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Stop attack on the 70s golden era of comedy

Entertainment | Published:

Frank Thornton. The name will mean one of three things, depending almost entirely upon your age.

If you're barely out of school, there's a fair chance it won't register at all.

Twenty and thirty-somethings will probably associate him with the role of retired policeman Herbert 'Truly' Truelove in Last Of The Summer Wine.

But for those of us who lived much of our schooldays in the psychedelic 1970s, he'll be forever immortalised as the stuffy, prickly, deliciously pompous Captain Peacock in department store comedy Are You Being Served?

Thornton's death a few weeks back triggered a yearning for nostalgia which had me reaching for the remote, delving into the worlds of Gold, Watch and other satellite channels where re-runs from the so-called golden era of TV comedy are the stock-in-trade.

We're often told that the British don't make comedy shows like they used to. And a quick refresher course on the likes of Are You Being Served?, plus It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Love Thy Neighbour, Fawlty Towers or Mind Your Language (not to mention the frankly un-nerving Benny Hill Show), reminds us why that's most definitely true.

These classics of their era were fuelled as a matter of routine by sexual, racial or socially divisive innuendo, and would never find their way past the political correctness police these days.

So why is it that, all these years later as we live in a far more sensitive world, they still have the power to elicit such a broad grin?

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It's because they were made in an age when people were far less eager to take offence themselves, or jump on the bandwagon on behalf of others.

There's a moment of comedy gold in Are You Being Served?, for example, when camp-as-Christmas menswear manager John 'I'm Free' Inman talks disparagingly about the Japanese, saying: "They have a lot of trouble getting their tongue round their Rs." And Mollie Sugden's crazy Mrs Slocombe never missed the opportunity to go on about her, er, 'cat', at the least appropriate moment . . .

Much of this innuendo sailed way over my head. Partly because I was only a kid, but also through the beguilingly innocent delivery of the lines.

It was good natured humour in context, everyone was in on the joke and happy to be mocked or humiliated, and by watching this light-hearted nonsense we seemed to grow up far happier children than today's angst-ridden, over-sensitised young souls.

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The BBC has come under pressure to censor some old TV comedies for the PC brigade's 21st century rulebook. Just one viewer complaint, and it seems the big red button is immediately pressed.

If we start down this road, these shows which are part of our history – a snapshot of lives, times and attitudes in decades gone by – will become unwatchable, littered with bleeps and silences. Some scenes will have to be cut completely, rendering the shows pointless.

Maybe that's the plan. But why should we decimate our comedy heritage just to satisfy the PC brigade? The nanny state interferes with our lives enough already, and we don't need help in telling us what tickles our funny bones in the privacy of our own homes.

Viewers are perfectly capable of imposing their own self-censorship . . . they know full well what these vintage shows are all about, and if they think they might be offended, there's nothing to stop them tuning out.

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