dorothy Byrne, who also favours the introduction of warnings instead of the removal of offensive shows from the UK channel’s on-demand archive.
Writing in The Guardian she said: “Those thousands of hours of material are not only our own history as a broadcaster, they are part of the social history of our country.”
“If much-loved characters in the past made homophobic comments or dressed up as people from other ethnic groups or pretended to be people who use wheelchairs, should we destroy that evidence of the social attitudes of the times? Cleaning up our past erases evidence of how views that we would now consider reprehensible were once normalised,” she added.
She said shows which contain offensive material, “are generally best handled by adding warnings rather than removing them entirely.”
Byrne added: “We know that it is a matter of judgement, but we will begin from the premise that we should not destroy the past, however embarrassing that past may be, except in exceptional circumstances.”
In the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests — sparked by the death of George Floyd — several comedy shows have been removed from streaming platforms due to their use of blackface.
These include The League of Gentlemen, The Mighty Boosh, Little Britain and some episodes of 30 Rock, which were removed at creator Tina Fey’s own request.
Little Britain’s Matt Lucas and David Walliams have apologised for their use of blackface in the BBC comedy.
HBO Max has removed the 1939 film Gone with the Wind due to its racist portrayal of black characters and said they would re-add it with a new introduction putting the film in historical context.
And UKTV has taken down Fawlty Towers episode “The Germans” — which includes racist language to describe cricket teams from the West Indies and India — with plans to reintroduce it with an "offensive content and language" warning.
Additional reporting by Albertina Lloyd.